When Australian director Gillian Armstrong decided to make a movie from Sebastian Faulk's best-selling novel "Charlotte Gray," about a British woman spy who parachuted into wartime France to work with the resistance, Armstrong's knowledge of the period and the place was limited.
"I had a faint knowledge of Vichy, France, but I wasn't that clear," says the 51-year-old director of international movie successes such as "Little Women" and "My Brilliant Career."
"I realized that the history I had learned about World War II was mainly from the movies. And from the movies my impression was that all of occupied France was waiting for the allies to come and save them, that the Germans were the enemy and everybody in France would hate the Germans because they invaded them. I now know I had such a simplistic view."
It was when she began to intensively research the period that Armstrong, horrified by what she was learning, decided to make the centerpiece of her movie the story of two Jewish boys, Andre and Jacob, who were abandoned in a village near Toulouse when their parents are snatched up by the Vichy police and deported to "work camps" in the East.
The film's heroine, Charlotte Gray, played by the award-winning Cate Blanchett, becomes a surrogate mother for the children as she, a local farmer (Michael Gambon) and his son (Billy Crudup) in the resistance, struggle to hide the youngsters from the bureaucratic collaborators.
"I read these horrendous stories that during the first 24 hours, when they first began rounding up the Jews in Paris, the gendarmes were so enthusiastic, they rounded up entire families and turned them over to the Germans," says Armstrong, whose aunt, Dorothy Armstrong, was a famous Church of England missionary. "The Germans said, 'We didn't want the children. We just want the adults,' and so for 24 hours they had this town hall full of Jewish children all alone while they debated what to do with them."
Later, of course, the edict was widened to include children as well, and the roundup expanded far beyond Paris.
"Certain areas had quotas for Jews," Armstrong explains, "and that's where our story becomes involved. It's really the core of our film."
The tragedy of the little boys in "Charlotte Gray," is that their parents have simply disappeared. They have had no going-away letter, no indication that they will ever see them again, and it is this, rather than their precarious situation, hiding in attics and barns, that produces their nightmares. In the end, Charlotte risks her own life, and her opportunity to save herself, to try to bring the children some peace of mind, however slight as they, too, are loaded on the train for a journey into the abyss.
So a movie that started out as a story of individual heroism, expanded to tell a tale of the infamy that was Vichy, France.
"The fact that you had to carry a certificate of 'non- belonging to the Jewish race,' I had never heard of such a thing in my life," Armstrong recalls. "You see it printed on the original forms. We had those forms recreated for the film. It was chilling."
For Armstrong and her entire cast, the making of "Charlotte Gray" was not just another movie, it was a complete reeducation into the realities of war and betrayal, and how history can be manipulated to create a politically correct fiction.
"I knew that later on they named some leading members of the French government as collaborators," she says. "But the thing I didn't realize until I researched this was how enthusiastically the French participated in the rounding up of the Jews -- how anti-Semitic they were."