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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: The Unexpected

The Conquest


In Heaven, Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery

“Politics is a stupid job done by smart men.” So says Nicolas Sarkozy in The Conquest, a French film about him that states it is not a documentary. At the start it asserts that, though it is based on real people and events, it is fiction. Well, like all historical dramas, it is performed by actors, and most of the dialogue in many of the scenes had to be recreated, but much of the rest is a matter of record.

The disclaimer is presumably a protection for what is not verifiable history.

In any case, the Sarkozy story glistens, snakelike. There is no shortage these days of fiction or fact films about politics, including pictures from abroad. Most of them, like this one, are not really about politics but about politicking—the getting of power rather than ideas and policies. Sarkozy’s comment is not about political science but about the pollsters, the statisticians, the publicists who take up so much of the politician’s time. The French viewer must know Sarkozy’s ideas: the American will learn from this film only that he is a man of the right.

But for the film’s purposes the emphasis is elsewhere, anyway—on personalities and on Sarkozy’s marital and personal activities, which are tied to his public career. Americans have been used to that sort of presidential decor ever since Grover Cleveland and Warren G. Harding, with an overarching display of it in the Clinton White House. The difference in France is that these personal complications are not considered scandalous.

Figuratively, this film, by Xavier Durringer, takes place on one day, May 6, 2007, while Sarkozy is waiting for the results of the presidential elections. As he waits, we see some of the events of recent years, professional and intimate, that led to this evening—for he is not only waiting for the vote tally, he is waiting for his wife. If he is elected, he wants her at his side. At the moment, she, angry with him and her life, is off with another man.

His difficulties with her and his own sexual gambols embroider his career vividly. (Florence Pernel, who plays the wife, provides the exact mixture of dogged patience and self-preservation.) The surprise is the interest of the politicking scenes. They are small theatrical entities. They plumb character sufficiently to inform us that what we are hearing is not the whole truth.

Denis Podalydès as Sarkozy gives him the intensity and nerve that would make any opponent bristle. Bernard Le Coq as Chirac, the president whom Sarkozy wants to replace, is almost humorously self-possessed—with a reserve that bespeaks danger. All the prominent men are played as if, in addition to their verifiable selves, they are in some degree acting.

The settings help. Americans are not used to such rich and beautiful furnishings in government offices or, for that matter, official homes. The offices look as if Louis XIV had just left; and the homes of the biggies are beyond envy. The things that are said in these places are oddly endorsed by the places in which they are said. And they make Sarkozy look even more like a successful adventurer. He seems to intrude.

Yet several times this man of the right addresses working-class audiences with familiarity, and more than once he unexpectedly insists on noting that he is the son of a Hungarian immigrant and that one of his grandparents was a Greek Jew. Of course France has had Jewish antecedents such as Blum and Mendès-France, but Sarkozy flaunts his background challengingly.

Durringer directs with a lively pace, as if to make sure that he stays ahead of his domestic audience’s knowledge—to keep in them a sense of being privately informed, even about personal quirks. One of these must have been familiar. I suppose it is well-known over there that Sarkozy is mad for chocolate. Nonetheless, Durringer gets some amusement out of that fact.

TOMBOY is a lovely reminder that the French have long been famous for a quite different sort of film—about children. At least since Jean Benoît-Lévy’s La Maternelle in 1933, France has produced pictures about children that have warmed the world. The field is not a French preserve: few film-making countries have omitted comparable pictures, some of them fine indeed. But France shines.

Tomboy is to my knowledge unique: it deals with an aspect of childhood that I haven’t seen treated before—the year or two that tremble on the edge of puberty and the dilemmas and temptations therein. At the start Laure, a ten-year-old girl, is traveling with her father and pregnant mother and six-year-old sister Jeanne to the family’s new home, in a large housing project somewhere in the country. Laure is at the age where she could easily be mistaken for a boy. Her figure is boyish, her hair (unlike Jeanne’s) is cut short, her clothes are shorts and a shirt.

It is summer, school vacation time. No sooner are they settled in the new place than mother sends Laure out to make friends, and it doesn’t take long. On the steps of another building in the project sits Lisa, clearly a girl, clearly a year or two older. Lisa is on the other side of the pre-puberty plateau, as she shows by her eagerness to assume that Laure is a boy. Laure plays along, telling Lisa that her name is Michaël.

Why does she do this? Partly a child’s sheer impersonating playfulness, I’d say, partly a deeply teasing curiosity—about what it would be like to be a boy. She continues the pretense for days. Lisa introduces her as Michaël to other children, and Laure plays games with them, including football, as a boy. When it comes time for them to pee, Laure manages to scurry into the bushes by herself. Still, before the next game, she fashions a sort of penis out of Play-Doh and makes her underpants bulge.

The unforeseen, of course, happens. Lisa soon develops a crush on her new boy friend and gets up the nerve to kiss her—a brief unheated kiss. Laure-Michaël is somewhat puzzled but quiet.

The masquerade would have to end anyway when school starts, but before then Jeanne gets in trouble, and Laure, as Jeanne’s older brother, has to defend her, physically. Michaël is disclosed as Laure. Thus the pretense itself brings about its revelation.

The last shot is of Laure in girl’s dress and Lisa facing each other. They do not speak. We feel that they have sensed complexity. Life ahead will certainly be interesting but not simple.

Every film has another story running invisibly alongside it, the story of its making. This is never more true than in the case of a film about and with children. The director’s influence is especially marked here: nothing could be left, as it sometimes is with adults, to the actors. The writer-director here is Céline Sciamma, whose second feature this is, and she made me wish that I had been able to overhear this picture’s corollary story, Sciamma’s conversations with her young actors.

It is a continuing mystery how children, with little sophistication about films, want to be in them and often do very well. Zoé Héran, as Laure, is attractive to begin with, which helps, but how did Sciamma get her to think the role? Or Jeanne Disson as Lisa? If Sciamma’s dealings with these youngsters were recorded, they would make a fascinating addition to the DVD. Musical performance is the only other art in which children do work that stands with that of adults—an at least equal mystery. Zoé Héran is not anywhere near the overpowering equivalent of, say, a young Menuhin; yet how did a child, ten years old herself at the time, understand and convey some of living’s secrets? With Sciamma’s help, I suppose. Still, it’s an almost awesome mystery.

A GERMAN DOCUMENTARY called In Heaven, Underground is about a staggering anomaly. The subject is the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in eastern Berlin, founded in 1880. It is large, with more than 115,000 graves; some of them are ornate in what we might call the extreme. The anomaly: it was never touched by the Nazis.

Britta Wauer, the film’s director, heightens the incredibility of this fact by taking us on a tour of Weissensee. It has its long rows of gravestones, section upon section of them, and it also has those florid structures. These are the mausoleums of wealthy pre-Hitler Berlin Jews, a milieu we know through the writings of Walter Benjamin, Peter Gay, and others. Indeed, the present rabbi of the cemetery, an ingratiating man, says that if he had been around at the time, he would have tried to dissuade those families from splendiferous grandeur. (Archways and the like.)

Yet the cemetery is more than an array of massive memorials and gravestones. It is also parklike, leafy, with groves of trees. (Experts climb those trees for goshawk fledglings.) It has long paths and pretty vistas. It is active in more than the expected way. An art class visits to study the ornaments on gravestones. A detachment of Israeli army officers, accompanied by German officers, comes to pay tribute at a memorial for German-Jewish soldiers killed in World War I. There is even a group of soccer fans who annually visit a famous coach’s grave.

Interviews with the cemetery director and with adults who grew up in buildings on the outskirts convey something we might not have imagined, or bothered to imagine—affection for a cemetery. Indeed, in the center of the place is a large field that is used for athletics. Weissensee, its dead and all, is home neighborhood for some.

Wauer treats all these matters as if she were discovering what she found interesting. As if to certify her interest, curious descendants and American tourists are recurrent presences. But she knows—she must know—that, architecture and park and all, what holds us basically is the astounding fact that this place is still there.

Why? Why did the Nazis spare this place? If we have seen the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, which was despoiled, we can wonder all the more about Weissensee. In her interviews Wauer presents two possible explanations, both feeble. One man says that the Nazis feared that in the Jewish cemetery was a golem that would destroy them. If so, why the Prague desolation and very much besides? Another man says that after Stalingrad the Germans realized that the war was lost and restrained further vandalism. But they didn’t restrain it elsewhere. Besides, there had been a Nazi decade before Stalingrad. A friend of mine who has a great-grandmother buried in Weissensee heard that the Nazis kept it intact as a kind of parallel to Theresienstadt, the least barbarous of the concentration camps, in case of inspection by the Red Cross. But the film makes no mention of the Red Cross, who anyway might not have inspected here constantly any more than they did at Theresienstadt.

Historians presumably have answers as to why, in twelve years of horror, there was this one oasis. If Wauer felt that historical exegesis would be too much for her film, at least she pressed the question.  

Stanley Kauffman is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 29, 2011, issue of the magazine.