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This week, the Simon Wiesenthal Center partnered with The Weinstein Company to host two screenings of The Artist at its Museum of Tolerance outposts in Los Angeles and New York. (Both were to be followed by Q&As with the Oscar-nominated film’s producer, Thomas Langmann, who was ultimately unable to participate due to the death of a close family friend.)
What does a movie about the movies have to do with Judaism, Nazi-hunting, or tolerance, you ask?
Nothing — at least directly. But, it turns out, Langmann and the film’s Oscar-nominated writer/director/editor Michel Hazanavicius are both children of Jewish parents who grew up in hiding during the Nazi occupation of France, which led them to share an “emotional connection,” Langmann has said. Their shared bond was instrumental in his decision to take a tremendous gamble by financing a black-and-white silent in the 21st century.
Langmann’s father, Claude Berri, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 74, was born Claude Langmann to a Polish-Jewish father and Romanian-Jewish mother. As the Nazis neared Paris, his parents, hoping to spare their 8-year-old son from the concentration camps, sent him to live with gentile friends in the French countryside, where he weathered the rest of the war quite happily under the last name Berri.
Berri would later go on to become a filmmaker around the time of the French New Wave, won an Oscar for his live-action short Le Poulet (1965), and directed many of the France’s most critically embraced and commercially successful films, including his feature directorial debut, The Two of Us (1967). That film tells the story of an 8-year-old Jewish boy named Claude Langmann, sent by his parents to live in the French countryside under a new last name — only, in the film version, he arrives at the home of an elderly Catholic couple who turn out to be anti-Semites, but welcome him in nevetheless, assuming he’s Catholic and had been sent away from Paris simply to avoid the chaos of the war.
The Two of Us was also shown at both of this week’s Museum of Tolerance events.
Both sets of Hazanavicius’ grandparents survived the Nazi occupation of France, like many Jews, by relocating to the French countryside and disavowing their Judaism in order to survive. (One grandfather was even a French resistance fighter.) Hazanavicius has said that his grandparents and parents “didn’t talk” about the war and that his parents were not religiously observant after it ended, but, he has also emphasized, “we certainly think of ourselves as Jewish, if only because of our history.”
At this year’s DGA Awards ceremony, Hazanavicius — who won the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Feature Film over the likes of Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), and David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) — said the following during his acceptance speech: “I think about cinema as a religion. We create stories which give a balance to the world and which tell people that they are not alone. We separate light from shadow, and we create worlds filled with characters upon which we have authority of life or death. And people go to temples, raise their heads, and listen to stories which help them to live together. With this idea, Hollywood is like Jerusalem. That’s where everything happened. And like Jerusalem, Hollywood does not only belong to the country where it is, it belongs to all the adepts of this religion all over the world. And in my family, we’re very religious with cinema.”
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