"I helped simply because they needed to be helped," the old woman says. "What happened had a lot to do with people still believing in something."
The memory of belief looms large in "Weapons of the Spirit," a 90-minute film on public television tonight that is both the best Christmas special and the best Hanukah special likely to be seen this season.
Intensely personal and yet unquestionably universal, Pierre Sauvage's film, at 9 on Channel 26, profiles the French village of Le Chambon sur Lignon where he was born and where, during World War II, 5,000 Christian inhabitants participated in the shelter and protection of 5,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust. The Protestant doctor who delivered him in 1944, Sauvage learns, died a martyr at the hands of the Nazis.
While it lacks the lacerating power of such landmark Holocaust films as Marcel Ophuls's monumental elegy "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1971) or Claude Lanzmann's harrowing "Shoah" (1985), Sauvage's remembrance derives considerable impact from its ray of hope. It is an absolutely extraordinary story about matter-of-fact heroes who apparently never thought of what they did as particularly heroic.
It was not heroic to them because it was second nature, part of their faith. Descendants of persecuted Huguenots themselves, the residents of Chambon were "people who practiced what they preached," Sauvage says, and they joined willingly in a "conspiracy of goodness" to protect fellow humans in peril.
The film's title comes from a wartime edict issued by the local church, whose pastor took an especially active role in foiling efforts by the Germans to find and apprehend Jews: "The duty of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit."
Sauvage leads us through one inspiring story after another, helped on his journey by villagers old enough to remember (several died after completion of the film). Just when you think the film couldn't be any more moving, it is.
It's also quite suspenseful. At first the Germans occupied only the north of France, and the village went about its work quietly. Eventually, though, as the Germans also took over the southern half, Chambon became openly defiant of the spineless Vichy regime, managing to keep up its rescue work even when German soldiers took residence at a local hotel, or when a Vichy official came to town demanding Jewish names for a list, or when the Gestapo itself paid a visit in search of more victims.
A surviving member of the Vichy government, questioned about the Holocaust by Sauvage, gives painfully classic answers: "It's horrible. But I just didn't know," he says. And: "Some of my best friends are Jews."
Chambon not only sheltered Jews, it became a center for the production and distribution of fake documents that helped refugees get to the safety of neutral Switzerland; a farmer kept forgeries hidden in his beehives. There are indications that Robert Bach, the local prefect of police, continually looked the other way even though French police were being enlisted by the Germans in rounding up the "undesirables."
Sauvage is careful not to let his story be too soothing to the world's conscience. "The Holocaust occurred in the heart of Christian Europe," he says, "and would not have been possible without the apathy or complicity of most Christians, and without the virulent tradition of antisemitism that has long infested the very soul of Christianity."
But the statement is followed by what are, in context, three extremely powerful words: "And yet, here ... "
Considering the frightening stories from Eastern Europe of antisemitism on the rise, and indeed considering the stories American hostages are bringing back with them of courageous Kuwaitis who hid them from Saddam Hussein's Iraqi troops, "Weapons of the Spirit" could not be more timely. And yet in a hundred years, it is likely to be timely still.
The patently inescapable Bill Moyers interviews Sauvage after the film and does a good job. But Moyers also offers a poorly conceived introduction to the film that tries to appeal to provincialism; we're asked to imagine what it would be like if the United States were an occupied country. There's no need to imagine anything of the kind.
Still, the film is haunted by an unasked question likely to pop up in the mind of anyone who watches: Under the same circumstances, what would I do? What would I have done? Sauvage's film is worthwhile not only for the story it tells but for the unnerving worries it stirs.
'Clio Awards' An hour of commercials might sound cruel -- if not, given the state of modern television, unusual -- but "The 1990 Clio Awards," a syndicated special at 8 tonight on Channel 5, is your proverbial sparkling entertainment, fresh and funny and new and improved.
Willard Scott, that ineffably merry old soul, hosts the hour, taped at UCLA and sampling this year's collection of spots that won the advertising community's version of the Oscar. At the outset Scott looks at a funny-clunky commercial he made as Ronald McDonald in 1965, when the hamburgers only cost 15 cents and merely a billion had been sold.
Scott -- who also pauses briefly to smooch a photo of Jane Pauley posted inside a locker door -- certainly does share the hyperbolic mind-set of Madison Avenue. "Unbelievable! Fantastic! Wow!" he exclaims as the crowd applauds him. "How sweet it is! Incredible! Beautiful! Sensational!"
Do the award-winning commercials live up to those superlatives? What could? But there are some sterling beauties, including a hilarious vignette about an amateur shutterbug trying to photograph two elusive pandas in a zoo. He takes a break to snack on a Kit Kat bar, unaware that behind him, the pandas have emerged from their cave on roller skates.
Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro push Stroh's Light, vultures devour a car for Samson batteries, Australian rockerboys drop their trousers to demonstrate "very loud underpants," and we learn roughly how filmmakers managed to mount a Honda on a gallery wall and then drive it away.
And once more, for the record, it is made abundantly clear that Bo knows virtually everything.
The party has its low points. Of approximately 40 commercials displayed on the show, more than half were made in the U.S.A. There is only one example from Japan, an even more television-intensive society than America is. And to make matters even worse, a commercial from South Africa, and a bad one at that, is inducted into the "hall of fame."
It should be noted that 13 minutes of the hour have been set aside for Channel 5 to insert commercials and promos of its own. "Please don't go to the refrigerator," Willard says. "You'll miss a commercial!" He's not kidding.