A French Village is a French television series set in the fictional, Nazi-occupied town of Villeneuve in the Eastern part of France. The series details how various aspects of French society dealt with the occupation. From collaborators who followed German orders directly to the resistance and every space in-between, it is a fascinating, if fictional, look inside one of the darkest periods of French history.
Each season roughly takes place over the course of a single year. Season Three is set in 1942. For those of you who need a history refresher, this is the year when the “Jewish Problem” found a “Final Solution.” The Holocaust in full had begun. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the previous winter, the Americans had now entered the war. With these events, World War II entered into its darkest period but also began to see a glimmer of hope.
You feel both of that in this season of A French Village. Divided roughly into two parts, the first half of this season finds a train full of Jewish prisoners pulling into the Villeneuve station. Its connecting train will not arrive for several days and so the prisoners must be housed in the school. While there, the Gestapo demands that the local police - led by Jean Marchetti (Nicolas Gob) - must round up nearly 30 local, illegally immigrated Jews and imprison them. Though nobody in the village has any idea what horrors have begun in the deepest regions of the Nazi realm, coming face to face with the deep racism within the regime as more and more Jews are rounded up for deportation cuts deep into the fabric of their society.
The mayor (Robin Renucci) fights to make sense of what good his office can do when being ordered to do unconscionable things. His wife, Hortense (Audrey Fleurot), who once slept with and then was tortured by the villainous Heinrich Müller (Richard Sammel), finds herself too sick and scared to scarcely leave her house for the first few episodes before finally finding her place in this new world. Jeannine Schwartz (Emmanuelle Bach) has taken over the family businesses while her ex-husband Raymond (Thierry Godard) recovers from an injury he received last season. His loyalties begin to turn, though he remains conflicted between his own greed and the continual evil he sees all around him.
As more and more of the villagers, including Jews with French citizenship find their way into the schoolhouse prison, more and more people are forced to choose sides, no longer able to remain passive in the growing war.
Eventually the train (along with hundreds of Jews) leaves, and the village must make sense of what remains. The story's focus moves back towards the resistance fighters and the French police trying to stop them. Müller also comes back to town and with him a true face of villainy.
In my review of Season Two, I complained that the show struggled fleshing out any German characters, thus producing only a vaguest sense of the enemy. The one exception was Müller, who was a little too close to cartoony caricature to be well rounded. In this season I found the lack specific enemies to be a benefit. The threat of the Nazis and the Gestapo is felt at all times, hanging over the village like a shadow. But without putting a face to the enemy that threat is more nebulous and allows us to see how our main characters react as more tension is applied. In fact, when Müller comes back to the show, evil in the air becomes more specific and less interesting. Without him, there was a constant strain never knowing who might be cooperating with the Germans. With Müller as the obvious enemy, that tension lessens.
Not that the show ever lacks for tension. After watching the first three episodes back to back, I turned to my wife and said that I wasn’t sure if I could make it all the way through. It was almost too much. But I did and I’m glad because this is excellent television. I really rather enjoyed the second season, but it never quite dug its claws deep into me. But season three grabbed me hard and wouldn’t let go until I was all the way through. I could watch nothing else. I lost too many hours of sleep watching the next episode and then the next episode.
I can’t wait to start Season Four.