Jewish Journal

Scope of Nazi Barbarity Explored in ‘Memoir of War’

Adapted from Marguerite Duras’ autobiographical novel “La Douleur,” the new film “Memoir of War” is not about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust but a postwar story about a French woman (Mélanie Thierry) who fears that her deported Resistance-member husband met his end in Dachau. It shows the depth and breadth of the misery the Nazis unleashed. 

The story resonated with French-Jewish writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel, who was attracted to its setting in the immediate postwar period, and to the “discovery of the scope of Nazi barbarity in the heart of Europe, seen from the rather original perspective of the woman who waits,” he told the Journal. 

“Duras’ book is testimony, the counterpoint to books dealing with concentration camps and the final solution, as seen from the perspective of those who await the return,” he said.

Finkiel, best known for his Holocaust-themed drama “Voyages,” connected with Duras’ story on a personal level. “My father saw his parents and his 10-year-old brother arrested during the roundup in Paris known as the Vel d’Hiv, which took place on July 16, 1942,” he said. “After having received confirmation of their deaths at Auschwitz, he gave up any hope of seeing them again but I think he waited for them all his life.” 

When Finkiel learned what had happened to his family, it affected him deeply. “It certainly determined who I am today,” he said. “I did not grow up a practicing Jew. It was cultural. My connection with Jewish identity is very deep and very present. It is in all that I am — sometimes quietly, but it’s always there.”

Finkiel, now 56, decided to be a filmmaker when he was 14, finding it to be “a discipline that makes it possible to make people feel what you yourself are feeling.” His first films “were all about the identity of where I came from, the Yiddish world of my grandparents, which was disappearing. I always return to this thing that is the Shoah,” he said. “It is not a source of inspiration for me but rather of contamination.”

Mélanie Thierry as Marguerite Duras
Credit: Music Box Films

In her book, “Duras speaks little of the Jews, but the pages that she devotes to the discovery of the Final Solution and the contempt of the French authorities at the time with regard to the return of the deportees are exemplary,” Finkiel said. “Marguerite’s waiting is that of thousands of Jews who waited for their families to return, like my father. In the second part of the film I reinforced the evocation of the fate of the Jews. You can even hear a few snatches of Yiddish.”

“In the climate we are experiencing today in Europe and the direction that it seems to be taking, I think it is important to remember very recent history, to remember that hatred and bestiality are never far removed.” — Emmanuel Finkiel

Transforming a book that is very subjective and focused on interior dialogue was a challenge for Finkiel. So was displaying the depth and complexity of Duras’ feelings while conveying her point of view on the war and its outcome. In terms of the production, recreating postwar Paris on a budget and making it recognizable and true to the period was another hurdle.

“I wanted Paris to be as it is in the book: a completely separate character,” he said. “I wanted to show it in its true colors at the time, which were gray, charcoal and dark. However, each square centimeter of today’s Paris has changed. It was necessary to battle on several fronts in order to manage the setting, the decor and a few special effects, while at the same time attempting to maintain a lively manner of filming, a kind of freedom, as if it were today.”

Finkiel also wanted to portray Duras’ missing husband, Robert Antelme, by “the omnipresent presence of his absence — how, in the absence of a loved one, the imagination does its work and we become attached to an idea more than to a person.” 

He believes the subject of the film is timely and relevant “in the climate we are experiencing today in Europe and the direction that it seems to be taking. I think it is important to remember very recent history, to remember that hatred and bestiality are never far removed,” he said. “It’s frightening when you measure the speed at which the pages of history turn, and how amnesia spreads to succeeding generations.”  

Finkiel believes that “a film like ‘Memoir of War’ can provide the opportunity to open discussions, areas of reflection, on our history but also on our present-day society,” he said. “It is important to remember the historical reality, still and always, that is at the heart of Duras’ book. [Although] the period of ‘never again’ that reigned for a long time after the war now seems past, we are not sheltered from anything, from any type of barbarity, anywhere.”

“Memoir of War” opens Aug. 24 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre.