C’est Superbe: Guilt, and Gilt, Fill French Holocaust Film

A Secret
Running time 105 minutes
Written by Claude Miller and Natalie Carter
Directed by Claude Miller
Starring Cécile De France, Patrick Bruel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric

Claude Miller’s A Secret, from a screenplay by Mr. Miller and Natalie Carter, based on Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical novel Un Secret, retitled in its English translation Memory, a Novel, transcends the perhaps perceived banality of still another film about the Holocaust with a marvelously nuanced narrative floating through time with memorable characters who never beg for our pity. Yet it touches on the ultimate horror of this insane period in world history by focusing not so much on the toll taken of the dead, but on the toll taken of the living survivors wracked with their life-blighting guilt.

The title of the film refers to an uncanny awareness on the part of a 7-year-old Jewish child named François (Valentin Vigourt) that he has a phantom brother who is every bit as strong and athletic as he is not. The father of François, Maxime Grimbert (Patrick Bruel), has little patience with his son’s strange fantasy, which extends to setting out an empty plate for his “brother” at mealtime. His mother, Tania (Cécile De France), is more pensive about her son’s supposed delusion. She is a splendid physical specimen as she parades on the beach, and dives expertly from the highest point possible.

Her extreme physicality, as well as that of her husband, is part of the fitness craze that swept across Europe, and not only in Germany, in the years before World War II. Indeed, the film reminds us that even among the Jews in Europe, there was little anticipation of the ultimate dimensions of the Holocaust. The characters in The Secret have many other things on their minds as they struggle to make a living in increasingly anti-Semitic surroundings.

When François is 14 years old, and played by Quentin Dubuis, he beats up another boy, who has made anti-Semitic jokes during a school screening of footage of the death camps. He then lies to his parents about the cause of the quarrel. We are then swept into the time when François is 37 years old and is played by the omnipresent conscience of French cinema, Mathieu Amalric.

Gradually, we are taken back to happier times in the French Jewish community when Jewish socialist Leon Blum was head of the government, and Maxime was marrying his first wife, Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), who later has their first child, Simon (Orlando Nicoletti), who at 7 is his father’s physical delight as François at that age was his father’s physical disappointment. Even in these comparatively peaceful times, there are ominous inserts of newspaper notices of Hitler’s meeting Mussolini for the first time, in Venice, but they are mere harbingers of things to come, and are not prominently featured as news of overriding importance.

When Maxime first sees Tania with her husband, he is immediately smitten, at least partly by her reputed athletic prowess. At first she gives him to understand that she is not interested in pursuing the relationship. Yet, Hannah becomes aware of Maxime’s growing obsession with Tania. Ironically, it is Hannah’s Simon who comes to be the apple of Maxime’s eye, and Tania’s François who is born small, sickly and timid.

As the Nazi horror plays out, Tania loses her husband to typhus in a German prison camp for French captured soldiers, and Maxime loses his wife and child in Auschwitz. Maxime and Tania are thus virtually thrown together. But ironies continue to accumulate until the very end when François, now a husband and father, shows his little girl one of the horrifying paradoxes of the period in front of a castle once occupied by the arch collaborationist Laval. It is an ending to be treasured as one of the most emotionally devastating codas in film history.

There can never be enough films about the Holocaust inasmuch as there are parts of the world in which people profess to believe that there was never any such atrocity. One can only pray that these people will eventually see the light or, rather, the darkness of the event.

The first footage I ever saw of this horror hit me particularly hard because I had been brought up in a household of Greek immigrant monarchist and adopted Republican conservative anti-socialist and anti-communist worldviews in which hatred of Britain and France was a given for their abandonment of Greeks in Asia Minor to the Turkish hordes of Kemal Ataturk. This betrayal occurred after the Greeks had fought with the Allies against the Turks and the other Central Powers. There was also more than a trace of anti-Semitism in my Greek Orthodox upbringing, as there has always been in every Christian sect, which is why today’s evangelicals give me the creeps.

My father died before he could see the horror, the horror to end all horrors. But he lived long enough to sour on Hitler and the Nazis for invading Greece. My late mother was shaken with guilt by the sickening spectacle. I still love them both, but we were all so wrong. And a film like A Secret reminds me again of something I can never forget in this lifetime. Hence, I recommend A Secret to everyone who can still feel shame over a world’s failure to stop the slaughter. Purists of this particular genre may argue that the physical presentation of the major characters is too robust for the subject, and the women, particularly, are too photogenic and erotic. But that, of course, is precisely the point. Even the most tangential treatment can serve to stir and outrage our memories anew amid the perhaps forlorn hope that future generations will treat the Holocaust as a secular sacrament.

asarris@observer.com C’est Superbe: Guilt, and Gilt, Fill French Holocaust Film