On June 7, 1944, the French Communist group Franc-Tireurs et Partisans, emboldened by the D-Day landing the day before, attacked the German garrison occupying Tulle, a small city in central France best known for lending its name to silk netting used for wedding gowns.
There was some controversy over what happened over the next 48 hours, but 75 years ago, when the 2nd SS Panzer Division entered the town, the FTP had withdrawn, leaving behind the horribly mutilated bodies of 40 German soldiers. The SS took immediate revenge by arresting the town's male population between the ages of 16 and 60.
Over the next few hours, 99 of these men, chosen more or less at random, were hanged from lampposts and balconies along the Avenue de la Gare. In the coming days, another 149 were sent to the Dachau concentration camp where 101 of them died. A waning war is still vicious.
Tulle is quiet and beautiful, arranged on the steep banks of the river Correze that flows through it. But it knows viciousness; a little more than 20 years before it had been the scene of a mesmerizing ugliness that riveted France and much of the world.
In 1917, during the last Great War, many of the town's prominent citizens began to receive anonymous letters signed l'Oeil du Tigre (Eye of the Tiger), filled with pornographic drawings and details, charging them with specific acts of perfidy and turpitude. Over the next six years, more than 300 of these poison-pen letters arrived. A town clerk killed himself after receiving one; at least three people are said to have been driven insane by them.
In 1922, a letter appeared in front of the municipal theater across from the courthouse, charging 14 prominent married citizens with carrying on illicit affairs. Efforts to find the sender were stepped up.
"The charges affected the rights and happiness of many children," a datelined story in the Washington Times explained.
A hypnotist and a medium were brought into the investigation. The French Academy of Sciences proposed solving the case through "the dream analysis method of Freud, or ... the philosophical theories of [Henri] Bergson."
Embarrassed, Tulle police proposed taking fingerprints. (Tiger Eye sent a scoffing letter: Tiger Eye wears rubber gloves.)
An attractive unmarried bourgeois woman in her 30s, Angele Laval, fell under suspicion. Her mother Louise was among the first to receive a letter. (It addressed her as "Big Dirty.") Angele herself had also received one, warning her that Jean-Baptiste Moury, a man under whom she had worked during the war, was "a seducer."
Some believe Angele had a crush on Moury, who had spurned her and was planning to marry another. (Moury received a letter telling him not to marry the woman; his intended received one informing her Moury was a "player, cad and liar.")
Authorities suggested Angele wanted revenge on Moury; the other letters--including the one to herself--were ruses meant to camouflage her intent. Hundreds were sent simply for kicks; once she discovered the effect they had, she couldn't help herself. She derived joy from trolling the town.
Eventually Angele agreed to be examined by a handwriting expert. After hours of copying block-printed letters he concluded she was the Eye of the Tiger. She was charged with writing most of the letters. (Some were obviously written by copycats.)
She denied everything and at first laughed at the accusations. But before long Angele and her mother became social pariahs, booed and hissed at in the street. Street urchins threw mud on them. No one shared their church pew.
It was painful. Angele and Louise made a pact; they set off on a bright Sunday morning in April to drown themselves in Old Oak Pond.
Around noon, a couple of men passing by the pond saw a black-clad figure sitting by a tree on the side of the lake, shivering. As they came closer Angele leapt into the water. They jumped in to pull her out. Louise's body floated nearby.
Shamed by her lack of resolve, Angele left town. When she resurfaced in a neighboring village a couple of weeks later, some of Tulle's citizens demanded she be returned for trial, even though the penalties she faced were not severe--French law doesn't take the writing of scurrilous letters too seriously. She might have incurred a token fine; even if every letter could be taken as a separate charge, the sum would not be a life-ruining sum for a family like the Lavals.
And the affair brought her celebrity status; across France there were many willing to believe in her innocence. Frenchmen "of good position" offered to marry her.
But no one is above the law, so in December, Angele presented herself for trial, wearing a black mantilla over her face in mourning for her mother. She maintained her innocence but was found guilty, given a suspended one-month prison sentence and fined a total of 300 francs.
She planned to appeal, but looked defeated. A journalist for the Paris newspaper Le Matin described her in the dock as "a poor bird who has folded her wings." Public opinion seemed to shift a little--Angele was a pitiful creature, tormented and mad. The whole affair was a tragedy; she never meant to genuinely hurt anyone.
Writer Louis Chavance was fascinated by the case. He based his 1933 screenplay The Eye of the Serpent on it. He proposed it to director Henri-Georges Clouzot who, perhaps remembering the journalist's description, changed the title to Le corbeau--"the raven."
The movie was finally made in 1943. A classic of French cinema, this nuanced rumination on trust, love and the primacy of personal conscience over law is somehow often mistaken--even today--for Nazi propaganda. Because Clouzot made the movie under German occupation and for a German-owned production company, he was, after the Liberation, banned from filmmaking, at first for life. The film's stars were briefly imprisoned.
Angele likely never saw the movie she inspired. After her appeals were denied, she retreated to her brother's home at 111 rue de la Barriere. But for a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, she rarely left this house until her death in 1967.
Her bedroom was less than a quarter mile away from the Champ de Mars, where the Germans were garrisoned when the FTP launched their attack about an hour before dawn. She likely heard the boom of their bazookas and the rattle of their automatic weapons, the breaking in of death and thunder on a quiet place.
Editorial on 06/09/2019
Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: The Raven on the Correze