Film Reviews

Farewell, Mr. Haffmann

Published April 8, 2022
It's not 'Adieu, M. Haffmann,', it's 'Au revoir!'

Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about the Nazi occupation of France, from 1940-44, was that it has inspired a lot of excellent movies. These years brought out the best and the worst of the French, from the heroism of the Resistance to the scandalous number of collaborators and informers that sought business opportunities with the enemy, or used poison pen letters to settle personal scores.

For one reason or another I’ve found myself watching a lot of Occupation movies in recent years. The list includes Henri-Georges Clouzot’s dark masterpiece, Le Corbeau (1943), made by a production company funded by the Germans, to Jean-Pierre Melville’s resistance drama, Army of Shadows (1969). At this year’s Cinema Reborn festival (Randwick Ritz, 27 April – 1 May), I’ll be introducing yet another one, Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976).

Losey’s film, about an art dealer who exploits Jews who need to raise money quickly, as they flee from the Nazis, has certain similarities with Fred Cavayé’s Farewell, Mr. Haffmann, based on a successful play by Jean-Philippe Daguerre. The film’s theatrical origins are revealed by its small cast of characters and a relatively limited field of action. Yet there’s nothing small about the themes the story explores, which delve deeply into questions of conscience and character.

That wonderful actor, Daniel Auteuil, plays Joseph Haffmann, a Jewish jeweller with a small shop in Paris. Although the French Jews feel comfortably assimilated into the community, Haffmann’s Polish childhood has made him wary of what might happen as the Nazis take charge. He manages to smuggle his wife and children out of the city, and devises a scheme that will allow him to retain ownership of his business when the war is over.

The plan is to hand the shop over to his assistant, François Mercier (Gilles Lellouche) complete with a phoney deed of sale. This is a risk, because François has only worked for Haffmann for a short time, replacing a previous assistant who died of cancer. Extreme circumstances mean that Haffmann has no choice but to trust the younger man, offering to help him set up his own business when life returns to normal.

Psychologically, François is a complex proposition. Obliged to wear a brace on one leg, he is ineligible for military service. He sees himself as a master craftsman, just waiting for an opportunity to make his mark. One problem that gnaws away at him is his inability to father a child with his wife, Blanche (Sara Giraudeau). His disability, his sterility, and sense of unrecognised genius, produce a heavy chip on the shoulder, an assault on his masculinity.

Haffmann’s offer arrives as a life-changing opportunity. Although Blanche initially rejects the idea of moving into the Haffmanns’ apartment above the shop, she is won round by her husband’s enthusiasm. But no sooner have the Merciers settled into their new life than Haffmann is back. His attempt to flee Paris and join his family has failed, and he is obliged to hide out and wait for an opportunity to escape.

Soon Haffmann is installed in the basement while the Merciers live upstairs and run the business. With the Occupation come new customers, notably a German officer, Commandant Jünger (Nikolai Kinski), who speaks excellent French and has an eye for fine jewellery. The name, if not the actual character, is a nod towards Ernst Jünger, the German novelist and Francophile, who served as a captain in Paris under the Occupation.

The fictional Jünger, who is much younger than his real-life counterpart, is impressed by Haffmann’s work. This puts François in a bind, whereby he has to get Haffmann, in the basement, to keep making new pieces to feed a market he despises. This can only be done by a mixture of promises and threats, as the former employee turns the screws on his old boss.

François’s weakness and insecurity pushes him ever more firmly into the hands of the Germans, who have become his patrons, treating him with a respect he’s never known. At the same time, he is crushed by the knowledge that it’s actually Haffmann’s artistry they admire. His anxieties are compounded by his desire for a child, feeling that Haffmann is also his master in this regard. This leads to a scheme that undermines his already battered relationship with Blanche, who watches with horror the transformation in her husband’s personality.

Farewell, Mr. Haffmann is an ironic title, inasamuch as François never succeeds in saying goodbye to a mentor who overshadows him in every way. He finds himself in an insufferable dilemma, depending on this man whom he envies and despises to maintain his newfound status with the Germans. At the same time, he knows how dangerous it is to get too close to the Nazis. A growing sense of shame is kept at bay by an increasingly aggressive attitude towards Blanche and Haffmann. As his situation becomes more desperate he hits the bottle and acts like a cornered animal.

Although this film is essentially a study of the way different personalities react under pressure, it’s also a story with many small twists. One can appreciate the excellence of the writing, which could so easily have settled on an entirely predictable scenario. The quality of the script is matched by the quality of the performances by Lellouche, Auteuil and Giraudeau.

Cavayé’s film invites viewers to ask themselves that uncomfortable question: “What would I have done?” It explores a grey zone in which pragmatic, strategic choices aimed at simple survival, become active collaboration. It asks: “When does the enemy become my friend, and my friend the enemy?”

There is a point at which self-justifications fail, but how a character reacts is a completely subjective affair. It’s too banal to reduce everything to a matter of heroism or cowardice. We realise that François’s bad choices have been a lifetime in the making, requiring the catalyst of war to bring out traits that might never have risen to the surface. It’s such moral dilemmas that keep driving French filmmakers back to the subject of the Occupation, as each generation rediscovers how easily evil takes root within the dull fabric of everyday life.



Farewell, Mr. Haffmann

Directed by Fred Cavayé

Written by Fred Cavayé & Sarah Kaminsky, after a play by Jean-Philippe Daguerre

Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Gilles Lellouche, Sara Giraudeau, Nikolai Kinski, Mathilde Bisson, Anne Coesens, Yoann Blanc

France, rated M, 116 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 April, 2022