A timid schoolteacher in a Nazi-occupied country finds the courage to deny his captors the “sanction of the victim,” inspiring others to do likewise. [Dir: Jean Renoir/ Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, George Sanders/ 103 min/ Drama/ Sanction of the Victim, Resistance to Tyranny]
In this story, the Nazi occupiers of a small town in Europe want to subjugate it, but without too much effort. So they appeal to the townspeople, including the teacher at the center of this story, for cooperation on the grounds that it will avoid unnecessary violence. The teacher, a heretofore timid man, ultimately rises to the occasion to deny them that cooperation.
This story was meant as wartime propaganda, but its message is timeless and will appeal to those familiar with Ayn Rand’s concept of “the sanction of the victim.” In this case, it’s the Nazis who want the sanction of the town they are occupying. The underlying question that the film is intended to address is how subjugated people should behave toward their oppressors.
On the one hand, most people are inclined to purchase peace at the price of liberty, for very rational, self-interested reasons. But, of course, it’s a shortsighted type of self-interest that compromises liberty, the foundation of all human progress and happiness. And so argued here is the need for general defiance and lack of cooperation with tyrants, even at the price of some risk if need be. At times, the film seems to go so far as to preach self-sacrifice, but at least it’s against the evil of state force and, in this example, one of the worst manifestations of state force ever to see daylight.
This is a wonderful portrayal of heroism in the face of tyranny, and it has an inspiring ending, which includes a reading from Thomas Paine’s A Declaration of the Rights of Man. Charles Laughton gives a memorable performance in the leading role, gradually transforming himself in every subtle respect from apparent coward to a man made strong by inner conviction. Other assets include an outstanding supporting cast and a thoughtful script. This is a very entertaining and moving film.