Claude Berri: Adieu to master of French film

(originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News, January 24, 2009)

Claude Berri, French-Jewish film director, producer, screenwriter and actor, has passed away, aged 74 years.  For more than forty years, he was one of the great figures of French cinema, and his passing – in the middle of directing his twentieth film, a domestic comedy called Treasure – has left an enormous gap in contemporary French, Jewish, cultural and cinematic life.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called him “the most legendary figure of French cinema”.

“Today’s events are tomorrow’s history.  Through our memories history is written.”  Thus declares Lucie Aubrac, the eponymously named heroine of Claude Berri’s 1997 film about the French Resistance during World War II.  And this of course was what the French-Jewish director Claude Berri wanted his audience to understand, and to remember.  Born “Claude Berel Langmann” in Paris on July 1, 1934 to two immigrant Jewish furriers, Berri changed his name in order to sound “more French”.  As a child, he survived the Nazi occupation of France hidden under an assumed name with a non-Jewish family in the French countryside.  His first feature The Two of Us (Le Vieil Homme et L’Enfant) in 1966 presented a touching autobiographical account of this experience.  Francois Truffaut described this film as “the real film about the real France during the real Occupation”.  The key to this extraordinary film was the friendship between the eight year old hidden Jewish refugee and the crotchety but loving antisemite with whom he lives.

As a film-maker involved with more than 100 films, Berri’s great range and energy was breathtaking.  He starred – virtually playing himself, Woody Allen style (a character called Claude who both adored his parents and women) – in four autobiographical comedies:   Mazel Tov, ou Le Mariage (English title Marry Me! Marry Me!) in 1969, Le Cinema de Papa (1970), Le Sex Shop (1972) and Le Male du Siecle (Male of the Century) (1975).  He produced Roman Polanski’s film Tess, Milos Forman’s Valmon, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear and Philippe de Broca’s L’Africain.  Along with The Two of Us and Lucie Aubrac, he also directed the French wartime film about collaborationists, Uranus.  He made the well-received “film noir” Tchao Pantin (1983) and returned to a sex comedy in 1999 with La Debandade, in which he also starred as a character named “Claude Langmann”, his birth name.

Add together Jewish film-makers Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack (whose untimely death in June of last year we also mourn), Paul Mazursky and Sidney Lumet, and you still do not total the impressive influence and range of Berri.  He was a colleague (and friend) of New Wave directors Truffaut and Godard, but unlike them he was unafraid of the epic picture.  Berri is most likely to be remembered for his great rural early twentieth century French classics Jean de Florette and Manon de Source (both 1986), set in the Provencal countryside and based on a tragic Marcel Pagnol novel, as well as Germinal (1993), about French coal miners in the nineteenth century.  All three films starred Gerard Depardieu.

Berri was nominated for many awards (including an Oscar nomination in 1981 for producing Tess), but won only one Academy Award, for “best live short film” – ironically for his first directorial effort, Le Poulet (The Chicken) in 1965.  Rather than slowing in his last years, Berri reached new popularity with his adaptation of the Anna Gavalda novel Hunting and Gathering in 2007, and producing France’s highest grossing box office hit Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis) in 2008, which poked fun at the prejudices held against French regional accents.  Ironically, the main character in this film (played by Kad Merad) is named “Philippe Abrams”, although no one ever mentions his obviously Jewish-sounding surname.

Berri’s life had its own tragedies:  his wife Anne-Marie Rassam suffered from chronic depression and committed suicide in 1995, and one of his sons, actor Julien Rassam, died in 2002, following a serious accident two years beforehand.  Berri is survived by another son, Thomas Langmann, who works in the film business as a producer and actor; and a third son, from a different partner.  Berri’s sister Arlette Langmann worked with him on three films, and two of his late wife’s brothers are also film producers.  In his later years, Berri became an avid art and photography collector.   Those who wish to catch a bit of Berri’s artistic taste can visit a new art gallery called “Espace Claude Berri,” located in Paris’ Jewish Marais district, which opened in April 2008.  His unfinished film Treasure is to be completed without him and is due for release later this year.

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