Reconciling with the wartime conduct of countrymen has a long tail in Europe, notably in France, which juggles a history of heroic resistance against German occupation with a parallel one of self-serving collaboration. This deceptively fierce little film accommodates both in the story of a master jeweller, Mr Haffmann, a Jew who fled Poland as a child and can feel the tide turning against him in Paris in 1941, which is already under Nazi occupation.
Haffmann (Daniel Auteuil) sends his family ahead to a safe zone while tying up loose ends in his flourishing jewellery shop. He comes to an agreement with the assistant he barely knows, Francois Mercier (Gilles Lellouche), to sell him the shop, which he pays for with his own money on the understanding he will return after the war to reclaim it and help Mercier start his own business.
He puts the family Monet in a satchel and heads off. What could go wrong?
This develops into an intriguing study in the dynamics of power and fear that flow between boss and assistant, husband and wife, prisoner and keeper.
The Germans flock to Mercier’s shop and admire his taste and craftsmanship, not knowing it is Haffmann’s work. They want more of the same, which Mercier, competent but untalented, cannot supply.
This is not an Anne Frank story where Jews in hiding can barely move for fear of making a sound. Haffmann does end up having to live in the basement, where he gets his meals with wine, but the men trade favours, each wanting something in return.
Mercier’s wife Blanche (Sara Giraudeau from Le Bureau) becomes more troubled as her collaborator husband reveals himself through actions rather than words. “How much will I be paid?” Haffmann asks Mercier, now his boss. “The same as you paid me,” says Mercier.
This is a morality tale with a punch, and a twist at the end you won’t see coming. It doesn’t pretend to be a rigorous depiction of the daily terrors of hiding a Jew from the Nazis; it was based on a play and its elemental features are retained in the choices each of them makes. Where are your ethics when life is on the line?
There is a thread of irony running through it, too. One man wants something, then it’s the other man’s turn, then the other. It is ostensibly about France and Germany but more so about morals and character, and how opportunity can become exploitation and gratitude turn into greed.
This is not a proud history to be remembered but a dark study of human behaviour and a very fine film.
Farewell, Mr Haffmann is one of the highlights of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, which runs until April 26, at Palace Nova Eastend and Prospect. It will also have a general release in Adelaide from April 28 (and in other cities from April 14).
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.