Un Secret

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When I interviewed Holocaust survivors, I felt that the personal stories of the people I talked to represented the horror of the Holocaust more eloquently than the statistics in history books. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely necessary to state, over and over again, that six million Jews were killed. Six million. Six million. Six million. Think about that. But this overwhelming number must be accompanied by access into individual, personal narratives that history books cannot provide. Because every one of those six million people were individuals. That’s the true horror. I’m also frightened of generalisations and big numbers, primarily because sweeping generalisations about the Jewish people was part of what led to their mass slaughter. It’s easy to dehumanise people when you start to consider them as an inchoate mass, as stamped numbers on flesh, like cattle.

I realise now that these interviews have formed the bench-mark in my mind for how to evaluate films that attempt to depict the Holocaust. I have to walk away from a film about the Holocaust with that same nauseating, empathetic and slightly awed feeling with which I walked away from those interviews. I didn’t feel like that after watching Schindler’s List, for example, but I did after watching the lesser known French film, Un Secret (2007).

Claude Miller’s adaptation of Philippe Grimbert’s novel, Un Secret, is a sensitive and immaculately thought-out film. It begins with a deeply personal struggle between a young boy and his father. Fran├žois has never really gotten along with his father. There has always been a tension between them, keeping them apart. At the age of fifteen, he begins to unravel a family secret that reveals the cause of this distance: he had a half-brother who died in Auschwitz.

Along with Fran├žois, we discover the secret past of his father, Maxime Nathan Grinberg/Grimbert. On his wedding day to his first wife, Hannah, Maxime meets her brother’s new wife, Tania. He is immediately attracted to Tania and their first meeting initiates a fateful plot of lust and betrayal that culminates in Hannah’s tragic decision. I love how this simple, mundane plot of family jealousy intersects with the tragedy of the Holocaust, because it reminds us how many individual stories are hidden behind that figure: six million.

The story isn’t told in a linear fashion: we alternate between different time periods, with the narrative of the Second World War ironically shown in vibrant colour and modern settings in austere black and white, except for the very end in which past and present collide through colour. I can’t help feeling like this is a silent commentary on Spielberg’s own decision to shoot Schindler’s List in black and white. This gives Schindler’s List the tone of a realistic documentary. And it isn’t. It is a representation of history, not history itself. Miller’s own use of black and white to depict the present, rather than the past, is a clever way of highlighting how we really only have access to the present moment, and that the past is best approached as a collection of imperfect and individual narratives that we inherit and interpret through the process of artistic representation.

I also found myself having an intensely visceral response to the character of Hannah, who is played with such delicate sensitivity by Ludivine Sagnier. I personalised everything about her in relation to my family and I. Hannah was supposed to be my name, so I’ve always had a soft spot for it. The name Hannah means “grace” in Hebrew and whenever I hear it, I think of some words I’ve read about Jewish names long ago: that it was always wise for Jews, historically, to have multiple names. You had a Hebrew name that you kept silently close to your heart and a Christian name to protect you, like a piece of clothing that you put on and took off when necessary. My grandfather once told me something similar. Hannah’s fatal flaw in the film is her inability to maintain this protection: she strips her heart bare.

I realise I’ve babbled too much and that this post is heavy in tone, but I don’t care. I hope you’ve stuck around to read the post to these last few sentences. I find it a bit sad that people no longer read posts that aren’t about “light” topics, or that are long. Blogging should have as much depth as any other form of expression. And I hope you get the chance to see this film as it’s truly one of the most loving films I’ve seen in quite a while.