Un Secret

Monday, 8 November 2010

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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. François 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 François, 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.


etre-soi said...

Hila, you are not going to believe this but this movie has been filmed in my town, the swimming-pool is the swimming-pool I go to every year and I almost ended up doing extra because they were looking for people but at the end I couldn't because of my job at the museum. You know, I know the story but I haven't seen it yet, I know I know I have no excuses....well maybe, I'm not very fond of Cécile de France I think that's what stops me :)

Enia Is (Almost) Here said...

i totally agree with you. numbers cover and make things easier and more digestible, instead of the messy and complex and mad and nuanced that they really are. and i also like the black and white present vs in-color past idea- must be the social constructivist in me! this movie sounds fascinating... and your story too, as sad as the idea of a name as a cloak (and the need for it) makes me....

Deleilan said...

The heaviness of your topics and the length of your posts don't matter, Hila; I always read them from the first word to the very last. You have such a compelling voice that it happens quite unconsciously!

My ignorance about these events and the personal stories of those who were so brutally pulled into them is inexcusable. Perhaps the distance — chronological, geographical, cultural — seems an obstacle I haven't yet been willing to overcome? "Un Secret" is fortunately available at my library, and I've put it on hold. I look forward to watching, hearing, feeling, learning... (with special attention to the character of Hannah).

Ashley said...

Sounds wonderful (though the word somehow doesn't fit here).

I appreciate the longer, thoughtful posts--especially from you. I also appreciate the film suggestions, in general.

Rui said...

thank you for the recommendation, will see the film as soon as i have the opportunity to.
i love to set aside a brief time during my day to read your blog, it gives me a peace of mind and a certain quirky happiness to know that someone else is contemplating about all the strange things in the world as i am. you write beautifully (of course)!

odessa said...

This film sounds very interesting, thanks for the recommendation. And I LOVE Ludivine Sagnier, I think she's a very talented actress, so I'll definitely watch this soon.

As for the length of your post, I really enjoy reading your thoughts and I'm grateful that you share them with us. xxo.

Vanessa said...

I think it's great that you wrote about a heavy topic. Life has two sides and we wouldn't appreciate the good things if we didn't take account of the darkness. Blogging should be the same. Big numbers are important but somehow, I find it difficult for me to visualise that whereas individual stories touch your heart. They're on different topics but I find Anna Funder's Stasiland and Marcel Ophüls' Le Chagrin et la Pitié effective for that reason. I missed this film but am keen to say it after your write-up.

HomeCollection. said...

i've never seen this movie.
but i agree with your introduction,
we have to think about every body, about those six million people.
every person who suffered and lived this horror.
it must be difficult hard and interesting to listen to survivors.

L.A. PLAYLIST said...

you seriously have the coolest pictures! :)

thanks for visiting my blog <3

keep me posted! :)

- Jessel

A red lipstick said...

Thank you for writing this post Hila.
Two of my grandparents were in concentration camps during the war and I've grown up with my grandmother telling me stories about her life before the war, in the ghetto and the camps during the war and the time after. In a way I want to distance myself from the tragedy and sadness of the holocaust (for example when hearing my grandmother say that the last time she saw her mother was when everyone was told to stand in lines and then her mother's line walked off to somewhere else) but at the same time it's a part of my family history and my background, and it therefore also determines who I am.

Indie.Tea said...

I have to agree with the premise of your post - that we hear constantly of how many people died in Holocaust, so much so that we are desensitized to the fact. And I completely agree that this desensitization allows us (humanity in general) to dehumanize.
To hear a personal narrative really does help the reality of the Holocaust home. I haven't really heard of the film, only in passing (grad school apps are zapping me of my life!) but it sounds like something I should check out in the future.

Mary-Laure said...

I didn't see it but your post makes me curious, especially since I am so obsessed with WW2... Your intro reminded me of what Stalin said: "1 person dies, it's a tragedy. 3 million people die, it's a statistic" - terrifying.

Ella said...

your posts are always so eloquently written, so it's not possible for you to "babble on," for i enjoy every minute of them :)

hila said...

Thank you all, I found watching this film incredibly moving, and I have found your comments to be similarly so.

Sofia: I'm not too fond of her either, but I would have been on set every day if they were filming near my house - lucky you!

Enia: yes, I thought the b&w versus colour motif was brilliantly done.

Deleilan: oh thank you, that means a lot to me.

Ashley: thanks, it's nice to know longer posts are appreciated :)

Rui: well, that gives me peace of mind too :)

Odessa: I agree, I think she's a fantastic actress.

Vanessa: I know what you mean. I sometimes wonder if people do want to hear about the heavy topics, although the reactions to this post have encouraged me.

Homecollection: it was difficult, but in my view, necessary. I don't know how they have such strength.

l.a. playlist: thanks!

A red lipstick: I knew you'd appreciate this post. And I can empathise, I've wanted to distance myself from the topic too, but it's such a large part of our history, that's not really possible.

indie.tea: I definitely recommend that you check it out.

Mary-laure: yes, terrifying indeed.

Ella: thanks!

See Hear Say said...

it always makes me feel so sad everytime i read stories about the holocaust horror and your writing is really thoughtful and i appreciate it so thank you for sharing with us! this is definitely one movie to watch, i'll keep it on my next movies to watch list.

hila said...

thanks so much for saying so, I appreciate you reading this difficult post.

sabrina said...

i am reading this post until it last sentence..
am practicing my english by reading your post! :D

greetings from indonesia! ^^

hila said...

aww, that's sweet :)

Maura said...

I just watched this film last night, what a treasure. It was such a sad, beautiful, complex way of addressing the horror of the Holocaust without getting lost in the overwhelming magnitude. I wasn't completely thrilled with the choice of black and white, but after reading your take on it I'm more intrigued. Thanks as always for sharing your insights!

hila said...

my pleasure! I'm glad you liked the film :)

Aoife said...

There is no problem at all with writing on whatever you see fit. Regardless of the primarily obvious "nature" of a post, moreover of any piece of writing, the reader is entitled to subjectiveness. I personally believe that this subjectiveness makes reading so pleasurable.

I'm looking forward to seeing this film, and I also recommend Zalary, another film based around the Holocaust. Divided We Fall is also incredibly brilliant.

Please keep writing in whatever manner you see fit.

Thank you for this beautiful post.

hila said...

thank you!

Deleilan said...

I've just finished watching this movie and re-reading this post.

I'm struck by your mention of Jews bearing a Christian name as protection ("a piece of clothing that you put on and took off when necessary") - the exact reverse of the star on Tania's coat, which she casually tucked away into her pocket before going into work. It's impossible to imagine Hannah making this apparently simple gesture.

The final scene, with the little girls's voice calling out the names, chilled me to the bones...

Thank you so much for talking about this movie.

hila said...

oh wow, you are so right about that comparison between tania and hannah, I didn't think of that.

I'm so glad you watched it, I knew you'd be able to appreciate it.

natalie said...

I will absolutely have to see this film.

But I really want to comment on that last part of this post. I completely agree with you. I always feel like I have to condense my posts or apologize if they are too long.

I write a lot and I hope that readers will be more open to taking the time to read a well-thought out post than a post with just a few pictures or a quote. Blogging has given us, as a generation, the chance make more people appreciate the beauty of the written word again, something I think has been recently lost (in the last couple of decades or so) along with patience.

Thank you for your beautiful, thoughtful posts. Quality will always trump quantity (or lack there of). :)

hila said...

I know what you mean, I find it all a bit sad. Quality always wins out in my opinion.