On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, France 2 broadcast, over one week, an eight-part documentary series—totaling seven-and-a-half hours—on the Nazi extermination of the Jews, “‘Jusqu’au dernier': La Déstruction des Juifs d’Europe,” by the French filmmakers William Karel and Blanche Finger (English title: Annihilation: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews; English trailer is here). I missed it on TV but managed to see all eight episodes streamed on France 2’s website (before they disappeared, as French television regulations unfortunately only allow the viewing of programs on the web for a week after their broadcast). I’ve seen numerous documentaries on the Holocaust over the decades—and read plenty on the subject—but this one is particularly remarkable. The series, which begins with the 1933 Nazi seizure of power and closes with the memory of the Holocaust over the decades following WWII, is almost entirely composed of Nazi film footage and other images, and with the narration interspersed with interviews with some fifty historians and authors from eight countries. The documentary is a tour de force. The impetus for its making was a French public opinion survey in 2010 revealing that a majority of the under-35 age cohort had never heard of the Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv and, ergo, was ignorant of the details as to what happened to the Jews during WWII. For Karel and Finger, one of the goals of the documentary is to explain the Holocaust to the younger generation, now and in the future. It will soon be available in DVD and eventually shown in the US, UK, and elsewhere (it already has been in Germany and Belgium). It is absolutely worth seeing in its entirety by everyone, including those who think they know the subject well.
On teaching the Holocaust to the younger generation, there is a film on the subject presently showing in cinemas in France, ‘Les Héritiers’ (English title: Once in a Lifetime), and that merits mention. The pic is based on a true story, of a class of 10th graders at the Lycée Léon Blum in the Paris banlieue of Créteil during the 2008-09 school year and their participation in the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation: an annual competition, inaugurated in 1961 by the Ministry of Education, of participating 9th and 10th grade history classes, which submit class projects around a theme—set by the Ministry for the year—concerning some aspect of the resistance or deportation during the war. The theme for the 2008-09 year was “Children and teenagers in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.” The Lycée Léon Blum class, composed mainly of turbulent 15 and 16-year-olds of immigrant families from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, ended up winning the competition.
I was particularly interested in seeing the film, on account of the theme but also because I live right next to Créteil, in the banlieue to its north, and thus know the place well. The Lycée Léon Blum, where the film was also shot, is 15 minutes by car or bus from chez moi, just off the major arterial thoroughfare and behind the Créteil mosque (which one sees in the film). Créteil, which has a population of 90,000, is not attractive—with its forests of soulless high-rises, most of them public housing—but it’s not the ghetto, let alone a “no-go zone” (a cockamamie fantasy that Fox News and certain right-wing commentators outre-Atlantique went on about after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders last month, provoking incredulity, hilarity, and ridicule in France). Créteil has a major teaching hospital, a campus of the University of Paris system, and is the prefecture of the Val-de-Marne (94), with a multitude of civil servants employed in administrative and judicial organs of the French state there. And it’s connected to Paris by the metro (line 8). The city, which has a large post-colonial immigrant population but also a sizable middle class, votes for the left—François Hollande took 62% of the Créteil vote in 2012, ten points above his national score—and is run on the municipal level by the Socialists (not the Communists, which is normally a sure giveaway that a poor, immigrant-origin population predominates in the commune).
A notable feature of Créteil’s multi-ethnic demography is its Jewish community, which numbers some 20,000—mainly of Tunisian and Moroccan origin—and with some 15 synagogues, making it one of the largest in the Île-de-France. The different ethno-confessional populations have lived in bonne entente since the immigration waves began in the 1950s, though there have been incidents in recent years, the worst being the antisemitic crime this past December 1st, committed by three lumpen immigrant-origin youths (two African, one Maghrebi) and that happened in the area just behind the Lycée Léon Blum. ‘Les Héritiers’ does have a couple of scenes depicting the general bonne entente between Maghreb/African-origin kids and Jews, though one sees no Jewish students in the lycée itself, likely because they are few in number—most cristolien Jewish teens attending the nearby private Collège-Lycée Ozar Hatorah or one of the well-reputed public high schools—i.e. with middle/well-to-do class compositions—in neighboring, more upscale Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (one of the schools being my daughter’s alma mater).
The film hues closely to what happened in the Lycée Léon Blum class in 2008-09, as the screenplay was co-authored by one of the students, Ahmed Dramé—along with director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar—and who plays the student named Malik in the film (and for which he has been nominated for “Most Promising Actor” in the upcoming César Awards). And, as it happens, Dramé, now age 21, wrote a book, Nous sommes tous des exceptions—published last October by Fayard—about his tough upbringing—uneducated immigrant parents from Mali, growing up in a cité, raised by his mother (father absent), older brother in prison—and the lycée competition (watch him here interviewed on television last November). Dramé presents Léon Blum as the best public lycée général—i.e. for university-bound students—in Créteil and that he was determined to attend, but his 10th grade class being the most rowdy and undisciplined in the school. When their prof principale (homeroom teacher) and history-geography teacher, Anne Anglès, had to absent herself for a couple of weeks early in the year, the unruly students made life miserable for her substitute. So when Mme Anglès returned, she proposed, in order to re-establish authority and get control of the class, that the students participate in the national competition on the Nazi camps.
The students initially scoffed at the idea—as did the school principal and other teachers—saying that it was not something for them or that they were capable of. And there was reticence over the subject, with retorts to the teacher on the order of “Madame, we’ve had enough hearing about the Shoah” and “Madame, why does everyone always talk about the Jews?” As Dramé writes in his book—and that one sees in the film—the students, whose understanding of the Holocaust was rudimentary at best, viewed it as a massacre like so many others in modern times (Rwanda, Bosnia, etc). But Mme Anglès—played by the perfectly cast Ariane Ascaride (who’s been in almost all the films of gauchiste director Robert Guédiguian)—wouldn’t give up trying to persuade the students to participate in the competition. She patiently and respectfully responded to their questions, explained the specificity of the Holocaust—a genocide driven by a racialized, essentialized hatred of Jews that aimed to kill every last one the Nazis could get their hands on—, took them on a field trip to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris—where I’ve taken American students a dozen or so times over the past decade—, all of which finally convinced the class—after three months of hesitation—to go ahead with the project (the film shows only one student refusing to participate, an ethnic French boy recently converted to Islam). But what clinched the students’ commitment to the project was a visit to the class by Holocaust survivor Léon Zyguel, who was arrested in Mont-de-Marsan in June 1942—at age 15—with his mother and siblings (his father had already been hauled off the previous year), interned at Mérignac and then Drancy, deported to Auschwitz, and who survived the January 1945 death march to Buchenwald. The students were stunned by Zyguel’s account—as the film shows and Dramé writes—and with many in tears (Zyguel is in the film and the emotion of the amateur cast was apparently for real; much of the film was indeed improvised by the cast, so it appears). So with that, the students forged ahead with the project. And they won. The ceremony at the École Militaire—facing the Eiffel Tower—and with the Minister of Education declaring the winner is a moment of high emotion in the film. Only those with hearts of stone will not be moved by it.
It’s a wonderful story—and literally so close to home for me—though I won’t say that the film, as cinema, is a chef d’œuvre. Much of it has the quality of a téléfilm, it’s replete with bons sentiments, is clichéd at times, and, helped along by the piano soundtrack, clearly seeks to jerk one’s tears (it certainly did with mine, I will readily admit). But who cares? While watching it I was reminded of the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, which I loved and found so inspiring at the time. And the experience of the Concours had such an impact on the students themselves, with all passing the baccalaureate three years later—and twenty with a mention (i.e. making the honor roll)—as one learns in this joint France 2 interview with Anglès and Ascaride the day of the film’s opening on December 3rd. It clearly affected the lives of a number of students, and, above all, Ahmed Dramé, who writes in the epilogue of his book of how the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation changed both his world-view and perception of himself.
Reviews of ‘Les Héritiers’ by Paris critics have been very good on the whole—not one is negative—and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. And it’s done well at the box office, with 530,000 tickets sold so far—which is not bad at all for a film of this kind—and is still showing at 109 theaters across the country nine weeks after its release. The Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher murders have certainly increased the interest in the film. And à propos, Anne Anglès was interviewed in Le Figaro on January 23rd on how the events were perceived by the students at the Lycée Léon Blum (there were only two incidents in the school of students not respecting the minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher victims). Trailer w/English subtitles is here.
In the William Karel-Blanche Finger documentary on the destruction of Europe’s Jews, more than one historian interviewee mentioned that there would soon be no survivors of the Holocaust left to offer personal testimony to the younger generations. As fate would have it, Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem issued a communiqué on January 30th—nine days ago—informing the public that Léon Zyguel had passed away.
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