Plot: French peasant girl encounters mysterious man in the woods
Before becoming a filmmaker Michel Mardore - the nom de plume for Michel Jean Guinamant - worked as a critic for Positif, les Cahiers du Cinéma, Les Lettres Françaises, Lui, Pariscope, Cinéma and Le Nouvel Observateur. For many years he contributed film criticism to the radio station France Inter (Le Masque et la Plume) and he’s regarded as one of the foremost film critics in the country. He also wrote a handful of novels in the sixties and seventies and worked as a photographer. Leading man Horst Buchholz was an actor that primarily worked in German television and cinema. He was a fixture in World War II movies of various stripe. Buchholz appearead in offerings as diverse as The Magnificent Seven (1960), John Sturges western take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Umberto Lenzi’s macaroni war epic From Hell to Victory (1979), and Roberto Benigni’s Academy Award winning historic drama La Vita è Bella (1997).
Receiving an “introducing” (or rather “for the first time on the screen”) credit was Muriel Catalá. Catalá, who played some Lolita roles in French sex comedies and coming-of-age dramas, was often cast for her dashing looks. In Michel Mardore’s World War II drama The Savior (1971) Catalá debuted in a role that Isabelle Adjani auditioned for but didn’t end up playing. Catalá and Adjani did end up working together on Faustine and the Beautiful Summer (1972), the directorial debut for Nina Companeez. The turning point for Catalá came when she appeared in the period drama the Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973) with Anne Heywood, Ornella Muti, Martine Brouchard, and Claudia Gravy. In the decade that she acted she shared the screen with Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Donald Pleasence, and Sophia Loren. A good portion of her earlier roles tended to focus greatly on her physical attributes while she was actually tolerable as a comedic actress. Had Catalá been offered something different than comedies and coming-of-age dramas she probably could have acted long than she did. That isn't to say that she was the French Gloria Guida or a star-in-the-making the way Edwige Fenech, or Barbara Bouchet were. She could probably have carved out a career as a giallo babe or as a supporting actress in Italian and Spanish genre cinema. As limited as an actress as Muriel was not even she deserved to end up in the muck of exploitation quite the way she did. No wonder she quit acting.
In the summer of 1943 somewhere in the South of German occupied France young peasant girl Jeanne Lambert, who everybody simply calls Nanette (Muriel Catalá), finds a slightly injured but strapping soldier named Claude (Horst Buchholz) walking in the woods one day. He claims to be an Englishman looking to get in contact with local forces of la Résistance. Coming from a family of Pétain supporters Nanette is initially reluctant to offer help to the foreigner, but agrees to hide him out of sight in one of the more remote barns on the family farm. Her father (Roger Lumont), mother (Hélène Vallier), and brother are far too occupied with the farm to pay her any mind. Claude introduces Nanette to the intellectual arts and their conversations challenge her limited worldview. As she tends to his wounds and brings him food a bond starts to develop between the two. As time goes by Nanette finds herself increasingly drawn to the beautiful and worldly Englishman and soon she uninhibitedly enjoys being naked in his presence. She offers her body to him at various points but Claude never reciprocates her bodily affections. Some time later Nanette introduces her mysterious houseguest to monsieur Flouret (Henri Vilbert), the local councillor and a known supporter of the Allied Forces. Claude promises to whisk her away to his far-away home in Great Britain once the war has ended, so that the two can finally enjoy their lives together. Then one day Claude tells Nanette out of the blue that he’s ready to put his secret mission in motion, and with that he promptly disappears as a thief in the night leaving the young maiden with a nigh on irreparable heartbreak.
Embittered she betrays the Englishman to monsieur Monette (Michel Delahaye), a known Nazi collaborator, in an act of self-preservation and vengeance bearing consequences so far-reaching that Nanette is barely able to foresee at such tender age. One day the sounds of explosions and gunfire render the peaceful silence of the countryside. Nanette is swiftly captured by SS soldiers and without much of an explanation brought before their commanding officer. When she lays eyes upon the officer it is him, Claude; the man who she believed to be an Englishman. Claude, ever so eloquent, explains to young Nanette that she has committed two grave crimes. First, she betrayed a hero to the enemy. Second, she is now complicit with the Nazi as she assisted German forces in annihilating hidden maquisard troops and assorted Résistance fighters among the populace of her inconspicuous and sleepy farming village. As a final act of betrayal Claude orders Nanette to instruct the execution of the entire village; including her parents, and even monsieur Monette, now no longer useful to the Germans. With a gun pointed at her head Nanette is left no other choice but to indulge Claude’s sadistic bout of Faustian corruption and she’s soon reduced to a sobbering mess from all the horror.
Twenty years pass and a distinguised-looking automobile rolls into the remodeled village. A sharply-dressed businessman disgorges from the expensive vehicle and shares that he loves the quiet serenity that the region is known for. A local (Jean-Pierre Sentier) informs the man about the history of the region, how the entire village was razed to the ground during World War II and had to be rebuild, and how he inherited an old family farm quite by happenstance when he met his wife. The man introduces the suave stranger to his demure and shy wife Nanette (Danièle Ajoret), now ravaged from age and from silently brooding over that one cursed day in her youth. The three engage in respectful chit-chat over a bottle of wine until it dawns upon Nanette who this swanky gentleman is. Barely able to pour the last glass Nanette storms away leaving her husband without nary an explanation. She returns brandishing a shotgun and as Claude begs to forgive her for what he did in the past, Nanette vows to right that one immeasureably terrible wrong of her youth. “For you, Englishman!”, she utters as she coldly shoots Claude who dies in dismayed silence.
The most interesting aspect of The Savior is that an actual historical event served as the basis for Mardore’s screenplay. On 10 June 1944 a regiment of German soldiers under command of major Adolf Diekmann massacred 642 civilians in the town of Oradour-sûr-Glane, in the Haute-Vienne region of France, and subsequently razed the entire village to the ground. After the war Charles de Gaulle visited the remains of Oradour and named it a national monument. De Gaulle ordered a rebuild of the village nearby. In 1953 the new Oradour-sûr-Glane was completed with the remains of the original remaining a historical site. What exactly led to the purge has never been truly explained as it was overshadowed by the Dilice, Czechoslovakian purge of 10 June 1942. It is widely believed to be a retaliation against a Resistance bombing just two days earlier, on 8 June 1944, that killed a colleague (and personal friend) of Diekmann. The Savior might be a drama but it primarily serves as an indictment against the atrocities and the horrors of war. Nothing is more terrible and ravaging than war and how it pushes otherwise good people to become immoral monsters. The Savior makes a very strong argument.
Muriel Catalá is ravishing in her debut role as nubile peasant girl Nanette. It’s a very physical role and that it required a fair bit of nudity at least gives credence to the idea that Catalá was serious about her craft. For the longest time Catalá was cast in coming-of-age dramas and sexy comedies and she never was able to quite make it. The Savior is a tour de force for Horst Buchholz. It was screened on the Cannes film festival in 1970 with both Muriel Catalá and Buchholz attending. The Savior was prescient how culture would evolve in decades to come and how its ugly ideology would rear its head once again. It’s a frightening piece of foreshadowing if there ever was one and it has lost none of its power. The Savior is low on action and World War II is always far in the background, but the picture it paints is damning. It is a protest against the machinations of war, of the politics that profit from it and all the lives it shatters in the process. It constantly looms on the horizon. The ghosts of war always come back to haunt us. It was bold screenplay, even for the 1970s – and The Savior has lost nothing of its power or the relevance of its message. It’s as topical now as it was then. If there ever was a European equivalent to Dalton Trumbo’s Vietnam war epic Johnny Got His Gun (1971), or an antecedent for Summer of '42 (1971), Sophie's Choice (1982), or The Reader (2008), this is it.