French Director Probes a Holocaust Mystery in

Veteran French director Claude Miller, known for such acclaimed films as L’Effrontée, The Little Thief and the gripping 1981 cat-and-mouse police drama Garde a Vue, may have his biggest success stateside with A Secret, the story of the impact of the Holocaust across generations of a Jewish French family.

Without question, the Strand release will appeal to a certain demanding art-house demographic. But it’s a good bet that younger audiences will venture into this difficult marketplace to learn of Miller and author Philippe Grimbert’s ( Grimberg) “secrets.”

The strengths of the film are undeniable and even understandable, especially in light of episodes in Miller’s own life that signaled he would be the right director for this material. Like Grimbert and his family as depicted in A Secret, Miller, who was born in 1942 in Paris, escaped with his family deep into the French countryside where his father worked as a peasant. “No one knew we were Jewish there,” says Miller, who was an only child at the time because the Holocaust had already taken his sibling, as well as his grandparents.

But triumph followed the tragedies of Miller’s youth. After studying at Paris’ famous IHDEC (now FEMIS) film school, Miller held a number of below-the-line film jobs, working with such legendary directors as Marcel Carné, Jacques Demy, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson and François Truffaut.

Miller learned from all these crew experiences but says, “It was Truffaut who taught me the most about direction, above all the rapport and sympathy that is so important for a director to have with both actors and crew. It was so valuable for me to see that happen and I am the same way on my films. Also, as a filmmaker, it was Truffaut’s style that most influenced me, as well as his humanity and his sensitivity to human feelings. As a filmgoer, I am a great admirer of the other great directors I worked with, but as a filmmaker I took most from Truffaut.”

With such fine performances in A Secret, Miller displays his command of on-screen talent. But there’s also on view a command of material which has much to do with the parallels in his and Grimbert’s lives.

Grimbert wrote the largely autobiographical book (Memoir: A Novel in English-language hardcover and Un Secret as a paperback) from which the script was adapted. Like the book, A Secret unfolds as the recollections of François (he’s called Philippe in the book), moving back and forth to tell the story of a middle-class Parisian Jewish family beginning in the 1930s, when French Socialist leader Leon Blum (also a Jew) and optimism reigned through the Occupation, then on to the post-war period and ending in the mid-’80s, with the hero still haunted by the family secret.

Everything comes crashing down as the Nazis, using the Vichy government, take control in France and begin, with the help of French authorities, to deport the Jews. François, one of the film’s two pivotal characters, is born just after the war. He grows into a boy with no athletic ability whatsoever—a huge disappointment to his elusive father Maxime (Patrick Bruel), a physically gifted hunk with a roving eye who is the film’s other linchpin.

Slowly, young François learns of the family secret that helps explain his father’s aloofness, but even the adult François (Mathieu Amalric), many decades later, must cope with his ever-complicated parent, now on death’s doorstep.

Episodes alternate from the ’30s through the ’80s, conveying the family’s wartime tragedies, terrible mysteries, failed relationships and childhood traumas. Miller effectively delivers a cinematic collage enriched by a varying color code and occasional archival material covering the rise of Nazism and the camps.

Contrary to the usual cinematic device of black-and-white photography to convey the past and color for contemporary events, Miller manages a total reverse. Asks Miller rhetorically, “The past has always struck me as somehow romantic, so why is it depicted in black-and-white, which is a bit of a cliché for me?” He explains, “Because this film mixes so many different time periods, I always felt there would be the temptation of what I call ‘color coding.’ I knew we had a challenge, but strangely I postponed the moment to actually get around to dealing with it! I was also fearful of making scenes too picturesque! So I shot entirely in color, as the idea of treating the contemporary part in black-and-white hadn't even occurred to me. It was at the very beginning of editing that the idea came to me and I asked for such passages [the film’s 1985 present] to be in black-and-white.”

If A Secret was largely Grimbert’s autobiography, the film also benefited from parallels in Miller’s life. Says Miller, “Many in our family were victims of Shoah [the Holocaust]. And my father, much like Maxime, was very much into sports. For Maxime, it is a way of destroying anti-Semitic stereotypes that has Jews as weak or unathletic.”

And while Maxime doesn’t ignore the signs of impending doom as the Nazis close in, he views the “oy oy oy” attitude of many as dangerous. “Maxime,” Miller explains, “fights these prejudices, this vision of the Jew as the anti-Semite characterizes him. That’s what drives him.”

In addition to his affinity for the material and his early career experiences with some of the greats of French cinema, Miller has brought to A Secret a cautious and intelligent approach to craft which has also paid off. Foremost is the script that Miller and co-writer Natalie Carter adapted from Grimbert’s book.

Miller’s choice of a writing partner was hardly random, nor could it be. The novel, a literary memory trip, contains no dialogue and needed to be recreated from scratch for the film. To find the right collaborator for so important a challenge, Miller gave the book to a handful of writers and asked for two or three pages of screenplay from the book as samples from each. “I talked at length with the writers but finally chose Natalie because she was not put off by the different levels of time,” he explains.

The film’s other supreme asset is its cast of some of France’s major stars. Miller first chose the two female leads. Competition was intense as Cécile de France (Avenue Montaigne) won out over Eva Green (a recent Bond girl and acclaimed French actress) for the role of Maxime’s glamorous second wife, Tania. And casting against type, Miller chose the usually sexy-as-hell and provocative Ludovine Sagnier (currently on view in Claude Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two), who plays Maxime’s rather saturnine, unglamorous first wife, Hannah. Says Miller, “I knew her [Sagnier] well from my film La Petite Lili and knew she would be able to play this character. And it’s always interesting to cast against type!”

As for Bruel as Maxime, Miller acknowledges that he resembles Yves Montand in the film and adds with amusement, “Both actors also loved playing poker!”

With this wonderful drama, U.S. distributor Strand, known for being among the first to bring gay-themed films to theatres, doesn’t stray so far from its roots. One of the story’s most intriguing characters is Louise, a close, unmarried family friend of the protagonists who slowly divulges the eponymous “secret” to François. Played by Julie Depardieu (daughter of Gérard), Louise is the only key character invented by the screenwriters.

Explains Miller, “Most of the book is largely autobiographical, and in it the young hero learns of the family secret through various family members. But we created the character of Louise to enlighten François when she deemed the time was right. She’s a character who knows everything but understands the importance of silence. She’s also probably gay, with maybe even a subtle attraction to Tania. She has a way of speaking that suggests she’s gay and that’s how French audiences saw her.”

Louise, in fact, embodies what the French call “L’oseille,” which literally means a sorrel, a kind of European lettuce. “The word is slang,” notes Miller, “and it refers to a kind of character in a play, a young woman who is from a modest background but who has lots of guts and empathy.”

Also carrying the action are the two children in the story. That they are so sensitively written and realistically portrayed suggests the filmmaker’s fascination with the early years in one’s life. Says Miller, “Infancy interests me primarily because it gives us the foundation for our personality. As the saying goes, everyone carries his youth in his pocket his whole life.”

A Secret also provides a small role for Eric Godon as the famous French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld. Miller did ask the real Klarsfeld to participate but he declined, which is all for the better, the director feels, since at around 80 years old, Klarsfeld looks too old to play his character in the 1980s.

So how did this project come to be? If in Hollywood nobody knows anything, in France it’s more who you know. Miller found Grimbert’s book, thanks to his producing colleague Yves Marmion, with whom he also worked on Alias Betty, an earlier film. Marmion is an in-house producer at French film giant UGC, where the book was acquired. He gave the book to Miller and voila!

Literally and figuratively, Miller does not see things in black-and-white, including foremost how people behave. So, without disclosing too much, one character in the film does something foolish that sets in motion the terrible secret. The tragic lapse begs for some explanation, and Miller responds by referring to a classic Greek character (Medea), a fact of Holocaust history (knowledge of the death camps) and an aspect of human nature (pride) to clarify. Audiences will understand such references after seeing the film, and Miller’s hope is that “they will like the film as much as the French audiences have.”