By Arun Kumar
Veteran French film-maker Claude Berri acted, wrote, directed, and produced films for more than four decades. Non-French cinephiles would remember him for the elegiac masterpieces Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources (both released in 1986), which was graced by the magnificent performances from three great stars of French cinema: Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, and Yves Montand. Berri’s powerful and aesthetically gloomy adaptation of Emile Zola’s classic 1885 novel Germinal (in 1993) was yet another important work that was a triumph at abroad and home. Claude Berri was often credited for making Hollywood-like big projects in Europe with elaborate production values, especially at a time when Hollywood’s invasion of European markets was at its peak.
Mr. Berri started off as an actor in the mid-1950s after studying at the Rene Simon School of dramatic arts. Vexed by the smaller roles he received, Berri decided to direct and produce a short. Le Poulet (‘The Chicken’) was made in 1963, screened at Venice Film Festival, and went to win 1965 Oscar for Best Short Film. Shocked and surprised by the award, Berri launched his directorial career and took a deeply personal tale as the subject for his debut feature. The Two of Us (‘Le Vieil Homme et l’Enfant’, 1967), for which Berri co-wrote the script with Gerard Brach (who frequently collaborated with Berri and Polanski), was a deceptively simple yet highly endearing tale about childhood and life during World War II. Claude Berri was born as Claude Berel Langmann in Paris on July 1, 1934. His Polish-Romanian parents of Jewish descent worked in the fur business. During wartime, Claude was sent away to live with a non-Jewish family in French countryside, an experience and relationship that was portrayed in The Two of Us.
Before the opening credits, Berri confesses that his film is a true story that’s been ‘filtered through the imagination of a child’. However, Berri’s rose-tinted vision isn’t as maudlin as Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (another depiction of a terrifying historical period through the filter of childlike wonder). Despite the specific time period and highly personal tone, The Two of Us speaks to our inner child and to anybody who has deeply felt the warmth and love of grandparents. Without much preaching or artistic posturing, the film gracefully confers its gentle message about the transcending and irresistible force of love. The movie opens in Paris, during the worst years of World War II with an image of a tank; not a real tank, but a toy which is displayed in a shop and becomes an obsession for two mischievous nine-year olds. One of two boys Claude (Alain Cohen) steals the toy tank and gets caught by the shop-attendant. In the next shot, Claude’s father (Charles Denner) is chasing him around a table to give him a good spanking.
Claude doesn’t really know what it means to keep a low profile, despite his frustrated father and beloved mother’s advice. He refuses to keep his head down and doesn’t understand a bit about Second World War II (except the tank) and the Nazi menace. When Claude’s antics repeatedly put the family’s business and well-being at risk and to keep him away from ever-worsening air raids, his folks arrange through a friend to send him to a Catholic family at the countryside. Claude is taught to ‘live like a little Catholic’ (memorizes Lord’s Prayer). His last name ‘Langmann’ is changed to more French-sounding name: ‘Longuet’. Subsequently, the boy doubtfully questions about his new guardian: “Why doesn’t he like Jews if he’s nice?” Booted out of Paris in a train, Claude gets off at a picturesque village, surrounded by fields and flowers, where the grubbiness of war is yet to reach with its full-force.
Claude shares a home with two elderly couples, whom he calls ‘Grampa’ (Michel Simon) and ‘Grandma’ (Luce Fabiole). Grampa Pepe is a stout, tall man with unkempt hair who looks after his fifteen-year-old dog, Kinou. When we first see the old man, he is feeding his dog at the dining table. Despite such a soft, mushy heart Grampa is stubbornly anti-Semitic. Claude is forewarned by the man’s daughter (who brings him in train from Paris): “If my father says something shocking, don’t pay attention.” He declares that he can spot a Jew by the way ‘he or she smells’. Grampa also says lot of atrocious, ignorant things about Bolsheviks, Huns, English, and Freemasons. Nevertheless, Grampa is very much a caring soul, who devotes his days to forge a strong bond with Claude. The old man and the boy, accompanied by the faithful dog, chop wood, play little games, and listen to wartime radio broadcasts. Adding more to the ironical and contradictory behavior of grampa is his resolute stand against consuming meat.
The winning aspect of ‘The Two of Us’ is the refined portrayal of relationship between Claude and Grandpa. With the character of Grampa Pepe, director Berri and actor Michel Simon has achieved the impossible: to appreciate the love of a man whose intolerance and ignorance drives him to say certain awful things. We acknowledge him as a cantankerous old fool, whose anti-Semitic point of view seems to have born out of plain ignorance than out of fierce hatred purported by the Nazis. We can’t simply make ourselves hate grampa because his peddling of Jewish stereotypes (the long nose, curly hair, big ears, etc) is understandable (not that it is acceptable), because it is akin to the noxious opinions of our elderly family members about people of different race, caste or religion, which we as kids might have come across. Their silly, wrong perception is gleaned from very limited or no contact with the ‘others’, and not out of pure ideologically-driven bigotry (something similar to the revulsion one shows towards a dish without ever trying it). The power of love can easily break such individuals’ silly antipathies. Moreover, we can’t dislike grampa because Claude finds abundance of love, peace, and comfort while being with him.
Although I have mentioned that the narrative arc is deceptively simple, it’s not exactly an easy job for the film-maker to find the perfect balance for dramatic resonance without ever veering into melodramatic territory. Berri’s assured direction retains a lively tone that is somewhere between funny and poignant. When grampa lists his ridiculous rhetorics on discerning Jews, Claude’s reaction is absolutely fascinating. The boy jabs at the old man’s logic with an innocence that even makes grampa to acknowledge the cognitive flaws and holes in his theory (Claude observes that grampa’s own hair is curly and ears are big). The little boy doesn’t convey this with a diligence or with intent to humiliate grampa, but simply through the pureness of childhood. Most importantly, Berri doesn’t try to reveal Claude’s Jewish identity so as to cook-up a teary-eyed ending just for the sake of it. He simply observes the potent love between these two members of different generations, maintaining a good emotional distance, and in the course identifies how such an unconditional love could neutralize our innate suspicions and misinterpretations. Of course, Berri isn’t stretching his personal experience so as to tell that love conquers racism or dismantles anti-Semitism. Yet without a single trace of emotional manipulation, the film-maker tenderly captures the humanity’s capacity for goodness. The performances of French acting titan Michel Simon (won Best Actor prize for his role at Berlin Film Festival) and new-comer Alain Cohen is superbly accomplished, acutely instilling the sense of comedic authenticity and poignancy.
Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Movies and Passion for Books.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Hatred and Mass Violence: Lessons from History”, edited by Navras J. Aafreedi, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.