He remembers his father waiting, waiting, waiting for a reunion that would never happen.
“My father had seen his parents and younger brother arrested by the Nazis in Paris in 1942,” Emmanuel Finkiel told The Jewish Week. “He spent the rest of his life awaiting their return.”
Like so many Jews sent east from Paris, they were never seen on French soil again, and the memory stayed with the child into his adulthood, a memory of his father’s pain so vivid that it motivated him to recreate it in a motion picture.
Finkiel, a veteran writer-director, put that memory to artistic use in his new film “Memoir of War,” which opens theatrically Friday, Aug. 17.
He brought it to bear in recreating the acclaimed novelist Marguerite Duras’ evocation of her own wait for the return of her husband Robert Antelme, who was sent to a concentration camp for his Resistance activities during the Nazi occupation. Her wait had a less tragic conclusion when Antelme, more dead than alive, was brought back to Paris.
It was his family memory that led Finkiel to take on the project, he explained through a translator in a telephone interview from Paris. Duras’ book, “Le Douleur” (published here as “The War”), consists of two seemingly unconnected stories of life under the Nazi occupation and in the aftermath of the liberation. The book, inspired by her notebooks from the period but apparently somewhat fictionalized, was a huge success in France and became a touchstone for the ongoing French struggle to understand the turmoil of the Nazi occupation, collaboration and revenge that was the central reality of the nation in the 1940s.
“I agreed to do the adaptation with the proviso that I would also be the director,” Finkiel said. “It was a story that I had read many years ago and that resonated with my personal situation. What I found was echoes of what I had felt as a child watching my father’s reactions.”
In the book, Duras tells the story of her wait for Antelme’s return first, then closes the book with the dramatic tale of her duel a year or so earlier with an unlikely admirer, a sinister yet awkward French secret police official. As is almost always the case in her work, chronology takes a backseat to the tension between the intensity of a moment of recollection and the ineluctable passage of time.
Finkiel decided to reverse the order of the two stories.
“You have to think of the fact that the temporality of reading a literary work is different from that of watching a film,” he said. “The film creates its own present and past. I thought it was more important to make it a chronological experience. We follow Marguerite until she reaches that moment.”
He also wanted the audience to shift its focus from the fictionalized Duras as part of the network of friends and colleagues in the Resistance to her own self-contained agonies.
“It is important that in the second part we see her become more focused on herself emotionally,” Finkiel continued. “She becomes almost literally enclosed in her own apartment. It is important to show her out in the world first.”
In fact, that reversal is one of the great strengths of “Memoir of War,” the movement from the social and political to the intensely personal. We are never unaware of the world outside Marguerite’s apartment; she is still bound up with neighbors, including a Jewish woman (Shulamit Adar, co-star of Finkiel’s 1999 debut film “Voyages,” which also dealt with the Holocaust) who stays with her, desperately seeking the return of her daughter from the death camps. But her gaze and the film’s are turned inward.
That shift in narrative focus puts a tremendous weight on the film’s leading actress, Mélanie Thierry, who Finkiel has worked with before.
Finkiel explained the casting simply: “I didn’t want to make a biopic,” he said emphatically. “I was not focusing on finding someone who had a physical resemblance to Duras. The writer in question became famous in the 1950s, but the story we’re telling took place much earlier. There is very little footage or photographs of her at that age.
“The Duras that we know now is someone who presents herself as a strong person with a real intellectual authority, but that developed after her successes in the late-’50s. The Duras of the 1940s is still looking for that authority. She has a fragility that we don’t see later. It became necessary to invent her at that age.”
He added that “Le Doleur” is not a work of autobiography.
“This is a work that Duras has invented, characters she has invented,” he said. “She has invented a new personality for herself, as her own heroine. That was how I approached working with Mélanie.”
France has still not come to terms with this period.
At a time when the international press, including The New York Times, is speaking ominously of a new anti-Semitism in France, how was the film received domestically?
“We had very good [box office] numbers, but the film did provoke discussions,” Finkiel said. “France has still not come to terms with this period. Here you have a situation where the French government was collaborating with the Germans, you had a civil war within France with French citizens turning in French citizens. I think a lot about Franco and Mussolini being dictators, yet we never see [Vichy government chief Philippe] Petain referred to as a dictator, but that is what he was. We’ve hidden too long behind the Germans.”
“A Memoir of War,” written and directed by Emmanual Finkiel, opens Friday, Aug. 17 at Film Forum (filmforum.org) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (filmlinc.org).