‘Memoir of War’

Benoît Magimel is Pierre Rabier and Mélanie Thierry is Marguerite Duras in “Memoir of War.” (Music Box Films)

In 1996, a French filmmaker auditioned several elderly Yiddish-speaking people in Paris for a short film that he was preparing. At the time, he spoke to me about his attachment to Yiddish culture, his fear that it might be lost, and the special vitality that he believed the Yiddish language held.

His short film, “Madame Jacques on the Croisette,” was released in 1996 as a celebration of a Holocaust survivor generation that he knew would never again be. Several of the actors would be cast in his first feature film, “Voyages,” a largely Yiddish-language narrative film with three intersecting stories about Holocaust survivors; it would be made three years later. The filmmaker, Emmanuel Finkiel, who in actuality speaks no Yiddish, has returned to a Jewish-related theme with “Memoir of War,” based on two chapters from French writer Marguerite Duras’ memoir “La douleur.”

In large part drawing on her own story, after the war Duras had written about her experiences as a woman in occupied Paris in 1944 to 1945, waiting for her husband, Robert Antelme, to return from Dachau. Antelme, whom the Nazis had found to be a member of the Resistance, had been tortured and sent off to a concentration camp. The novel, part autobiography, part fiction, delves into Duras’ deep emotions as she tried to gather information about Robert, sometimes flirting with a French Gestapo collaborator, while attempting to cope with the separation from her husband and her very precarious situation. Marguerite’s relationship with her husband is revealed as complex; she had another lover long before Antelme was deported, and that lover, Dionys, is there with her in Paris. Would Robert return home alive after the war ended? If so, in what condition? Dionys goes to search for him.

Filmmaker Finkiel explores how rather than distancing herself emotionally from her husband during the months of separation, Duras actually might have been drawn closer to Robert.

Finkiel, whose grandparents and uncle were murdered at Auschwitz, approaches the material with a unique perspective. In the France of his youth, the French laid blame for French-Nazi collaboration on the Vichy government. They were far from ready to acknowledge any guilt. Finkiel’s father would share with his son his amazement that in the weeks after Allied troops marched into Paris, the same people who had come out onto the streets to applaud the speeches of Vichy leaders weeks before were now matter-of-factly lauding Charles de Gaulle. Liberation in 1945 called attention to the resistance and martyrdom of the French people, disregarded French complicity, and ignored the singularity of Jewish genocide. Duras did not write much about Jews in her work.

It was not until the early 1970s that the real story of Vichy’s collaboration began to be told, and France’s role in the round-ups and expulsion of Jews was acknowledged. In 1995, Jacques Chirac finally officially acknowledged the French government’s responsibility in the deportation of Jews.

Finkiel introduces an Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Mrs. Katz into the story. She is played beautifully by Shulamit Adar, whose performance in both “Madame Jacques” and “Voyages” is so memorable. Duras’ Mrs. Kats, spelled differently, was classic French, but the filmmaker wanted a character reflective of his own grandparents. The character is Finkiel’s effort to introduce a Jewish story into the postwar French narrative, which largely had ignored Jews.

Mrs. Katz sings Yiddish songs while waiting to see if her dear ones have survived and will return from the camps. The hope for return that she maintains seems even more important than the actual return. In a conversation with me in March, Finkiel reflected on how some survivors, including his own father, continued to wait long after learning the news of a loved one’s death. Is it the same in the film for Marguerite?

Mélanie Thierry is exceptional as Marguerite Duras. Benoît Magimel, as French collaborator Rabier, does a fine job of getting us to hate him. Resistance fighter Robert Antelme’s deportation and journey was like that of French Jews, and Emmanuel Finkiel, the child of survivors, provides us with a powerful film about those who anxiously waited, hoped, and prayed for the safe return of loved ones. “Memoir of War” opens today at the Film Forum in New York.

Eric Goldman is a film historian and professor and host of “Jewish Cinematheque,” seen on the Jewish Broadcasting Service.

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