Saturday, April 28, 2007

TV Review - Hidden Children

BBC2, 27.4.07

Francophilia can be selective. You see the Cubist patterns formed by terracotta roofscapes of a Vivarais hill-town; I see the smuts and rain of the banlieues of Lille and Roubaix where the graffiti will never wash off. I hear Ravel; you hear Jonny Hallyday. It’s the same for the French.

They often choose not to know their own past, a tendency more widespread there than in today’s Germany. This was unevenly but sometimes movingly brought to life here, on the deportation of French Jews under first the puppet Vichy government and then the total occupation from 1942 onwards.

I was always shocked to hear that many French enjoyed the appalling Allo Allo; but it has, surely for these people, something to do with managing the unacceptable past by a snowjob of l’humeur anglais. The very fact it was made in England spared the French having to confront the ambiguities of the war themselves. The choices they had to make, and what they meant. For them and others. Conscience, or death.

This writer’s choices are difficult, but not as elemental. For a start, Hidden Children felt like a quart-pint-pot show, cramming a beret into a pocket too small for it. It never quite decided whether or not it was about the sometimes heartbreakingly pathetic Jewish infants packed off on the trains from Drancy to the showers at Auschwitz, or those French citizens who sheltered them, the turners of blind eyes, the awkward squad, the just-say-non brigade, their bravery and sacrifice. Upright schoolmarms and governesses would guard kids from the willingly-nazified gendarmerie who doubtless in their dotage laugh at René and Yvette; almost an entire village in the south-west became a haven for Jewish refugee kids, but the hows and whys of these facts we never found out, ditto those Jewish refugees rumbled by their guardians who’d been duped into thinking they were taking in good Catholics. How and why were they parcelled out to new fosterers, and not into the cattle-trucks?

Historical context was also entirely missing; the Vichy Republic’s creation was ignored. Nothing was mentioned of the virulent strains of French anti-semitism from the early 19th-century onwards which in intellectual circles sometimes dwarfed even the Jew-hating of Germany. Was it not Gobineau, a French noble, who codified an inequality of races and was the inspiration behind any number of maniacs including the Hitlerite hero Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s furiously anti-semitic books? The fact that L’affaire Dreyfus, France’s defining moment of anti-semitism, was not even mentioned, would make any intelligent French person laugh their socks off. There is no Maurras, no Brasillach, no Céline, none of les collaborateurs, the Catholic church might as well not exist.

Other choice? The film was well-made, respecting its dues to The Sorrow and the Pity and Shoah (but when is Holocaust TV going to pay off these debts and move into creative credit?). There was lots and lots of testimony, naturally, and valuably. The interjection of historic content (letters written to parents prior to deportation) was handled by a sensitive person who wished to respect the dead rather than to emotionally manipulate the living. There was plenty of room for silence, ambient noise was hushed, even in Paris; the only music was that of Bach’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a rare example of coordinated soundtracking.

I have argued in these pages before that filmic coverage of the Nazis and the Holocaust has developed and now imposes an audio-visual syntax; railway tracks, barbed wire, Shostakovich slow movements, torchlight processions, weeping ghetto urchins. It is a tyranny about a tyranny. Ophuls’ Sorrow and Lanzmann’s Shoah probably stand least accused, and the directors appear to understand this. Certainly, the humanisation of the four hidden survivors testifying here is sharp and sympathetic. Peter Feigl, a Viennese émigré who leapt out of the frying pan into the French fire in the late 1930s, was extraordinarily un-Jewish-looking. Suzanne Rappoport now lives in England and returns to the house where she was hidden; her eyelashes, inky-black as a Parisian balcony railing, her once-jet hair now a piled Duraglit pad, is quiet and resigned, her pluff cheeks caked in foundation as though to obliterate memories of who she was made to be back then.

The problem here, however, is that of emotional and intellectual weight. Those directors had enormous canvases to paint upon; one left the cinema moved by the sheer vastness of the atrocity, if nothing else. Hidden Children, within the absurdly circumscribed timespan of an hour, tries valiantly, but never quite pulls it off – despite the situations in which the hunted and their protectors found themselves in, despite the survivors returning to their refuges, often with tears, there is a strange absence of tension, of drama. Our memories of this programme will be with those kids who got taken away and whose letters survive, not those whose bodies and minds survive. I am not sure if that was the priority, or should have been.

It’s wrong to forget as long as we can still remember – but selectivity, no matter how much at the behest of the editorial clock, commits sin by omission. Let the full story be told, or, to traduce Santayana, those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.


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