The photo was taken at the camp of Pithiviers, in the Loiret department, one of two main concentration camps for foreign-born Jews in France. At the foreground, unmistakably guarding the camp was a French gendarme, with a telltale kepi. If an image could ever perfectly encapsulated the culpability of the Vichy Government in persecution of the French Jewry, this was it.
But in 1955, it was too close for comfort, coming as it did after many long and arduous years when numerous ministers and prominent citizens were hauled in front of courts and tribunals. First featured in the documentary Nuit et Brouillard, the anonymously-taken photo was an unequivocal denunciation of French collaborationism, and the censors demanded that the kepi be cut. Director Alain Resnais first refused, but finally relented and decided to put a beam across the damning hat to hide it; on the other hand, he refused to change the narration that mentioned Pithiviers. The film was released to widespread acclaim and awards.
A few months later, the Germans demanded the film withdrawn from Cannes Film Festival. Both the German and the French governments viewed the film as divisive since it came during negotiations for the Treaties of Rome (eventually signed in 1957). However, unlike the censorship of the kepi which went virtually unnoticed and mentioned only once in press, the French press reacted unanimously against the proposed withdrawal, noting that the filmmakers were very cautious in defining the difference between the Nazi criminals and the German people.
In retaliation, the predominantly French selection committee asked Germany’s own submission Himmel ohne sterne to be withdraw and the Germans left Cannes in protest. Widespread protests from deportees’ associations, members of the Résistance and the Communist Party as well as the threat from the Festival organizers to resign finally forced the government to give in. The film was staged ‘outside the programme’ in the main Festival Hall auditorium, where it received a standing ovation. The Berlinale invited Resnais to stage his film there, defying its own government.
In a way, the controversy over Nuit et Brouillard altered Cannes’ history too. In that monumental year for self-inflicted censorship, films from Britain, Finland, Poland, Norway and Yugoslavia were also excluded. This debacle encouraged the organizers to reshape the Festival in accordance with cinematographic quality rather than diplomatic niceties.