Pierre Schoendoerffer, who won an Academy Award for the 1967 Vietnam War documentary The Anderson Platoon, died following an operation at a hospital outside Paris. He was 83.
While still in his 20s, Schoendoerffer served as a cameraman with the French army in the 1950s. As a result, he was present when the crucial fortress of Dien Bien Phu fell to the Vietnamese guerrilla army in May 1954, thus signaling the end of French rule in Indochina. Following his capture, Schoendoerffer spent four months in a POW camp before being sent back to France.
From the late 1950s on, Schoendoerffer directed ten films, both narrative and documentary features, most of them related to his war experiences. As quoted in the New York Times, in 1994 Schoendoerffer explained that “the earth of Indochina still clings to my soul, just like the mud of the trenches used to stick to my boots.”
He adapted and directed the film version of his own Indochina-set novel, La 317ème section / The 317th Platoon, which went on to share (with The Hill) the Best Screenplay Award at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. Jacques Perrin starred as the inexperienced leader of an isolated French battalion in Vietnam.
In the Oscar-winning La section Anderson / The Anderson Platoon (1967), Schoendoerffer followed a group of Americans fighting in Vietnam, while in the César-nominated Le Crabe-Tambour (1977) a dying captain (Jean Rochefort) sets out to meet a French war hero (Jacques Perrin) he had betrayed in the past. The latter film was based on Schoendoerffer’s own novel, winner of the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française.
His last film, Là-haut, un roi au-dessus des nuages / Above the Clouds, was released in 2003. Co-written by Schoendoerffer and his son Ludovic Schoendoerffer, Above the Clouds is a thriller about a journalist (Florence Darel) attempting to uncover the fate of a filmmaker (Perrin) who went missing while in Southeast Asia. Also in the Above the Clouds cast are Bruno Cremer and Claude Rich, both of whom had previously appeared in Schoendoerffer’s films.
In recent years, the French far-right have tried to claim Schoendoerffer’s films as reflections of their nationalistic ideology, while military leaders have praised him for showing the “heartbreak” and “heroism” of French forces at a time when French soldiers were derided for their role in putting into action their fatherland’s colonialist bent.
However, according to historian Bénédicte Chéron, Schoendoerffer’s “work has a universal appeal … That prevents it from being enclosed in any ideological or political constraint.”
Also of note, in 2009 Schoendoerffer added his name to the petition demanding the release of Roman Polanski after the Franco-Polish filmmaker was arrested in Switzerland at the behest of American authorities.