Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Hiding in Plain Sight: “The Two of Us”

As (thanks to the COVID pandemic) we self-isolate from the outside world, it’s easy to compare ourselves to Anne Frank and her family, sheltering in that tiny attic. Big difference, of course: the Franks and others like them were hiding from human enemies, who’d be glad to ship them off to death camps if they ever showed their faces. The distinction between a virus and a flesh-and-blood foe is obvious. Viruses don’t care who gets in their way. Humans choose their victims, selecting some, letting others go on with their lives, untouched.  During the dark days of World War II, the revelation of who you were could mean your death at the hands of someone who hated you solely because of the accident of your birth.

These thoughts occurred to me at a timely moment: tomorrow is a day set aside to remember the victims of the Holocaust,. A slew of Holocaust movies, from both American and European filmmaker make clear what social isolation is REALLY like. One that was released back in 1967 comes from France. Claude Berri’s The Two of Us  is striking because it’s a Holocaust film without death camps and  without serious violence. In fact the world it shows us is for the most part fairly pleasant.

It’s 1944, and a Jewish family living in Paris under the Vichy regime is having a hard time keeping a low profile. The Langmanns’ nine-year-old son Claude is a mischievous boy who always seems to be getting into minor trouble. For his own protection, and theirs, his parents reluctantly ship him off to live in the countryside with the elderly father of a friend. They’ve schooled him to take on a new surname, to pretend to be Roman Catholic, and (above all) never to let anyone see him unclothed from the waist down.

Pépé Dupont, whom Claude quickly learns to call Grandpa, is a man of the soil. He’s so uncouth and so earthy that Zorba the Greek would seem like a suave urbanite by comparison. Claude’s first glimpse of him occurs at his kitchen table, where he’s feeding his large elderly dog with a spoon. Pépé  (memorably played by the award-winning Michel Simon) has a good heart: alone among those in his community he’s become a vegetarian, rather than eat any of the beloved rabbits he and his wife raise. But if he loves animals, he’s less sure about people. He hates many of them on principle: the Communists, the English, the Americans. Above all, he has no use for Jews, whom he pictures in terms that might have come straight from a textbook for Nazi children. Jews, he insists, are easy to smell out.  Claude of course keeps silent about his own background, and soon he and Pépé are enjoying a warm familial relationship.

If this were an American movie, there’d be, toward the end, a big revelation scene in which Claude’s masquerade would be uncovered and lessons would be learned. Instead The Two of Us ends on an ambiguous note: we’re simply not sure if Pépé ever becomes aware of the deception, nor do we know the extent to which Claude’s “innocent’ questions about Jews are asked with an ulterior motive. Frankly, I liked the way the film left me with matters to ponder. One of them is the fact that Claude Berri, making his directorial debut, was born to Jewish immigrant parents and named Claude Berel Langmann. In 1944 he was nine year old. This film doesn’t claim to tell HIS story, but he surely knew in his bones the world he showed on screen.

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