At the core of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is the idea that if there is no God, no divine arbiter determining the worth of our actions, then we must take responsibility for ourselves. His vision of hell in No Exit saw three people stuck in a room with each other for eternity, each reminding the other two of their secret guilts and crimes. (Poetically, they all lost their eyelids, so that they could not stop looking at the world even if they tried.) Sartre elaborated on this point in his lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”:
“Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism—man is free, man is freedom.” (emphasis mine)
Sartre argues that losing God does not permit us to be irresponsible. On the contrary: now we must own up to our actions, because we don’t have anybody else to blame them on.
What most struck me about Louis Malle’s great film Lacombe, Lucien was its wordless scenes. We see Lucien Lacombe, the young French boy turned Gestapo thug, walking through lovely French countryside, or along pictorial city streets, without saying a thing. Often these shots follow scenes of considerable brutality. The final shot of the movie is wordless too: After killing a Gestapo officer and running to the countryside with his young lover (pointedly named France), Lucien lies down in a field, seemingly at ease — and a title card tells us that he was caught, tried, and put to death by the French Resistance.
We ask ourselves: What was he thinking, in those quiet moments? Did he, at any point, hold himself responsible for his own behavior, as Sartre insists we must? Or was he truly just a primitive brute, incapable of looking five minutes to the future or the past, living in the moment without ever understanding what the moment means?
Lucien initially tries to join the French Resistance himself, when he finds another man living with his mother in place of his P.O.W. father. When his old schoolteacher, a Resistance member, refuses to let him take part, Lucien goes to a nearby hotel, gets drunk with German officers, and reports the teacher, who is then captured and tortured. Lucien never shows a hint that he connects the two events in his mind. To him they almost seem to be two separate incidents: First he tried to join the Resistance. That didn’t happen. Then he went to a hotel and reported a Resistance member. That let him join the Gestapo. From that moment he is part of the Gestapo, without thinking back to how he got there. He is not responsible for his actions; he doesn’t even seem to remember what they were.
Lucien Lacombe was played by Pierre Blaise, a nonactor who died a year after the making of the film. It’s his normalness, his nontheatricality, that makes him such a captivating figure. Aurore Clément, who plays his Jewish lover France Horn, is his foil in many ways. She’s intelligent, refined, beautiful; she is not afraid to speak to authority, who in this case is usually Lucien himself. She’s also capable of feeling despair, sorrow, lust, frequently all at the same time. She mocks and belittles Lucien; when she first sleeps with him, it’s immediately after she is viciously insulted by a woman at the party Lucien takes her to. She hates the Nazis who are persecuting her entire religion (and who haul off her father Albert during the course of the film). Yet in the end of the film she seems perfectly content with letting Lucien take her out of the city, into the countryside. She might be more capable than Lucien of understanding the impact of his actions, but she does not judge him for them.
The fact that Malle named her what he did makes me think that the character of France is to some degree a representation of the country France’s actions during the occupation. France, for her sharp wit and willingness to resist Lucien, ultimately accepts him, and even loves him. She is able to look past who he is and accept him as the simple, brutal young boy that he is. When they’re in the countryside, we see shots of her bathing in a river; they get frisky in the loft of the cottage they’re staying at. She might not be as entirely at peace with herself, but she is able to move past the loss of her father, the occupation of her country, and enjoy herself with the boy she has.
France doesn’t get as many silent shots as Lucien does. We don’t get to look at her face and wonder whether she feels conflict about her actions. We’re shown plenty of conflict — clearly she has moments of self-hatred and moments of innocence — but Malle doesn’t resolve her behavior. If anything, this makes her character even more ambiguous than Lucien’s. It’s easier to judge Lucien for his seeming simplicity than it is to judge France for her more complex motivations. Is showing awareness and remorse for one’s actions the same thing as taking responsibility for them? Ultimately, in Lacombe, Lucien it is not. France only alters Lucien’s actions through passivity. He sees her and desires her; he takes her to a dance; he runs away with her. She taunts him, teases him — and then does what he wants.
The only major character who seems wise enough to make moral choices is France’s father, Albert, a dignified tailor who is only really in Lucien’s life because his daughter lives with him. Albert dislikes Lucien, but tolerates him with a combination of manners and fear. He isn’t able to stop France from seeing Lucien, since she wants Lucien as much as he wants her. He isn’t able to train any sort of morality into Lucien, either. So he becomes a passive observer of his own life, commenting on France and Lucien’s budding romance without being able to do a thing about it.
As a moral arbiter, Albert too is conflicted; he finds himself unwilling to despise Lucien for his actions, reprehensible as they are. Perhaps it’s because of his love for his daughter, his sympathy for her finding first love. Or perhaps Albert does not hold Lucien responsible for his own behavior. Sartre argued that the German occupation freed France; this argument only holds true if the people of France were morally awake enough to understand the consequences of their actions. If Lucien isn’t capable of comprehending his own behavior, then he is somebody to be pitied, rather than despised.
Near the end of the film, Lucien takes Albert for a drink at the occupied hotel, where he is captured and taken away by train. Albert seems almost resigned to his fate; he doesn’t get angry at Lucien for this seemingly accidental betrayal. Lucien doesn’t have a motive to turn Albert in, so why would he? But then, the film’s opening scene ends with Lucien killing a bird with a slingshot, simply because he can. So perhaps this was not as accidental as it seemed. We have no way of knowing.
Was Albert right not to despise Lucien? Sartre would say that he was not; it is Lucien’s responsibility to understand the consequences of his behavior, and to own up to them; if he does not, then he is criminal whether he understands it or not. The words in the final shot tell us Lucien was killed for his crimes. Did he understand that this was to be the ultimate consequence? If he understood, did he care?
Malle asks these questions with his silent shots, but he doesn’t answer them. Maybe he thought a definitive answer would cheapen the questions. The other Malle film I’ve seen, My Dinner With Andre, similarly ended without a definite resolution to its two characters’ moral stances. Malle wants to portray characters in positions of difficult moral conflict; he doesn’t necessarily want to resolve those conflicts. I don’t mind that he doesn’t. There’s value in letting the audience think of their own answers.
Sartre, I feel, would approve of this. At the end of “Existentialism is a Humanism”, he says: “Existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action.” His aim as an existentialist is not to make quick, cursory judgments, to sentence some to heaven and others to hell. His message is that we must become active judges, at every moment, of the world around us. Lacombe, Lucien’s ambiguity compels us to action: If we are to make sense of it, if we are to avoid being Lucien, we must start to determine things on our own, rather than waiting for somebody else, be it Louis Malle or Nazi propaganda or Sartre himself, to spell out for us exactly what we ought to think. That way we take responsibility for our own thoughts, and, subsequently, our behavior.