How can a well-known war criminal affiliated with the persecution of Jews during World War II survive for over 40 years without being caught? With the help of some very influential friends, that’s how! Inspired by the true story of Paul Touvier and based off of the novel by Brian Moore, “The Statement” follows the flight of Pierre Brossard, a pro-Nazi conspirator, and his last desperate attempts to evade French captivity. Using the Catholic Church as a safe harbor, Brossard and his network of friends, stay out of the public eye in their remaining days. Directed by Norman Jewison, also known for “The Hurricane,” and written by Ronald Harwood who most recently drafted “The Pianist,” the film is an intriguing political thriller that asks a lot of good questions but leaves far too many unanswered.
In 1940, when France was taken over by the Nazis, a temporary government was set up in order to fulfill the commands of the German occupation. Its name was the Vichy government. Led by Marshal Petain and a newly established police force called the Milice, the new regime sought after and executed many French Jews. In one instance, on June 29, 1944, seven Jews were killed at Rillieux-la-Pape. (This film is in their honor). Yet when the war was over, many former Milice never paid for their war crimes. Some got away cleanly and some even rose to power.
For over 40 years, Brossard has eluded capture. He was the young, commanding officer of Milice at Rillieux-la-Pape and has lived a quiet and covert life up until now. With a new magistrate and an increase in political pressure surrounding the capture and prosecution of those guilty of crimes against humanity, Brossard’s secretive life has now turned into a life on the run. Further compounding his troubles is a political activist group called the Jews of Dombey, a group of conspirators plotting his assassination. If successful, they are to leave a “statement” on his body that assumes full responsibility for his death.
Aiding Brossard in his flight from captivity is a tight network of friends called chevaliers – military, government, and mainly religious groups that sympathize with his plight. Of most significance is the Catholic Church, which for over 40 years has denied any involvement with anti-Semitic practices or views. Yet during this time, various priests and ministers provide shelter for him while also offering him penitence. As Brossard’s pursuers close in and begin to uncover his tracks, the possibility of escape and living a normal life become slim.
Paul Touvier was in his twenties when leading the murderous exploits of the French Milice. Convicted of treason and sentenced to death, he was able to lead a life on the run, protected by right wing Catholic priests in Lyon and Nice. Eventually, he had a family and was granted a pardon of sorts from President Georges Pompidou. But this raised all kinds of controversy. During the German occupation, the church remained very neutral and very silent even after Pope Pius XII condemned the action of the Nazis. But why would the Catholic Church protect a war criminal after all these years? Were they anti-Semitic? And were there other high-ranking officials involved with even greater crimes against humanity?
In 1981, a warrant was re-issued for Touvier’s arrest, with new evidence against him for the deportation of Jews and a possible connection to the death of two prominent political activists. After years of search, in March 1994, Touvier was found guilty for crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he is the only Frenchman to be convicted of such crimes.
“The Statement” has a great sense of purpose, two knighted actors (Caine and Bates), and a very capable director in Norman Jewison. Yet despite these ingredients, it fails to live up to the sum of its parts. The reason for this is that the adapted script promotes a large degree of indecision and ambiguity surrounding its characters and subtext. In real life, there was no conspiracy against Touvier. No Jewish terrorist organization with shadowy members and a hidden agenda. But the film creates one as a diversion. The Jews of Dombey come across as a faceless society, devoid of logic and reason, much like the inexplicable network of chevaliers that protect Brossard. Rather than diverting our attention, the assassination attempts become a distraction from the main plotline – Levi and Roux chasing after Brossard.
In more ways than one, the screenplay sits on the fence, indifferent about its characters. Judge Anne Marie Livi has unquenchable determination without substantiation. Assigned as the investigating magistrate, the 3rd to be brought in over the last 40 years, Livi is temperamental, straightforward, and demanding. We don’t know what motivates her, what she has to prove, and how she even got the assignment. We only know that her distrust of the police is significant enough to bring in an outsider, a high ranking officer from the army that she can give orders to. Does this mean she has a power trip? It’s hard to say, but it does create a potentially interesting and tense relationship – the independent, crass approach Livi uses versus the by the books, methodical approach of Colonel Roux. Unfortunately, however, the script never allows this relationship to evolve.
Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors. In fact, I could watch him in anything, although seeing “Jaws: The Revenge” again might be a stretch. Caine is the epitome of British cool: suave, precise, multi-dimensional. And he has a way of conveying the attributes of a cunning, charming, and sophisticated criminal with ease. Look at his Charlie Croker in “The Italian Job” or Graham Marshall in “Shock to the System.” But here, he is working with sub par material. Pierre Brossard is a despicable and miserable character, having committed a horrendous crime in his youth and having to shoulder the guilt for decades while on the run. Rather than focus on the negative and build a more diabolical character, the script forces Caine into contradictory behavior. For instance, in the beginning of the film, Brossard is completely fearless, disposing of an assassin with the careful ingénue of a professional. Midway through, he even makes intimidating threats to his wife. But the rest of the film has his character afraid, even tearful and it’s confusing. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for him or hope that he gets caught?
Afterwards, I was reminded of “Cold Mountain.” Like Jude Law’s Inman, Brossard travels from town to town, from church to church, and encounters a variety of odd characters from a superficial bar couple to a receptive priest to his enraged wife, Nicole. Though these incidences exist within the framework of the individual scene, they only befuddle the overall story by allowing the various sides of Brossard’s character to show. He’s neighborly to the couple in the bar, he cries and begs for forgiveness in confession, and he threatens to kill his wife’s dog if she doesn’t put him up for the night. Although Inman and Ada were separated for the majority of “Cold Mountain,” they at least had some screen time together. But in “The Statement,” the pursuers never meet the pursued.
Hitler once said: “There is no future with churches. One is either a Christian or a German. One cannot be both.” In Norman Jewison’s “The Statement,” the character Pierre Brossard is just as close-minded. He thinks he is doing what is right, acting violently on behalf of his country and then acting penitent on behalf of his religion. But he is really a traitor to both. The film makes an honest effort to present this story as intelligent and thought provoking, but ultimately falls flat because it doesn’t provide enough reasons to care. It doesn’t know how to convey Brossard to audiences, as a hardened criminal or a sympathetic fool. And ultimately, it winds up not making much of a statement at all.