Imp Softens a Hard Heart

Alain Cohen discusses bonding with Michel Simon in French film classic

The little boy is a Jew, but the old man doesn’t know that.

The old man, a retired, cantankerous, Petain-worshipping working-class Frenchman, in his 70s or 80s, in the Grenoble countryside also detests the English, the Masons and the Bolsheviks—“enemies of France,” all of them—but most of all he hates the Jews.

How do you know who is a Jew, the little boy asks him.

“They smell bad, they have crooked noses, curly hair, and they eat with their hats on.”

Wasn’t Christ a Jew?

“So they say… But why shout it from the rooftops?”

But Grandpa, the little boy ventures, you have a crooked nose and curly hair and you eat with your hat on.

“It isn’t a hat, it’s a beret,” the grandpa who is not really his grandpa grumbles—and the next thing we see is the old grouch uneasily examining his nose and hair in the bathroom mirror.

We see this in Claude Berri’s lovely and loving 1967 autobiographical movie “The Two of Us” (“Le vieil homme et l’enfant”) that thanks to Bruce Goldstein’s Rialto Pictures now comes back to us in a new 35mm print opening on May 27 for two weeks at Film Forum.

The old man of this masterwork is the great Swiss-born French actor Michel Simon (1895-1975), to be remembered vividly for everything from “La Chienne” (1931) to “L’Atalante” (1934) to “Panique” (1947) to some 140 other films. Playing eight-year-old Claude Langmann, the little Jewish kid sent for survival from German-occupied Paris to that farm near Grenoble, was nine-year-old Alain Cohen, a hell raiser spotted by Claude Berri (born Claude Langmann) at L’Ecole Montevideo, a Hebrew Sunday school in the 16th arrondissement close to the Eiffel Tower.

“At first glance I found him truly ugly,” writer/director Berri has written. “I visited other classes, but no face really caught my eye. I decided to take another look at the ugly boy. As I came to the classroom, I found him in the hall; he was so rowdy that that the teacher threw him out.

“He turned out to be so alert, so intelligent, that I didn’t find him ugly any more. Just the opposite. He had an inner light. His grandparents had been deported [to Auschwitz, where they were killed]. His father, an architect, had built the Rue Copernic synagogue. His mother would later direct the Memorial [to the Unknown Jewish Martyr] in Paris.”

That little boy, who would melt the heart of the old man in the movie, just as he would warm the final decade of the old actor who played the old man, is now 47-year-old Alain Cohen, still a resident of Paris, where he was tracked down by cell phone several blocks from his home.

What would Michel Simon have thought of cell phones?

“You know what?” Alain Cohen said with amusement, in English. “He would have liked it. Michel was between an anarchist and a revolutionary, but for many, many years he had three places in which he lived—a castle in the south of France, a fantastic, huge, old house close to Paris that had once belonged to some prime minister and a tiny fourth-floor apartment in a very bad neighborhood, la Porte Saint Denis, with one bedroom, one bathroom, one entrance and no elevator. Mostly he lived there.

“In this apartment, which he’d had for a half a century, there was a telephone, but he said it’s a shame—a sin, almost illegal—to oblige people to pay for communication. So for many, many years he refused to pay a telephone bill. But the postman [who in Paris collects for the telephone company] knew it was Michel Simon, so they didn’t cut the phone off.

“Then one day there was a new postman who didn’t know it was Michel Simon, and he cut the phone off. So when I wanted to talk to Michel, I had to cross the whole of Paris to do it.

“From the making of the movie in 1966 to the end of his life in 1975, when I was 17, I really stuck to him as much as I could. He accepted it, so I took advantage of it.”

It had been a friendship from the word go, a real-life extension, if not exemplification, of the old man’s saying in the film: “Good thing you’re around, child. Who else could I talk to?”

Berri had it straight, Cohen said.

“Yes, I was radioactive… superactive. When he said I would be in a movie, I laughed at him, did not believe him. ‘I don’t give a shit,’ I said. Berri turned to the director of the school and said, ‘That’s him.’

“He asked to meet my parents”—Ruben and Claudine Naar Cohen, both still alive—“Berri showed them the script. They were shocked. But then my mother thought about her father, Albert Naar, a very early movie distributor with offices in the 1920s and ’30s on the Champs Elysées”—her parents died at Auschwitz—“so for her this movie was a revenge, like a sign of destiny.”

Simon had the contractual right to veto or approve whomever would be playing the boy opposite him, so a screen test had been set up for that purpose.

“On the evening before the day of the test the newspapers ran pictures of Michel Simon, and had headlines wondering if I’d be afraid of meeting this horrible ugly old man. Afraid? Not at all. To me he was like le Pere Noel [Santa Claus]. Like I’d just met a teddy bear. Afraid of what?”

Not one line in the movie was improvised, Cohen said. It was all in the script, except for one—the last line. The Jews, says the old man to the kid who’s going back to Paris at the end of the war—“the Jews, don’t worry about them, they’re no worse than the others.”

Simon thought it up.

“It’s the end of the war. His dog is dead. The boy is leaving. Michel asked Berri if he could say that, and Berri left it in. And 80 percent of the movie was done on only one take.”

There are two sequences in the film that must not have been easy for a nine-year-old, even a radioactive one, to do. One is when Claude, naked, in a washtub, is desperately trying to conceal his little circumcised penis. The other is when he has his hair shaved by a teacher—not as a Jew, or a collaborator, or anything, but for sending a Valentine in class to a pretty girl named Dinou, the young actress Elisabeth Rey.

“The thing in the tub was not so difficult, but afterward, when I was looking at it—and for many years afterward—I was freaking out.”

What about the shaved head? Any trauma?

“Not really,” Cohen said, “because Berri offered me my first bicycle for that. And to go on the street I was given a peruke,” or hair piece.

I told Cohen that in some sort of strange reverse déjà vu, several moments between the old man and the boy in a garden and in a woods—when I saw the film this time around—put me in mind of the moment when Marlon Brando is chasing his little grandson here and there through a tomato garden just before Don Vito Corleone collapses from a heart attack in “The Godfather.” Might not that well have been lingering somewhere in Francis Ford Coppola’s subconscious?

“Not déjà vu,” said Cohen, “but inspiration.”

Eight years after Francois Truffaut had sent his own boyhood into immortality with “The 400 Blows,” he wrote a long, fervid, sensitive appreciation of this other autobiographical motion picture—“the real film about the real France during the real Occupation”—that had “moved me from beginning to end.”

Now Cohen said: “The year after Berri’s movie came out, Truffaut made a movie with Jeanne Moreau called ‘The Bride Wore Black’ [‘La mariée etait en noir’]. In several minutes of flashback in that film, he shows Jeanne Moreau as a young girl. Elisabeth Rey, the actress who was Dinou in Berri’s movie, plays the young girl. And those scenes are shot in the house and garden in which we saw Michel Simon as the old man.”

Berri, whose later great successes would include “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring,” followed “The Two of Us” with two more films about his own youth, in both of which—“Le cinema de papa” (1967) and “La premiere fois” (1976)— Cohen appeared as Claude. Then for nearly 30 years, Cohen declined to be in movies, only to be lured back in 2004 to join “four comedians I admire very much” in a picture called, in English, “Happily Ever After.”

Cohen’s lady for the past 25 years is psychologist Murielle Cherbit, and yes, she’s Jewish. Their children are Eliott, 17, and Andrea, 11. He earns his living as a sales manager for a firm that supplies fruits and vegetables to the best restaurants in Paris.

Alain Cohen was born in 1958, 13 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II. Was France anti-Semitic in his boyhood?

“Of course. Not as violent as now,” he said over the telephone, “because people then were still ashamed [of what had happened in France]. But in school, more than once, a couple of guys knocked me down. ‘Dirty Jew.’ The director of the school called my parents in, and disciplined those guys. It happened a few times. But no, it—anti-Semitism—was not as present as now.”

Two other things about “The Two of Us.” It is graced by the music of Georges Delerue, and it has good new English subtitles by Lenny Borger.

Julien Duvivier’s chilling “Panique!” with Vivien Romance, Max Dalban, and Michel Simon, should be arriving here, restored, in 2006. Wait for it.

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