Told you I’d eventually get around to commenting on a film. This one seems to be very slightly more in my comfort zone than the others I’ve watched recently: The Day The Earth Stood Still (popcorn fodder, though the special effects were kind of cool), Defiance (a film during which I felt uncomfortable eating popcorn at all) and Downfall (it’s about the last few days in Hitler’s bunker – enough said. Think messy and frequent suicides; feel your eyes open in horror).
And The Breakfast Club, which is a) zeitgeisty and b) before my time zeitgeisty. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on it too much for that reason, though I will say I enjoyed it. Besides, it’s a film that’s been parodied everywhere. Twice on Family Guy alone, to my knowledge. It’s too well-known for me to feel comfortable having an opinion on it beyond “I liked it”, and I doubt it’s going to enter into the realm of media that really strikes a chord with me. Still, let’s say… 4 ½ out of 5 stars.
So what is this film that I’ve watched and liked? It’s a French film, which I watched in German because my French isn’t all that great. (I’d need subtitles, and besides, watching it in German is good for me.) It’s called Monsieur Batignole, and the titular character is a small-time butcher who’s muddling along during the Occupation of France, doing rather well, considering, getting a lot of business out of the Germans. They even give him a van… which has been seized from a Jewish tradesman and painted over. He has connections to them through his ‘future son-in-law’, Pierre-Jean, a slimy, odious little man who looks like Hitler with glasses, reads Au pilori and writes for Je suis partout – he is, after all, an ardent anti-Semitic collaborationist.
One day, he kinda-sorta-indvertently gets the Jewish family – the Bernsteins – who live in the apartments above his arrested, as they attempt to ‘go on holiday’ i.e. escape to Switzerland. (Quick history lesson: the film takes place in the summer of 1942, and starts the very day before Parisian Jews started to be taken away to the Velodrome, from where they’d be dispatched to concentration camps.) He experiences a twinge of guilt, but his family quash that. They get to buy the Bernstein’s lovely flat – once all the nice furniture and sundries have been confiscated and catalogued – and hold a party for the SS… They’re moving up in the world, and Madame Batignole is very pleased indeed.
And during the party, Simon Bernstein – the younger son in the Jewish family – arrives at the door of the old family apartment, having escaped from the Velodrome. Luckily, the first person who meets him at the door is Monsieur Batignole, who’s stirred enough at first to give Simon a hiding place for one night – and then he’s got to go somewhere else, seriously. OK, he can have some food, a drink, and a bucket for ablutions, too… and the Cohen children, Simon’s cousins, can stay for a little bit… but then they really have to go, honest.
Monsieur Batignole grows rather fond of the children, though he’s not entirely comfortable with his new task – it’s extremely dangerous, and his family are beginning to get suspicious of all the subterfuges he resorts to to justify going down to the cold room every so often. The tension increases…
To go any further would spoil the film. So I’ll write in white. Hopefully I have the plot points right.
Batignole goes down to the cellar once too often; Pierre-Jean and Batignole’s daughter follow him down there, where they discover the three children. Pierre-Jean orders the children upstairs and threatens Batignole with a cleaver for daring to shelter Jewish children. Batignole ends up turning the cleaver on Jean-Pierre, killing him.
There’s only one way forward now – it’s the way to Switzerland. Batignole pawns a Renoir from the Bernstein’s collection (he steals one of their requisitioned possessions from the Nazis) to pay for the children’s passports, and bids his daughter farewell. He’s not sure if he’ll make it back.
One fine day, Batignole sets out; three children in tow, and a bag containing, oh, thousands of francs over his shoulder. The journey doesn’t go quite as smoothly as he’d probably like; once, when he leaves the train carriage, Simon identifies him as a doctor. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except it comes back to bite him in the rear when an SS officer at the eastern border of France dislocates his leg and a fellow-passenger flags him down…
After they leave the train and approach the border, they’re tired and hungry, and eventually find their way to a farmhouse. Batignole finds himself rather happy there – and quite taken with the lady of the house, whose husband is off in the army. (They have a brief dalliance.) The children get on well with her son, but the relationship between Batignole and Simon is becoming simultaneously more familial and more strained. (After all, Batignole did kind of get his whole family arrested…) Particularly when they forget their false names…
Simon decides he’s going to get to Switzerland, even if no-one else is. The farmer’s son tells him that his brother is in the Resistance and owns a gun, so of course he’s perfectly placed to spirit some Jewish children out of the country. The next day they meet in a café, where Simon name-drops some obviously Jewish names and talks about Yom Kippur, at which point the nice gentleman at the next table slams down his paper and arrests the poor boy, confiscating the shoulder-bag full of dosh. And what does the Resistance member do? He runs away.
Batignole completes his metamorphosis; he enters the police station and tries to talk the policemen round – to the point where he states that he is Jewish and also quite harmless. Simon, who’s been hustled into an office, distracts the policeman for long enough for Batignole to place a well-aimed blow to the groin of the bad cop; the good cop throws them the bag of money and Batignole and Simon escape to the local church, where the priest hides them in his vestment wardrobe and quite happily lies to the police.
Batignole and the children leave the next day. They bid farewell t the farmer’s wife and son before the priest leads them to the border. Batignole kisses the children on the forehead, ushers them into Switzerland and prepares to return to the village with the priest, before deciding, at the very last minute, he can’t leave the children, and the film ends with Batignole and the children heading off into the verdant hills of der Schweiz. Two captions over the scene of the man and the children walking across the field state that Simon and his cousins never found their parents… but Batignole stayed with them in Switzerland until the end of the war. Small-scale shopkeeper to small-scale – but extraordinary – hero.
I was iffy about the film at first. I bought it two years ago. Impulse buy at Mueller’s, or whatever the big orange Bavarian department store Boots-equivalent is called. I watched about halfway through the movie, and then I realised I had to leave to catch my train to Bayreuth because I desperately wanted to see what attracted Wagner to the place. (Answer: I have no idea – it was cold and wet and inexplicably had a fifteen-foot fibreglass dinosaur – I jest not – in the middle of an otherwise traditional Bavarian square. No tram service, either. I did buy the best Bratwurst I’d ever eaten from a melancholy-looking, bearded, obese man in a small plastic hut, though, so be assured it had redeeming features.)
After I came back from the trip, I didn’t watch it for ages and then fell into that discouraging mode where I realised that I didn’t quite remember enough of the movie to be able to pick up where I left off, and I remembered enough of the movie to not be willing to watch the first half again. Then my computer broke and I couldn’t watch DVDs at all. So it was only yesterday that I slid the DVD into my computer drive again and decided to give it another go.
I loved it! Because of the main character, for a start. He starts off as the Everyman of Paris – a guy who just wants the Germans to be ‘correct’ in their occupation of his country, they’ll be gone one day, you see. As I say, he’s also doing quite well out of the Germans, and he’s anti-Semitic to a point. The reason the Bernsteins get deported is because Batignole buttonholes Dr. Bernstein in his apartment, accusing him of stealing a ham. Why not blame the Jewish guy? Everyone else would – after all, there’s nothing stopping him from selling the meat on the black market if he’s not going to eat it. And that diversion is long enough for Pierre-Jean to call the Gestapo to have the family arrested and deported. It sounds unlikely that a man like this could, three-quarters of an hour later (in real time – in film time, it’s about a week long), risk his life for the same people he’s been so prejudiced against before. I guess it’s the first time he examined his life – and as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.
I loved the characterisation of all the French people in the story, overall. Too many times, the French have either been cast as 100% brave resistance heroes (then why did they have their country invaded in the first place?) or as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, as Groundskeeper Willie would have it. (No prizes for guessing why I disagree with that comment.) Pierre-Jean is clearly The Bad Guy, worse than the German Nazis because he’s a Frenchman trying to crawl up their arses. But the rest of them? There’s a Resistance member who doesn’t seem to be all that brave when it comes to the crunch, and there’s plenty of people who find out they do have what it takes when it comes to said crunch. And in the middle there’s people who are just trying to keep their heads down and hope the Nazis get out of Paris ASAP while taking as much advantage of the situation as they can. As did many people. Neither outright collaborators or big brave underground Resistance fighters… well, what would YOU do if that happened to your country? Think about it. What would you do if you either had to hide someone in your attic and potentially get in a lot of trouble (we’re talking death penalty here, quick or slow, not your choice) or send that person to their certain death and remain perfectly safe yourself? Would you be brave enough to risk everything?
The film ended, I feel, in exactly the right spot. I wanted more when the credits came up, but I realised that adding more might ruin it. It’s a little on the short side for a film – about 100 minutes, including the credits (during which it is revealed that all the skinned rabbits portrayed in the film were eaten by the cast), but it’s well-paced. I wasn’t bored for a single moment. In fact, I got so caught up in the story that I ended up painfully whispering “Simon, you idiot!” to the poor boy every time he slipped up, before realising that the story was not only long-past, but fictional. If I find myself offering advice to the characters, I count it as an involving film.
There’s certain similarities to Life is Beautiful (another foreign film which I had to watch in German – I don’t know a word of Italian beyond what is needed to play music). Two clear acts, both take place during the Second World War and involve the persecution of the Jewish people, and both have what seems like incongruous humour. I think that last aspect was better-handled in Life is Beautiful, which starts off with a funny (if hackneyed) opening comedy scene. You know what tone the film is setting. It took me an embarrassingly long time, however, to get that Monsieur Batignole was also meant to be a comedy of sorts. Up until a spoilered scene, in fact, revealed up there in that sea of white, which seemed bizarrely incongruous before a little lightbulb appeared above my head and I remembered some more subtle jokes (as well as Pierre-Jean’s entirely unsubtle characterisation, which was also incongruous because he’s so morally unambiguous). It could have done a better job of mixing genres.
But on the whole, I think it’s a valuable addition to my DVD collection, and boy am I glad to have made that impulse buy now. I can’t believe it only took, oh, two years to get around to watching it. I urge you to purchase it now, preferably in your native language so you aren’t pausing the DVD every so often and typing words into the LEO dictionary. That spoils the flow of a movie, I find. But all the same I thought it a lovely and interesting film. Long live the little heroes.