A Memoir of War: The Agony of Waiting
Renowned French-Jewish director Emmanuel Finkiel’s new film, A Memoir of War, is a haunting meditation on the pain of not knowing.
It’s 1944 in Nazi-occupied Paris. Marguerite Duras, a well-known novelist, is a member of the Resistance, as is her husband, Robert, who has been detained by the Nazis. His whereabouts are unknown.
After a chance encounter with a Nazi collaborator named Rabier (Benoit Magimel), she begins to meet with him in cafes and other public places in hopes of learning more about her husband’s fate. Other members of the Resistance caution her that Rabier is only seeking to infiltrate their group, but Marguerite forces herself to see him anyway. He is the sole lifeline to her husband. As the German front collapses under the advancing American army, Marguerite’s waiting becomes a furious attempt to keep her sanity as she faces the unimaginable.
Marguerite Duras was a seminal French author and thinker, responsible for scores of novels, plays, films, and essays. She may be best known in the U.S. for being nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the classic Alain Resnais film, Hiroshima Mon Amour.
A Memoir of War is based on Duras’ semiautobiographical account of her time in Paris during WWII and uses passages from the novel to underscore the despair she felt while waiting for news of her husband’s fate.
While the idea of watching an entire film about waiting may sound tedious, Finkiel’s work here is superb. He imbues each scene with unrelenting tension as we watch Paris through the seething eyes of Marguerite, played with an anxious ferocity by French actress, Melanie Thierry. She carries the film nimbly as she evinces her contempt for Nazi collaborators, relishes the German defeat, and becomes numb as the world rapidly moves on, even as the pain of the recent past is yet to be fully felt.
Finkiel, whose earlier film, Voyages, follows the travels of three elderly women whose lives have been touched by the Holocaust, here reveals in snippets Nazi atrocities against Jews through newspaper reports and pictures, rumors, and the eyewitness accounts of the rail-thin survivors returning from concentration camps. We are in the moment with Marguerite as she interprets these tidbits, and the scale of the atrocities is slowly unveiled.
As Parisians dance in the streets after the liberation, Marguerite laments, “No one speaks of Jews in Paris. Nothing is known of Nazis.” But slowly, the film begins to challenge this assertion. We see Jewish men at the train station, showing pictures to the returning French prisoners of war, asking if they’d seen a brother, a sister, a son.
Marguerite takes in an older Jewish woman named Mrs. Katz; she too is waiting. Her daughter, taken six months earlier, has a bad leg. In voiceover, we hear Marguerite question this woman’s faith in being reunited: “We heard they killed cripples as soon as they got to the camp...”
With each passing day and each new revelation, Marguerite’s hope dims. While most POWs have returned and the streets roil with victorious celebration, she contemplates accepting Robert’s death. As long as she waits, she can’t fully live – so she has to decide if acceptance may be an easier way forward than clinging in vain to hope.
Though French Jews participated in the Resistance, they kept a low profile about their Jewishness, owing to, as Renee Poznanski puts it in Tablet, “a widespread xenophobia mixed with a more or less latent anti-Semitism that ran through the French population. The idea that there was a “Jewish problem” was universally accepted in France, even within the Resistance itself.” Duras and her husband were not Jewish, but as depicted here, they suffered alongside them. French people, both Jews and those who were not Jewish, experienced the camps, the death marches and the forced starvation.
Finkiel makes no distinctions here, characterizing all who opposed the occupation as comrades in misfortune. Duras herself would have most likely approved of this depiction. A fierce critic of Charles De Gaulle, she once stated in an interview, “He never pronounced the word ‘Jew’ after the war…Many people think I am Jewish, and that always pleases me.”
A Memoir of War is a powerful film that sheds light on a less well-known facet of the war: the anxious men and women left behind when loved ones do not return. Finkiel’s film is a reminder that this sort of waiting is itself a tragedy.