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Arts & Culture a New Generation of Filmmakers in France Focus on Jewish Issues

February 21, 2002
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When Constantin Costa-Gavras’ expose on the Holocaust-era silence of Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church premieres next week, it will mark the third French opening in less than a year of a film dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi occupation of France.

Last summer, Claude Lanzmann followed up on “Shoah,” his celebrated nine-and-a-half-hour documentary, with “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.,” a gripping reconstruction of the mass revolt and escape of the Jewish prisoners of a Polish concentration camp.

More recently, Bertrand Tavernier’s drama about filmmakers in occupied Paris won accolades from French critics.

Nor will these be the last films in the near future to reckon with the rise of the Third Reich in wartime Europe. Scheduled for release in June is yet another drama set in occupied France, “The War in Paris,” which will portray the lives of two Jewish brothers under Nazi rule.

Lanzmann and Costa-Gavras have tried for decades to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. Now, the films emanating from a younger generation of Jewish artists focus on the present as much as the past, and address contemporary cultural issues as well as historical injustices.

Perhaps the leading figure in this new generation is Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays a Catholic priest seeking to condemn the Nazis in Costa-Gavras’ new film, “Amen, the Representative.” Following his starring role in the recent international blockbuster, “Amelie,” a movie recently nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, Kassovitz is an actor who can choose his films.

In view of his current work and his earlier directorial efforts, this could mean that more films exploring Jewish life in France could be in the works.

In both “Cafe au Lait” and the critically acclaimed “Hate,” which won him the prize for best direction at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, Kassovitz brought to the screen the fresh and unexpected character of the Jewish street youth from the working-class Parisian suburbs.

In “Cafe au Lait,” Kassovitz played Felix, a bicycle delivery boy who loves rap music and spends his nights in clubs, but still finds time to observe the Sabbath. In “Hate,” he stole the hearts of French audiences with his portrayal of the friendship between Vinz, a Jewish teen from the projects, and his two best friends Hubert and Sa d — an African and an Arab.

While these three spend much of the film venting their anger at the local police and at each other, they come together near the end of the movie to fight an attack by a group of neo-Nazi skinheads.

This was a powerful message of inter-ethnic solidarity in the mid-1990s, when Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme-right National Front posed a viable political threat.

Interviewed about the film shortly after its release, Kassovitz claimed, “If you had to be black to denounce apartheid, or Jewish to remember the Holocaust — in short, if you only had to mind your own business — it would be horrible.”

Kassovitz steps into the thick of French Jewish politics once again as the co-star of “Amen.”

Two weeks before its opening, the film already has drawn sharp criticism from the French Catholic Church for a promotional poster that shows a swastika branching out of a Christian cross. But more importantly for Jews in France, the film debuts in a moment charged with mounting tensions over a wave of anti-Semitic aggression in the same suburbs Kassovitz so poignantly depicted in his earlier films.

To counter the epidemic of anti-Jewish attacks, the vast majority perpetrated by Arab teens, the French government has launched new initiatives in French public high schools for educating youths on the Holocaust. Several days ago, the minister of education, Jack Lang, announced that the government would be furnishing each school with an abbreviated DVD version of Lanzmann’s “Shoah.”

More than likely, though, Kassovitz’s star power will prove more effective in spreading the story of Nazi genocide.

By no means, however, does he face this task alone. Not long after “Amen” leaves theaters, another Holocaust-era film by one of France’s younger generation of Jewish directors will pick up where it left off.

Directed by Yolande Zauberman, the French-born daughter of Polish concentration camp survivors, “The War in Paris” will explore the experiences of two Jewish brothers in occupied France.

Like “Amen,” this movie features one of France’s most popular screen personalities, Elodie Bouchez, and promises to be widely distributed here and abroad.

Little beyond the basic plot structure has been revealed about the film so far, but Zauberman’s earlier work suggests its indictment of anti-Semitism will be weighty. Her 1993 film, “Ivan and Abraham,” is set on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, and tells the story of four Polish Jews who leave their shtetl when it is overcome by a harsh climate of anti-Semitism.

Attesting to the ways such Jewish filmmaking has become something of a movement in France, one of the leading parts in Zauberman’s upcoming film will be played by another young Jewish director and actress, Helene Lapiower.

Almost two years ago, Lapiower — also the daughter of Polish Jews — released her own documentary, “A Little Family Conversation,” which used interviews with family members to probe the changes in Jewish identity over three generations.

The influence of the Jewish past on the identity of the new generation may be the central theme that links the artistic visions of the many young Jewish filmmakers emerging in France.

Even in Kassovitz’s early films, whose hip, assimilated Jewish protagonists appear at home in French suburban youth culture, members of the older generation of Jews seem always to be lurking in the background. As Vinz’s grandmother in “Hate” warns, “You start out like that, you’ll end up not going to temple.”

In the recent film debut of another talented young French Jewish director, Renaud Cohen, the troubled relationship between the Jewish past and modern French life is more overt and troubling.

“Once We Grow Up” focuses on the life of Simon, a Sephardic Jew of Algerian origin who works as a journalist in Paris and spends a great deal of time caring for his senile grandmother. While Simon’s family never crossed paths with Nazism, anti-Semitism nonetheless has shaped his fate.

We learn at the end of the film that during a period of Arab anger over the 1967 Six-Day War, his mother was turned away from a good Algerian hospital and ended up dying while giving birth to him.

“Because of his mother’s death and his family’s flight from Algeria he was cut off from his roots right after he was born,” Cohen said about the character. “He is part of the second generation of North African Jews whose parents were born in Algeria, but who have not preserved its memory because they never lived there.”

These are but a handful of a whole wave of dynamic Jewish film artists bringing Jewish cultural issues to French audiences these days. And their vision is not always so heavy.

Yvan Attal, the immensely popular actor and director whose work has elicited comparisons to Woody Allen, recently brought a more light-hearted perspective to the big screen in his hit film “My Wife Is an Actress.”

Among the issues in the movie is a struggle — often humorous — between an intermarried couple over whether to circumcise their child.

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