As summer wears on, and movie houses offer ghastly fare like Underdog and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, film lovers may choose to stay home and watch a classic film on DVD. One such classic, now happily available from the Criterion Collection (which has reissued Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’s 1955 meditation about the Holocaust), is a newly restored version of French writer/director Claude Berri’s The Two of Us. The 1967 film fictionalizes Berri’s own real-life experiences, those of a Jewish boy in wartime Paris who is sent to the countryside to live with an old Catholic couple until France is liberated from Nazi rule. Born Claude Langmann, Berri narrates the film’s beginning, as he announces: “I was eight years old and already a Jew.”
Young Claude (portrayed by Alain Cohen) pretends to be Catholic in order not to alarm the rural couple, and amuses himself by teasing his anti-Semitic old host (Michel Simon). This playfulness infuses the film with a childish joy, despite the tragic context. In a bonus interview featured in the DVD release, a fiftyish Alain Cohen today admits that Berri’s film “does not show the horror” of the Holocaust. Instead, The Two of Us (its original French title, Le Vieil homme et l’enfant—The Old Man and the Boy—has an abstract, Hemingwayesque sound) is a “parable about prejudice.” The old man who hates Jews without ever having met one is like someone, says Cohen, “who says he hates tomatoes without ever having tasted one.”
Berri densely interweaves visual metaphor, showing the shaved heads of Frenchwomen punished after the Liberation for bearing the children of German soldiers, and the shaved heads of country children stricken with lice. Young Claude’s head is also shaved by a teacher, in punishment for addressing a love letter to a schoolgirl.
Alain Cohen gives a gentle, intuitive performance (Claude Berri recalls in an interview that Cohen’s own grandparents had been murdered in Auschwitz, so the boy fully understood the film’s historical setting). Michel Simon is astonishingly (almost animalistically) vital, rivaling other actors who are forces of nature, like Raimu or Zero Mostel. As he demonstrates in other Criterion releases like Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Marcel Carné’s Quai des brumes, Simon can shift instantly from tragedy to comedy. He tends tearfully to an invalid dog and roars out with vulgar abandon marching songs from World War I.
In another bonus feature from the DVD, the actual woman who sheltered Berri at her parents’ farm explains how “shocked and hurt” she was at the way The Two of Us portrayed her parents: “They were not uncouth people or alcoholics!” François Truffaut alleged that The Two of Us reveals how most French people endured the Occupation, frozen like “characters in a Beckett play,” being neither collaborators nor resisters. More to the point, the film shows how a number of Jews survived the Nazi Occupation in France, shielded by French people who happened to hate Germans even more than they hated Jews.