One of the great films about childhood and life during wartime, Claude Berri’s piquant, piercing debut, The Two of Us (1967), also stands — despite its highly personal and historic milieu — as a study of a perennial generational conflict. “He listens to the radio too much, but he’s a good man,” a grown-up warns eight-year-old Claude (Alain Cohen) of the cheery old crank the boy’s being sent off to live with. It’s 1944, the Nazis have occupied France, and Claude and his family must hide their Jewishness. In Claude’s case, he must do so even from the parents-of-friends farmers putting him up. “You’ll live like a little Catholic for a while,” Claude is instructed. Claude is skeptical: “Why doesn’t he like Jews if he’s nice?”
He’s whisked out of Paris and away from the worst of the air raids. Soon, he’s surrounded by fields and wildflowers, by rambunctious country kids, and most thrillingly by that stout crank, Grampa (Michel Simon), who turns out to be the warmest, smilingest homme Claude could hope for. We first see Grampa, in beret and suspenders, sitting at the dinner table, spooning dinner into the mouth of his dog, who has its own chair and bib. He chortles after almost every sentence he speaks, and those sentences are mostly celebrations of the dog, a fifteen-year-old that the old man loves so much that he feeds it a sausage out of his own mouth.
Claude had been warned by the old man’s daughter, “If my father says something shocking, don’t pay attention.” But then the old man turns out to be a delight, a new best friend, game for raucous play, eager to show off his scars, purportedly from the first great war, and to enlist Claude in small conspiracies against Mémé (Luce Fabiole), Grampa’s wife. When Grampa finally does say shocking nonsense — about Jews having a stink about them the way that goats do — Claude is fascinated rather than frightened. Unlike, say, Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa (1991), a drama of a Jewish boy passing as German inside the Reich itself, The Two of Us never wrings the situation for thriller-movie suspense. Twice, Claude worms away when Grampa or Mémé might see his circumcised penis, but these incidents rouse no suspicion. What’s odd about a city boy acting shy and squirrelly?
Berri’s film is an act of memory rather than an exercise in genre storytelling. The director based the story on his own childhood, and speaks occasional lines of narration himself. He holds close to young Claude’s perceptions, attentive to pastoral pleasures, the war something on the radio or on the posters in the village that warn that the Nazis will execute fifty citizens for every German soldier killed by the Resistance. The power flickers, and the family has to hunker down in the basement, sometimes, but for Claude and Grampa, this is above all else a season of love and friendship, shot in exquisite but clear-eyed black and white by Jean Penzer. (This new 4K restoration sparkles.) One scene of pained camaraderie finds Claude checking his own face for the characteristics that Grampa insists define Jews: curly hair, a hooked nose, protruding ears. Claude notes that his own ears stick out, but Grampa reassures him that they’re actually quite nice. Claude then observes that Grampa’s own hair is a bit curly, and the old anti-Semite rewards him with that stirring chortle.
Like a kid thumbing a scab, Claude can’t resist prodding at his friend’s prejudice. But he also can’t help but love the man, who gets revealed over the course of the film as an avowed Nazi sympathizer. Berri’s tender treatment of this dynamic is the film’s heart; anyone who ever managed to open up, as a child, to an older relative or friend whose noxious views still confounded them will recognize the sly, small bargains that Claude makes with himself. When he leans in and kisses Grampa on the cheek, much to the man’s delight, is Claude relishing the irony? Or does he just adore his kind-of/sort-of “Grampa”?
The Two of Us
Directed by Claude Berri
Cohen Media Group
Opens December 22, as part of the Quad Cinema’s “A Very Berri Christmas” retrospective