“We’re not in danger … we’re French.” These are famous last words, perhaps, from one Hannah Haffmann (Anne Coesens), wife of a successful jeweler in Paris, toward the beginning of Farewell, Mr. Haffmann. It’s 1941 Paris, a year after the Third Reich seized France, and Hannah’s husband Joseph (Daniel Auteuil) can literally see the writing on the wall: a “Census” posted outside his business requiring all Jewish citizens to identify as such.
Joseph’s family fled pogroms in Poland. He knows fascism when he sees it. Hannah, still operating under the illusion of “it can’t happen here,” nonetheless heeds her husband’s alarming instructions to flee France, with their three children, under a smuggler’s direction.
He’ll join them, Joseph says, as soon he strikes a plan to keep open his beloved business. It’s simple, really: He will “sell” the shop to his lone employee, François Mercier (Gilles Lellouche), a sad sack of a man with a limping gait, a shoebox of a home, a wife (Sara Giraudeau) with whom he’s been unable to father children, and an unfulfilled aspiration to design his own jewelry. Most importantly, François is a Gentile.
François accepts his employer’s proposition, moving into the Haffmanns’ spacious apartment above the shop, painting a new nameplate for the façade, and preparing to enjoy a life of upward mobility and domestic comfort. That is, until Joseph’s escape plan is thwarted: With checkpoints increasing throughout the city, and roundups soon to commence, spiriting Jews to safer climes has become untenable. Joseph has no choice but to return to his business and live in hiding in its basement. François and his wife Blanche, to their chagrin, now harbor a wanted man. For the young couple, every day is a constant risk of being discovered sheltering a Jewish houseguest, but of course, it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?
Questions of morality and commerce, resistance and collaboration, are at the heart of this simmering, uncomfortable and elliptical psychodrama from writer-director Fred Cavayé, playing now at Movies of Lake Worth and Movies of Delray. The power dynamic between employee and employer having been turned on its head, François strikes a bargain with Joseph: He’ll mail out his captor’s letters to his family if Joseph will — wait for it — have sex with Blanche, thus potentially conceiving the child that the infertile Francois can never give her.
With three complex characters at its center, this is hardly the end of the movie’s intricate maneuverings. All carry secrets with them; all engage in clandestine collusions. Most fascinating is the story’s moral pivot, away from the march of fascism — plenty of films have depicted this with devastating sobriety, including The Radiant Girl, reviewed here earlier this year and toward the ugly transformation of an ordinary man into a Nazi accomplice.
It’s not the banality of evil so much as the banality of complicity. François, who soon discovers that his shop’s most loyal customers are SS officers buying for their girlfriends, begins to see unprecedented financial returns. He’s even invited to fancy dinners with the soldiers, and if the officers suddenly gift him dozens of previously impossible-to-find gems, he knows better than to inquire about their provenance.
Farewell, Mr. Haffmann, then, is not so much about the pernicious nature of fascism as it is the seductions of capitalism. François would never say he identifies with the Nazis, but then again, he offers to Blanche, some of the officers are charming if you get to know them. But when this much prosperity is flowing in his direction, he will go along to get along. This is the movie’s most chilling truism: It’s easier to compartmentalize genocide when you’re profiting from it.
Blanche, for her part, sees that her husband is, in fact, becoming a monster. She can see through the delusions he tells himself, that everything he’s doing is for her protection — classic dictator-speak, whether the object of such protection is a marriage or a state.
An expertly paced two hours, Farewell, Mr. Haffmann burns slowly but inexorably, ultimately achieving a Dostoyevskian clarity and richness in its survey of crime and punishment in Vichy France. This is the first film I’ve seen from director Cavayé, and hopefully not the last.
FAREWELL, MR. HAFFMANN. Director: Fred Cavayé; Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Gilles Lellouche, Sara Giraudeau, Anne Coesens; Distributor: Menemsha Films; In French with English subtitles
Now playing at Movies of Lake Worth and Movies of Delray; also streaming on Chai Flicks