The premise of Farewell, Mr Haffmann, by French director Fred Cavayé, is one that has been reiterated countless times through heartbreaking Holocaust memories – the desperate hiding from the Nazis during the occupation, and the desperation people resorted to just for that fleeting opportunity to escape and survive.
Deception, betrayal and tragedy are often common themes of such stories, and it is generally easy to sympathise and mourn for the victims and scorn the despicable villains.
However, a sentiment that often gets overlooked, and a question that Francois Mercier (masterfully played by Gilles Lellouche) confronts us to consider is: what would I have done in his shoes?
Mercier, who very quickly gains the audience’s sympathy, is an apprentice to master Polish-Jewish jeweller Joseph Haffmann (Daniel Auteuil). He faces struggles and injustice across many facets of his life, and is plagued with feelings of inferiority and doubt.
Mercier’s luck, however, seems to take an upturn when Haffmann makes a deal to hand over his successful shop and upstairs apartment to his assistant in exchange for refuge in the basement while he awaits the chance to reunite with his family in neutral Switzerland.
Therein lies the irony in the title of the film, for Mercier never said goodbye to Haffmann, but instead, lives in psychological slavery and turmoil of his mentor while devouring the success and respect in his new life.
Mercier’s transformation of character, from humble and pitiful to a tyrant driven by greed and guilt, leads him to acts of threats, bribes and betrayal that can only be described as horrific and evil.
However, the reality that this film so uncomfortably forces us to consider is that of the moral dilemma – the grey area that exists between the hero and the coward; the instinct to fight for survival over loyalty, decency and sanity; the ethical complexities of being human and choosing right from wrong.
As Cavayé aptly puts in an interview: “Lots of movies are about the heroes … but they rarely depict collaborators, or people who turned in their neighbours out of pure opportunism. How can a normal person become a monster, not by ideology, but by greed or something like that?”
Adapted from a play by Jean-Philippe Daguerre, Farewell, Mr Haffmann is a psychological thriller and human drama that captivates the audience with the intertwined relationship between Haffmann, Mercier and Mercier’s wife Blanche, and continues to bring to light the layered tragedies caused by the Holocaust – in particular, the descent of a humble man to darkness in the face of opportunity and greed.
Farewell, Mr Haffmann, distributed by Palace Films, opened in VIC, NSW, WA and ACT this week. For more information.
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