As newlyweds working their way through college while living in the Elmwood in the late 1960s, my parents had little money to spare. The only forms of entertainment they could afford were the occasional game of Video Pong at Dream Fluff Donuts and a monthly visit to the Elmwood Theater. At the time it was an arthouse theater, and the eclectic programming opened up a whole new world of cinema to two young folks raised on Hollywood fare.
Ten years ago or more, my father recalled to me the pleasures of the Elmwood Theater in those days, and rattled off a list of great films that played there. But the most moving film he saw was one whose title he had long forgotten. All he could remember was that it was a simple and endearing story about the friendship between an old man and a young boy.
Last week, about halfway through Claude Berri’s debut film The Two of Us (1967), newly released on DVD by Criterion, I realized that this was the film I had heard about all those years before, and that it more than lives up to my father’s fond memory.
The story takes place during World War II, when a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Paris is sent by his parents to the countryside to live with a family friend’s parents—a Catholic and wholly anti-Semitic elderly couple. The boy is instructed by his parents to conceal his true identity and pass himself off as Catholic, adopting a new name, learning the Lord’s Prayer, and by all means concealing any sign of tell-tale surgical procedures.
The boy’s new “Grampa” is strident in his opinions about the war that is tearing his country apart, railing against the Communists, the Freemasons, the Brits and the Jews, his ire fueled by the ranting editorials of Philippe Henriot, “the French Goebbels,” to whose Radio Paris broadcasts the old man listens with rapt attention. Against all odds, the old man and the boy, Claude, become inseparable companions, the boy patiently listening to the man’s bigoted speeches and at times playfully debunking them.
The film begins with sadness and uncertainty as the parents put their boy on a train, unsure whether they’ll ever see him again, but quickly gives way to bucolic depictions of a pastoral summer spent tending rabbits and chasing chickens amid the joy and companionship of a blossoming friendship. Berri’s direction, aided by a wonderful score by Georges Delerue, paints a lyrical portrait of childhood, both in the form of Claude and in the second wind his presence gives to the old man, whose heart has grown weary amid warfare and old age.
Berri visited Paris schools in search of a boy to play the role and found Alain Cohen, who delivers one of the great child performances. For the old man he cast Michel Simon, a beloved French actor who had fallen on hard times, his career essentially washed up. The Two of Us was a comeback of sorts for him, giving him one of his most memorable roles late in life. Simon’s sensitive portrayal of Grampa delves far deeper than the usual depictions of racists and bigots, revealing the old man as a gentle soul, a kind, generous man whose only real fault is ignorance. When Alain Cohen’s mother showed him a picture of the man he would be acting with and asked the boy if he was nervous about the meeting, Cohen couldn’t understand her meaning. How could anyone be afraid of this big “chocolate cake of a man,” an adorable teddy bear who looked like Santa Claus?
Much of the film’s power is in its subtlety, for once the action shifts to the farm, the war and all its attendant horrors are barely mentioned. Aside from the old man’s radio, the global context for the tale is merely suggested. But the subtext is nevertheless clear in every scene, providing a quiet undercurrent of solemnity.
Claude Berri based the movie on his own experience. As a young boy he spent the last six months of the war in hiding on a farm in the countryside with an elderly couple, and The Two of Us is his attempt to capture that magical period of his life. And his choice of Cohen was fortuitous, as the boy, despite his youth, was well aware of the tragedies of the war, his grandparents having perished at Auschwitz.
French New Wave director Francois Truffaut hailed The Two of Us upon its release. For 20 years, he said, he had been waiting for “the REAL film” about World War II France—not a story not about those who collaborated with their Nazi occupiers, nor about the Resistance, but about the vast majority who simply waited out the war, those “who did nothing, either good or bad.”
Criterion’s new disc features a beautiful transfer and plenty of extra features, including a new interview with Alain Cohen, 1967 interviews with Claude Berri and Michel Simon, a 1975 television show featuring Berri and the woman who secured his family’s safety during the war, and essays by Truffaut and critic David Sterritt.
But the best addition to the release is his Le poulet (*The Chicken), Berri’s Oscar-winning 1962 short film, in which the roots of his style are evident. It’s a charming little story of a boy who seeks to save the life of his beloved pet rooster by sneaking out each night to place an egg in its nest in hopes of persuading his parents that it’s a hen. Berri’s affection for the conceits of childhood and his talent for bringing them to the screen are clearly on display here, and he would master the method in his debut feature.
THE TWO OF US (1967)
Written and directed by Claude Berri. Starring Michel Simon and Alain Cohen. Music by Georges Delerue.
$39.95. 87 minutes. In French with English subtitles.