Paris 1919

Paris 1919
Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to begin post­ing some reviews of films screen­ing at Hot Docs 2009 early, hope­fully help­ing any­one attend­ing make some decisions about what to see. Paris 1919 is screen­ing on Friday May 1 at 7:00pm and Sunday May 10 at 11:00am at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

Paris 1919 (Director: Paul Cowan): Having read the book by Margaret MacMillan on which this doc­u­ment­ary is based, I was a little dubi­ous upon hear­ing that dir­ector Cowan would be using re-enact­ments to cre­ate the atmo­sphere of the Versailles Peace Conference. But wisely, he chose to use these strictly as atmo­sphere, let­ting the archival foot­age and espe­cially the strong nar­ra­tion by Canadian actor R.H. Thomson carry the weight of the story.

In the early months of 1919, the world, weary of fight­ing, gathered in Paris to ham­mer out a peace accord. But the Great War ended in an armistice, not a sur­render, and so there was much at stake for all the parties. The old empires had col­lapsed and into the vacuum stepped a man prom­ising self-determ­in­a­tion for all the peoples of the world. US pres­id­ent Woodrow Wilson offered his own ver­sion of Obama-like hope, espe­cially to the smal­ler nations of the world who had here­to­fore been the pawns of imper­ial powers. The defeated Germans also hoped that Wilson’s steady hand would deliver peace with justice. Alas, it was not to be.

Instead, Britain and France were determ­ined to bleed Germany dry for war repar­a­tions. Both coun­tries had suffered enorm­ously, espe­cially France, and they had little regard for the suf­fer­ings of Germany. Voters in both coun­tries were put­ting enorm­ous pres­sure on their lead­ers, David Lloyd George of Britain and Georges Clemenceau of France, to bank­rupt Germany as pun­ish­ment for her guilt in start­ing the war. In con­trast, Wilson was obsessed with the idea of estab­lish­ing a League of Nations, a body that would arbit­rate dis­putes between nations in the hope of pre­vent­ing war. His ideal­ism and naiv­ete were soon chal­lenged, and gradu­ally he made many com­prom­ises in order to secure sup­port from the other lead­ers for the League.

The end res­ult was dis­astrous for Germany and ulti­mately for Europe and the world. Maps were redrawn dis­pla­cing mil­lions of people, assets were seized and mon­et­ary dam­ages deman­ded. The German del­eg­a­tion went home angry and humi­li­ated. In the years that fol­lowed, the German people’s resent­ment was ripe for exploit­a­tion and rising nation­al­ism soon engulfed the whole coun­try, lead­ing to Nazism and another world war.

Cowan’s film couldn’t have encom­passed all the vari­ous nego­ti­ations that went on at Versailles, and huge chunks of MacMillan’s book are simply passed over, includ­ing the fate of coun­tries like Poland and Turkey. But he cap­tures the essence of the power struggle between the lead­ers, and makes some great choices in the re-enact­ments. By focus­ing on minor char­ac­ters like Harold Nicolson and espe­cially eco­nom­ist John Maynard Keynes, we get a real feel for what it was like for the bur­eau­crats labour­ing in smoky rooms to untie the Gordian knot of European griev­ances, espe­cially when they felt their lead­ers were pur­su­ing the wrong course.

I think the best com­pli­ment I can pay to Cowan’s film is to say that it left me want­ing more, and for that, I will return to Margaret MacMillan’s excel­lent book, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.

Official web site of the film


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