Colin Firth - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview.

You've campaigned on social issues for years. What sparked your political interest?
Adolescent indignation. I've never grown out of it. My father's balanced and complex reasoning used to drive me insane. I now value it. Also travel, and having questioning parents.

In 1972-73 I was in the States. My father, being a lecturer in American history, sat me in front of the Watergate hearings and took me to hear Senator McGovern speak. My father was the chairman of the local Liberals and took me canvassing.

As a Liberal Democrat supporter, do you feel let down by the decision to form a coalition?
I approached the Lib Dems as an activist. So I didn't exactly feel like throwing confetti when I saw Nick Clegg on the lawn with David Cameron.

Who is your political hero, and why?
I'm always encouraged by people who get more radical as they get older, like Mark Twain and Howard Zinn. Also David Henry Thoreau: I love his undertaking to "live deliberately".

You recently set up Brightwide, a website that showcases political cinema. Why?
When my wife and I screened our documentary, In Prison My Whole Life, at film festivals the response was extraordinary -- particularly among young people. Answers as to how to direct that passion were in short supply. We were being asked, "Where do we march? What do we sign? Who do we join? Who do we write to?" It was all too evident that a 90-minute film had the power to motivate people, but that there was no satisfactory way to harness that motivation.

NGOs often rely on slogans, posters -- and celebrity campaigners -- which, in my experience, have less impact. Brightwide allows one to facilitate the other. The likes of me can shut up and let the stories speak for themselves. Civil society organisations and institutions can direct people towards films to help make their case and the audience can be guided to where the action is. It's supported by Amnesty International, Oxfam and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

What sparked your interest in refugees?
My parents and several grandparents [going back generations] were born in India. My sister was born in Nigeria. We travelled a great deal. It helped give me something of the perspective of the outsider. My mother campaigned for the rights of refugees, some of whom were guests in our house. You can't dismiss people as a political problem once you know them.

What influence can films have on the way we think about these issues?
"Issues" always have personal stories behind them. Film provides intimacy with those stories and a chance to weigh things up without being badgered by attitude. Oscar Wilde enjoyed dialogue because in using more than one voice, more than one point of view, he could take issue with himself. A genuinely good film is never purely polemical. Ninety minutes allows for conflicting points of view.

Can film have a social and political impact?
Yes. The banning of films throughout history, and the rage they can ignite in the press, shows that -- from Battleship Potemkin to Life of Brian. Think of the clamour in the right-wing press against The Wind that Shakes the Barley. I experienced it personally many years ago with a film about the Falklands war called Tumbledown. There were cries for it to be banned before it was screened. It was discussed in the Commons. Did it change anything? By itself, I doubt it. But I run into people who remember it and its impact on them. That's why we're screening a thematic film festival during Refugee Week.

Which films have that kind of impact for you?
The Grapes of Wrath, The Battle of Algiers. Most of all, Come and See, a Soviet-endorsed film by Elem Klimov. Currently, The Age of Stupid and The End of the Line, both of which you can see on Brightwide. I remember, when I was about eight, kids in the playground talking about All Quiet on the Western Front. Some had become rather sanctimonious and were lecturing the boys playing war games that they didn't "know what war is".

Which directors do you admire who work in this way, and on these subjects?
All those on Brightwide, obviously. That's why they're there: Michael Winterbottom, Franny Armstrong, Gini Reticker, Rupert Murray, John Akomfrah, Bahman Ghobadi. Also Lynne Ramsay, Antonia Bird, Nick Broomfield, John Crowley, Ken Loach, Mark Evans . . .

What do you most object to about how we respond to refugees in the UK?
I set up Brightwide so I wouldn't have to subject people to my own views. But if I were to say something, I'd mention the demonisation of refugees by the right-wing press. Labour and the Tories have let the tabloids frame their immigration policies. I'd say something about the lack of legal representation. The calculated impoverishment of asylum-seekers. The appalling practice of seizing and locking up asylum-seeking families in conditions proven to wreck their mental health even though it's known that families don't abscond. I'd also remind the new government that it has pledged to stop child detention, which needs to happen quickly.
But thankfully I don't have to say any of that. I can just urge you to go to Brightwide and watch films like Moving to Mars: a Million Miles from Burmaand No One Knows About Persian Cats.

Immigration became an important topic in the recent election campaign. How did you feel about the different parties' approaches?
The current system incentivises black-market labour and human trafficking. The amnesty would have made complete sense -- on both economic and compassionate grounds. It was very courageous of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems to defend such an electorally costly idea during the election. I think they were punished for it.

What do you think about the proposed cap on immigration?
It's a pity for us. There are so many arguments about the figures relating to net contributions made by migrants, that it seems clear that people choose the maths which best suits their ideology or prejudice. By that reasoning -- and not being an economist -- I tend to go for the countless studies which find economic benefit in immigration. The humanitarian argument holds the balance.

Is our political/media culture a healthy one?
I wish the establishment was more courageous about the reactionary press. But I spend enough time in Italy to be thankful for what we have.

You have played a wide range of roles. What draws you to a particular part?
I love the quotation from Miles Davis, "Don't play what you know -- play what you don't know." Easier said than done. Typecasting always beckons.

You were nominated for an Oscar for your role in A Single Man. What was the motivation for doing that role?
Good tale. No self-pity. It seemed an exhilarating risk. Tom Ford is a very compelling individual.

Do you feel like you are still trying to shed the legacy of Mr Darcy?
People increasingly ask me about Mr Darcy as if he's dandruff. My memory isn't good enough to have any real feelings on the matter. I imagine people with dandruff are also blissfully unaware of what they're carrying around.

If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done, or be doing?
I'd be a squeegee merchant on the Euston Road.

Will you always be an actor, or will you try something else?
I've tried writing. I'm still trying -- I've published one short story in 50 years. That gives you an idea of my pace.

Do the arts get enough support in the UK?
If you ask me, you'll only get special pleading. Gordon Brown pledged £45m to the BFI last year, which was significant. But there needs to be more to enable them to function fully. Anthony Minghella and Amanda Nevill fought very hard to get those funds in order to build a new Film Centre in London. I very much hope this will happen. It will be the first major, stand-alone, new cultural building in London for a very long time. It should be a proper home for the film industry, the BFI London Film Festival, the nation's film collections and their year-round programmes.
I'd love to see an international beacon for film in Britain. It's rather surprising that we don't already have such a thing.

Where is home?
London.

What would you like to forget?
A poor memory is a very good anaesthetic.

Is there a plan?
Not really. I'm sure you can tell.

Are we all doomed?
Oh, I think so -- but we ought to drag it out as long as possible.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle