Are there too many movies that deal with the Holocaust?
Not according to French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, who wants us to understand that for Holocaust survivors, and for their children and the children’s children, the Shoah always remains a part of their lives. And those of us who have no immediate family connection that we known about — just as if it is necessary for us to feel as if we personally have left Egypt on Passover — it is imperative for us to connect with those who survived the terror that was the Shoah.
There was a time in America when no filmmaker dared tackle the subject of the Holocaust. In fact, there is no concentration camp scene in an American film until we watch American soldiers liberate a camp in the 1958 film “The Young Lions.” In France, where French collaboration with the Nazis left an indelible scar for decades, the Shoah was a subject long avoided. Then, in the aftermath of the 1968 upheavals in France, Marcel Ophuls released his groundbreaking 1970 film “The Sorrow and the Pity,” shattering historical myths and engendering an outpouring of soul-searching and Holocaust filmmaking. Now, more than a generation later, Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, a French child of Holocaust survivors, takes a look at survival and adjustment to life after liberation.
With his latest film, “To Life,” Zilbermann has us join three Holocaust survivors as they try to move forward with life while struggling with the trauma within themselves.
Children of survivors have come forward these last decades with a powerful outpouring of films about their parents’ experiences and how those experiences affected their own lives. Dozens of documentaries have looked at testimony, survivors’ return visits to Europe, their trauma and psychological damage, and their post-war survival. Some filmmakers, like Andrew Jacobs in his 2008 “Four Seasons Lodge,” celebrated survivors and the ways in which they were able to overcome the past and create a beautiful community for themselves. Other moviemakers, like Chantal Akerman, focused on survivors’ displacement and their inability to come to terms with the present. Last spring, Akerman completed “No Home Movie,” a film about her mother, Natalie Akerman, an Auschwitz survivor. Natalie Akerman died soon after the movie was completed; Chantal Akerman, suffering from depression, committed suicide just days before the film’s U.S. premiere. The process of movie-making can be cathartic or dispiriting.
Jean-Jacques Zilbermann already had made “Irene and Her Sisters,” a documentary about his mother, an Auschwitz survivor. After Irene’s death, the filmmaker must have felt more comfortable about sharing parts of his mother’s life than he could have while she was alive. With “À la vie,” being released here as “To Life,” he has created a film narrative about how, by reconnecting with fellow inmates of the camps, his mother found solace and comfort and a safe place from which to move forward and enjoy life. In the film, Irene becomes Hélène, and we first see her on screen as she, with her friends Lily and Rose, seeks a way to survive the January 1945 death march from Auschwitz. Rose can barely walk and Hélène and Lily believe that their friend cannot survive.
We meet Hélène (Julie Depardieu) six months later, as she returns home and tries to pull her life together, reconnecting with her former world as well as she can and moving back into her apartment, which clearly she had left in a hurry, years before. Now, with the war over and no family left, Hélène sets out to find Lily (Johanna ter Steege), with whom she had lost contact after being liberated. They believe that Rose is dead. Fifteen years and countless newspaper ads later, Hélène and Lily are to be reunited. They are to meet for a weekend get-together at a French seaside resort, Berck-sur-Mer. The surprise is that Rose (Suzanne Clément) somehow has survived the war.
This is not your typical Holocaust film. There are no scenes of Nazi terror. Rather, it is a celebration of life. It is the story of how three women, who met in the most horrific of situations, became lifelong friends and were able to help each other. Their deep dark past remained embedded within themselves, and with their coming together in Berck they come face-to-face with each others’ traumas. Their shared experience and mutual support helps each move forward in tackling and unleashing her own personal demons.
Performances by the French Depardieu, the Dutch ter Steege and the French Canadian Clément are strong, and director Zilbermann gives us the gift of a feel good film about survivors of the Shoah. The film opens today in New York.
Eric Goldman teaches cinema at Stern College for Women. He is founder of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish cinema.