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As usual, François Truffaut knew exactly what made a great film great. For twenty years, he wrote in 1967, he had been waiting for “the real film” about the Nazi occupation of France, showing the French majority “who were involved neither in the collaboration nor the Resistance, who did nothing, either good or bad,” except survive. And that’s what he found in Claude Berri’s witty, intelligent comedy-drama The Two of Us, which he placed among a handful of important films that “seek to conquer truth.”
The Two of Us also stands with the most striking directorial feature debuts in French film history. Berri entered filmmaking a few years after Truffaut and the other French new-wave revolutionaries, missing out on the tide of publicity they generated with their early features. But he quickly made up for lost time, writing and directing a long list of memorable movies, some of which (such as Uranus and Lucie Aubrac, both made in the 1990s) return to the theme of French life under the occupation. His filmmaking reached a pinnacle in 1986, with Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Along the way, he also founded a production company (Renn Films) and a distribution outlet (AMLF), and produced movies for many of the biggest names in European cinema, including Patrice Chéreau and Roman Polanski.
The Two of Us is far more than a little gem from Berri’s early career, though. Historically, it was among the first French films to depict Nazi sympathizers with three-dimensional candor, neither whitewashing nor apologizing for their misguided ideas. Psychologically, it probes an unusual friendship—between an old provincial bigot and a young Jewish boy—with unfailing sensitivity. Cinematically, it has a lightness of touch, a sureness of technique, and a seamless blending of lively humor and dead seriousness that even Berri has never surpassed.
Originally called Le vieil homme et l’enfant, or “The Old Man and the Child,” the movie centers on eight-year-old Claude Langmann, whose Parisian parents send him to live in the countryside with a retired Christian couple they’ve never met; they feel he’ll be safer there, a judgment made by many Jewish parents in wartime France. Claude arrives with a new last name, Longuet, and instructions to act as Catholic as he can—chanting the Lord’s Prayer from time to time and hiding his circumcised “birdie,” a giveaway for sure. Claude plays his part well, building a warm relationship with Grampa and Grandma, his elderly hosts. They think he’s been sent to their farm because war-torn Paris has grown so dangerous; it never crosses their mind that he might be a Jew.
The rich irony at the film’s heart is that Claude’s protectors buy into the common prejudices of their time and place, anti-Semitism included. The way Grampa sees it, the war that’s turned his country inside out was caused by Jews—plus Communists, Freemasons, and those shifty English, the worst of all. His hero is Marshal Pétain, the puppet ruling France under Germany’s thumb. Grampa keeps Pétain’s portrait on the wall even after the Allies start winning the war. “This is my house,” he declares. “Here, I decide who rules France.”
In a second irony, though, Grampa also has humane and generous qualities. He’s a vegetarian—the folks who gobble Grandma’s rabbit stew are “cannibals” to him—and he adores his loyal dog, seating him at the dinner table and making sure the pooch’s morning coffee has the right amount of milk. It’s one of the unique qualities of The Two of Us, and a sign of Berri’s own humanity and generosity, that Grampa is depicted not as evil but as simply ignorant. To demand that he rise above his era’s ingrained bigotry, the film gently tells us, would be to indulge a bias of our own.
Berri’s kindhearted portrayal of Grampa and Grandma is all the more remarkable given the fact that The Two of Us is based on his own experiences as a child. His name then was Claude Beri Langmann, and he was sheltered during the Nazi years by gentile friends of his parents. It’s his voice we hear saying, “I was eight years old and already a Jew,” as the movie starts.
Although the real events have been fictionalized for the sake of effective storytelling, it’s obvious that the film is grounded in Berri’s ultimate forgiveness of his protectors’ all-too-human flaws. Truffaut called The Two of Us an offspring of Jean Renoir’s insightful Toni, a 1935 drama about xenophobic French peasants. That’s certainly true, but Berri’s compassion also reveals his understanding of the famous words spoken by Renoir as the character Octave, in his 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game: “You see, in this world . . . everyone has his reasons.” Octave calls this an “awful thing,” but Berri finds it sweet as well as bitter.
At the beginning of The Two of Us, it’s hard to predict what the movie’s tone will be: the ingredients are present for a tragic holocaust drama, but Claude is such an animated and self-reliant child that it’s natural to share his high-spirited optimism. As he explores his new household, learning to tolerate and then to love Grampa and Grandma, it becomes clear that Berri is escorting us along an emotional tightrope, delicately balanced between condemnation of Nazi hate and small-minded Christian chauvinism on one side, and an embrace of irrepressible life, empathy, and friendship on the other. Artistically speaking, this was a risky act, but Berri brings it off superbly, as in the scene where Claude, informed by Grampa that Jews have big noses, points out that Grampa’s own is the opposite of petit, sending the old curmudgeon to a mirror for a moment of puzzled self-examination. By any civilized standard, Grampa’s words would have been as detestable as the intolerance behind them—but Claude turns them mischievously back on the old bigot, knocking a hole in his prejudice without wounding or belittling him.
Michel Simon is such a legendary figure in French cinema, and his rambling, shambling performance as Grampa is so central to Berri’s splendid film, that it’s startling to realize The Two of Us was a much-needed comeback vehicle for him. Simon had become an international star in movies by Renoir and Jean Vigo, among other giants, but his career tumbled after 1957, when an accident with contaminated makeup dye temporarily paralyzed parts of his face and body.
“For professionals,” Berri wrote in his 2003 memoir, Autoportrait, “he was an old actor who no longer made movies.” So signing him didn’t help Berri get funding for his first feature. What did help was an Academy Award nomination (which became a win) for Le poulet, his charming 1962 short about a boy who saves a rooster from the frying pan by persuading his parents that it’s an egg-laying hen—a whimsical dress rehearsal, in a way, for the vastly more important masquerade pulled off by Claude in The Two of Us.
Berri’s next challenge was finding a boy to play Claude, and he hit on an ideal choice: nine-year-old Alain Cohen, a pupil (and conspicuous cutup) in a Hebrew school Berri visited. Cohen had close ties to the story, since his mother had survived World War II as a child, after her parents were sent to Auschwitz. Cohen later recalled that although he was just a kid when he made the movie, he knew it was linked to “painful and serious” family events, and this deepened his performance.
Berri was delighted with him, saying he had an “inner light” that the camera somehow caught. And it’s true: Cohen gives one of the all-time great child performances, conveying a wide array of emotions with his expressive mouth and shining dark eyes. Berri subsequently had Cohen play his alter ego in two additional films. Le cinéma de papa (1970) is a fictionalized version of Berri’s decision to become a filmmaker instead of an ordinary businessman, with Cohen playing Berri as a child. La première fois (1976) stars a teenage Cohen as a high school senior who can’t think about anything but (you guessed it) sex.
The Two of Us paved the way for numerous other French movies about Jewish children during the holocaust years, including Les violons du bal (1974), Les guichets du Louvre (1974), and Au revoir les enfants (1987). Credit for the film’s influence goes to Berri and his whole creative team, including composer Georges Delerue, whose deceptively simple score subtly underlines the film’s many moods, and Jean Penzer, whose exquisite black-and-white cinematography enhances every scene. It’s especially vibrant in sequences requiring a documentarylike spontaneity, as when the children and a German shepherd (named Adolph) go chasing after a wild goose.
The Two of Us concludes, like many of Berri’s later movies, on an open-ended note that refuses to spell out what might follow for the characters, allowing us to imagine their futures for ourselves. Truffaut often followed the same strategy, sharing Berri’s affinity for deeply personal films that move “from one surprise to another,” as life itself often does. “Like Truffaut,” Berri told me in a 1987 interview, “I don’t think about what is more important, life or movies?.?.?. In all my life, I am making only one movie, and that movie is my life.” This statement applies to no film more vividly than The Two of Us, a profoundly human comedy that hasn’t lost an ounce of its power, liveliness, or enchantment.
David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and emeritus professor of theater and film at Long Island University. He was film critic of the Christian Science Monitor for more than thirty-five years, and his articles have appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, the New York Times, and many other publications. His books include The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible and Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Film Reader.