June 1995 By Philip Berk
Claude Lelouch, the internationally acclaimed director of (among others) A Man and a Woman, was in Los Angeles recently to promote his Golden Globe nominated film, Les Miserables, which he made because, as a survivor of the Holocaust, he believes the victims were truly Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
Les Miserables tells a parallel story of French Jews who were betrayed by both the Vichy government and antisemitic Frenchmen during WW 11.
Q: How autobiographical is the film?
CLAUDE LELOUCH: “Of course I changed many things from reality. I adapted it. I used both the love story of my mother and father but also the story of my parents’ friends. Everything that happened to the Zimans (the fictional name of the family in the film) is not what happened to my family, but it did happen to people we knew. The story of the father (a Jew sheltered by a gentile couple) happened to people I know. My mother and father were separated for the entire war. My mother and I (I was seven and eight at the time) were chased by the gestapo throughout the war. My father had escaped to Algeria and my mother (who could pass as a Gentile) was trying to join him there, to find him again. It’s only thanks to the Americans that we were ever reunited. If it hadn’t happened, I would never have had the courage to tell this story. There is nothing fake in the film. The audience must know that there is nothing fake. Of course I did rearrange things in Victor Hugo’s novel but only to show that what Victor Hugo wrote is destined to happen again and again.”
Q: In the movie you are separated from your mother and sheltered by priests. Did that actually happen?
CL: “Yes. I was was with my mother, but at one point I was separated from her and hid out with some priests for a little over a month. The scene with their daughter (Lelouch changed the character from a boy to a girl) when a nun teaches her the Lord’s Prayer is true. (In the movie the nazis question the young girl.) Because I was a boy, when the Germans came into the classroom, they had me pull down my pants, and when they saw I was Jewish, they were going to arrest me, but the Nun asked me to say “Our Father,” and after I recited the Catholic prayer and she explained that I had been circumcised because I couldn’t pee straight, that saved my life.”
Q: No contemporary movie, not even Schindler’s List, offers as sobering a message as this one, that the Holocaust could happen again. In the movie, the father calls the Jews history’s eternal scapegoat. Are you concerned about the resurgence of antisemitism and do you consider yourself a Jew?
(His mother, a Catholic, converted to Judaism when she married his father.)
CL: I feel completely Jewish, but I also feel very optimistic thanks to the movies, thanks to cinema. If you go back through history, you’ll find there were other holocausts, not only of the Jews. But they were never filmed; nobody was able to tell what really happened. Now because of the power of film, when you see the actual images of the concentration camps, it has incredible impact. The more we see these pictures, the more films are made on the subject, the less likelihood of small wars and small holocausts.
When Ziman says there are two or three recurring stories that keep happening over and over again, the Holocaust — the story of the Holocaust — is one of them.”
Q: But why the optimism?
CL: “The most terrible thing for humanity would be a world war. Local wars like in Bosnia, Vietnam, or Algeria are serious but a world war is different. When that happens, everybody goes crazy and anything can happen. There are no constraints. It’s endless madness. There probably will always be wars as there are volcanoes and earthquakes, but nothing could be more atrocious than if tomorrow the entire world were to go to war, were to erupt like a volcano. If that happens there’s nothing we will be able to do. Fortunately we haven’t had a world war for fifty years and that is thanks to the cinema. Those images portray what a world war really is. When you show him pictures of the concentration camps, even the worst bastard in the world wouldn’t dare do that again. So that’s why I’m very optimistic And that’s why I made this film to remind the world . Films like this are important and necessary.
Q: Was making the film a painful experience?
CL: “When you’re seven or eight and you see your parents – father and mother — suffer, you see things differently. Film offers a fond memory for me because during that period my mother used to hide me in movie theatres. She would bring me to the moviehouse and entrust me to the ticket lady in the morning, and then come and get me at 8 p.m. when it closed. So all afternoon I could dream when I saw the same movie four times over. Each time I thought it would be a bit different, but it wasn’t. And afterwards I would go behind the screen to see if I could meet the actors. Sadly after the war ended, I never went to the movies again. But I remember when I would meet my mother in the evening, I saw how desperate she was, how terrified she was, how she was trying to find her husband, how they spent the entire war changing addresses every three or four days going from cellar, attic, friend’s house, moving around. For a child it was a game, but for my mother it was a complete tragedy. And that’s what I’ve tried to show in Les Miserables. That scene when the Jews try to escape to Switzerland happened to friends of my father. He used to talk about it all the time. As I said, not everything in the film happened to my parents themselves, but everything in the film happened to people in his close circle of friends. So my purpose was to mix personal testimony with the more general ideas borrowed from Victor Hugo. In that way we’re able to go from larger history to a more personal one so as to encourage analysis and overview. My hope is that many movie makers will tackle this subject and that everyone who lived in that period will give direct testimony to it.”