In a roundabout kind of way, Respawn and the Medal of Honor series won an Oscar last night. While developing the VR Medal of Honor game Above and Beyond, which centers on special operations with the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, the studio also co-produced the winner of the Best Documentary Short, Colette, which stars one of the few surviving members of the Resistance, a prickly nonagenarian named Colette Marin-Catherine. It's a product of the Medal of Honor series' long history of doing archival work alongside game development with the Medal of Honor Gallery, but also represents a new level of ambition and achievement for that work.
The film cleaned-up on the festival circuit and capped off its remarkable run of critical success with an Academy Award, and it's not hard to see why. It's an affecting and beautiful piece of filmmaking centered on a compelling and charismatic central character. What's surprising about it, however, is that it's such a different kind of memoir from the frequently mawkish Greatest Generation nostalgia that often typified World War 2 games and the films and books that inspired them. Colette is in many ways the iconoclastic World War 2 documentary: it is a film built around an idea of a catharsis that never quite arrives, and skepticism about the value of memorials and their ability to teach.
Or maybe it's more accurate to say that rather than being built around these ideas, it is Colette herself who warps its structure to her own perspective. Because the film itself is framed by a trip Colette takes with a young historian, Lucie Fouble, who is researching the people who were interned and died at the Mittelbau-Dora labor camp in the German mountains. One of those people was Colette's brother, Jean-Pierre, who was arrested and worked to death in an underground factory making V-2 rockets. Colette has never visited the place he died, she has never even set foot in Germany since the war, and at the start you might expect this to be a movie about laying some of these ghosts to rest. But Colette is such a deep skeptic about every aspect of this project, so doubtful that any of the well-meaning people around her can ever fully understand her experiences much less communicate them to others through museum exhibits or documentaries, that film becomes a kind of challenge from Colette to everyone around her: what is the actual point of performing these acts of remembrance, of recording history? Colette is not impressed by the obvious answers, and over the course of the film, we get a sense of their insufficiency.
It's this tension between Colette, the film project that suddenly surrounds her, and Colette's own unresolved, conflicted feelings about her family that makes Colette such a mesmerizing film. At times Colette orders the cameras turned off, and the production feels like it might just fall apart entirely. At others, they capture incredible moments of grief and tenderness, and it seems almost miraculous that Colette allowed them to lift the veil on these intensely private moments.
These moments were what fascinated me the most when I talked to Colette's director, Anthony Giacchino, and executive producer, Peter Hirschmann prior to the Academy Awards. The two have worked together since the series’ original game in 1999, when Giacchino worked on short, informational videos that would be included with the game.
Giacchino admitted that while some of their success was down to careful technique, most of the job came down to building a trusting relationship with Colette herself.
As an example, he talked about one of the film's more surprising moments, when Colette first arrives in Germany. She's being hosted at a dinner in her honor, and a local German politician rises to begin making a speech about how much it means to him that Colette is here. But the speech does not play and Colette grows obviously frustrated and distressed, finally cutting the man off and demanding that everyone just stop talking and let the dinner begin. The stunned hosts try to get through the ceremonies but Colette is emphatic and we get a brief glimpse, before the cameras cut, of the crew explaining that the speeches are now cancelled and everyone needs to leave Colette alone.
"That was our first night in Germany. We went out to dinner—we actually weren't even expecting him to be there—but he came because he was friends with someone who had been helping us sort of lay the groundwork going there," Giacchino said. "So he was there. And it just, at that moment, it was just was too much for her, you know? And that scene actually also was illustrative of how we went about filming with her. ...We were also very respectful, you know, of her and her feelings. And when she said, 'Stop,' we stopped. Like, really, with that, camera kind of just goes down. The cameras turned off after that, right? We weren't trying to sneak anything else in there. We couldn't have done it any other way. I don't think Colette would have then felt comfortable showing every emotion she had, as she did in there [at the camp later]."
The next day, when Colette finally does visit the remains of the camp where her brother died, the initial part of the tour is almost excruciating. Colette seethes at herself for not bringing flowers as she weeps amid the lines of scrub grass and broken concrete that trace the demolished camp's original layout. Then grabs Lucie and says, "Let's get out of here."
But the remarkable part is that the camera never cuts. This time we linger, as Lucie is herself overwhelmed and bursts into tears. Colette tries to comfort her as they leave the camp behind, we observe them from just a few feet ahead, and effectively walk with them out of the park. "What a team we make," Colette says, as the two begin to laugh, "we can't even cheer each other up." It's an incredibly quiet, beautiful moment and there's a suspense in the scene because it feels like, at any moment, Colette will notice the camera's intrusion and kick us out of her thoughts.
Giacchino described the reality of the moment, with the crew observing from a distance and himself only listening to the scene through monitors, while director of photography Rose Bush and a couple sound engineers unobtrusively hovered near Colette and Lucie.
"Colette did an interview in French newspaper today," Giacchino said, "and I picked out one quote, which I thought was amazing. And she said this, she said, 'During the filming, the cameras and sound recorders were invisible. I was alone with little Lucie in this desert of the dead.' I mean, you have to always admire her, you have to admire her words, right? But you know, that's sort of how she felt, I think that that can give you a sense of really how we were going to be there with her. But we were not really ever going to crowd her.
"Another example of this is, I don't know if you've ever been inside of a crematorium before, if you've ever visited one of these camps before. So I had a chance to go inside the crematorium there at Dora. And I went in there by myself. And there is just an absolute feeling of sadness. That's what I felt. I mean, it was just, it was like in the walls and the ceiling, the floor. I mean, it just is everywhere, there is just this overpowering sense. And when I went in there, I just knew there was no way we would take the camera in there with her. That when she and Lucy went in there, I was just like, 'We're not going in, we're gonna let them go and experience that themselves.'"
The entire visit to Dora is eerie and evocative. The film sketches out the huge numbers of prisoners who passed through the camp, and then describes how, for the prisoners assigned to it, V-2 rocket construction was practically a death sentence. Even if familiarity has numbed a lot of audiences to photos of emaciated prisoners and filthy camp barracks, Colette finds some haunting new imagery as the camera pushes deeper and deeper into the vast mine complex outside Nordhausen where the V-2s were put together, out of sight and out of reach of Allied bombers.
It wasn't just the routine mistreatment of their slave laborers that accounted for the massive death rate among V-2 workers. It was the incredibly grueling conditions they endured deep under the mountain.
Hirschmann explained what the cameras could not capture: the shocking cold. "We were there shooting probably a few months before the crew of Colette, but they the the museum shut down the mountain to tourists for us and just let us go in as the crew. We were there in the middle of a heatwave in Germany, and you had to then bundle up and parkas to go inside the mountain. It's remarkable."
As workers naturally sickened from overwork, malnourishment, and exposure, they were sent to "infirmaries" where they were essentially neglected and starved until they died, which is how Colette's brother died along with so many others.
But Colette and Lucie have a pointed exchange during their visit to Dora in the film. After Colette broke down and walked with Lucy out of the camp, she gathers her thoughts in the car and admits, "I don't see how these morbid details can help your studies. They can't enrich your documentation."
"This helps tell his story," Lucie replies. "So the past will be remembered."
"Well it took me a long time to forget," Colette shoots back.
These moments show all-too-clearly the toll that opening up about these matters took on Colette. Treating Colette responsibly was a major concern, Giacchino said. Alice Doyard, in particular, was emphatic that the crew not just abandon Colette once they were finished shooting her trip to the Dora camp. Building that relationship also brought out one of the film's most painful recollections: Colette's admission that after the war, her mother once admitted that she wished Colette had died instead of Jean-Pierre.
"We didn't learn that story until Alice went home with her. We were with the rest of the crew. We were still in Germany, but Alice accompanied her back. And when they got back to her hometown, Colette said, 'I want to take you out to dinner.' So it was her and two other members of the crew. And then she said, 'You know, I just want to tell you that I'm really happy for this trip because I think it's settled something in me. And I want to tell you this story.'"
It's one of many moments that complicate the picture of Colette and her family. She is unsentimental about Jean-Pierre at times, admitting that he was older than her and quite a bit cleverer, so they never had much of a relationship. In many ways it was perhaps less his death than his palpable absence within their family that haunted Colette. Both children joined the Resistance, one got arrested, the other did not, and Colette had to live with the knowledge that her mother always felt it had been the wrong way around. Colette is resolutely unsentimental about this aspect of her family's history, refusing to mythologize what they were doing or to treat her brother as a beloved martyr, and it makes the film all the more fascinating. Here is a familiar, complicated family with the usual jealousies and tensions, and all of those dynamics remained the same even as the family was scarred by war and Nazi occupation.
For the record, I think one of Colette's great strengths is that it never quite reconciles the artifice of documentary with the skepticism Colette has about the venture. By the time the film ends with an almost Kubrickian slow dolly through an antiseptically white room while "Les Chant des Partisans" plays and Colette and Lucie hold a large, over-enlarged photo of Jean-Pierre, the layers of irony and ambivalence are palpable. But perhaps there is one last layer that didn't make the final cut of the film, a detail about Jean-Pierre that makes Colette's own unromantic, skeptical view of remembrance a little more complicated.
"Just because it's detailed, and, you know, we wanted to make a short film, I'll just tell you how Jean-Pierre was arrested,” said Giacchino. “They were indeed, he and a group, were collecting weapons. But that was not what got him arrested. He was arrested because he placed flowers on the grave of a résistant, which was, you know, a crime in Occupied France. He placed flowers on the grave of a résistant, and Collette actually created the bouquet for that. She was making little bouquets and he would go off in the middle of the night, and he would put them on graves."
This detail doesn't feel like a missing piece within the film, but it recontextualizes a lot of its moments. Jean-Pierre and Colette both worked for the Resistance, gathering intelligence and weapons to help liberate their country, but it was the purely symbolic act that cost Jean-Pierre his life. What do we hope to accomplish by the act of remembering, of building memorials? I don't think Colette has the answer, but for its own sake, it might be an answer.