Volume 74, Number 2 | June 1- 7, 2005

Courtesy of Rialto Pictures

Alain Cohen (left) and Michel Simon in Claude Berri’s ‘The Two of Us’ (1967).

Friendship forged on and off screen

Paris actor speaks of 1967 film to play at Film Forum

By Jerry Tallmer

The little boy is a Jew, but the old man, who detests Jews, doesn’t know that. The old man, a retired, cantankerous Petain-worshipping working-class Frenchman in the Grenoble countryside in his 70s or 80s, also detests the English, the Freemasons, and the Bolsheviks – “enemies of France” — but most of all he hates the Jews.

How do you know when it’s 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 own 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 Friday for two weeks at Film Forum.

The old man of this masterwork is the great Swiss-born French actor Michel Simon (1895-1975), vividly to be remembered for everything from “La Chienne” (1931) to “L’Atalante” (1934) to “Panique” (1947) to, if you saw them, some 140 other films. Playing 8-year-old Claude Langmann, the little Jewish kid sent for survival from German-occupied Paris to that farm near Grenoble, was 9-year-old Alain Cohen, a hell-raiser spotted in 1966 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 telephone last week. A cell phone, actually, at his end, when he was still a few 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 has it straight, Cohen says, about that first encounter at L’Ecole Montivideo.

“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 Cohen and Claudine Naar Cohen, who are still alive and active. “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 Elysees – her father who with her mother had died at Auschwitz – so for her this movie was a revenge, like a sign of destiny.”

Michel Simon had the contractual right to say yes or no on whoever would be playing the boy opposite him, and 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?”

(In the film, the kid giggles with delight when the old man makes believe he’s a Bolshevik devouring little children, gulping them down raw. An added irony is that in the film the old man is also a dedicated vegetarian who calls his own wife “a cannibal” for relishing rabbit stew. Calls the kid that too. The old man’s ancient dog, a ragged mutt named Kinou, is bibbed and fed mouth-to-mouth by his master at the dining table,)

Not one line in the movie was improvised, Cohen says. It was all in the script. Well, one was – the last line. “The Jews,” says the old man to the lad who, with the end of the war, is going back to Paris – “the Jews, don’t worry about them, they’re no worse than the others.”

Michel Simon himself 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 that must not have been easy for a 9-year-old, even a radioactive 9-year-old. 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 skull-cropped by a teacher – not as a Jew, or a collaborator, or anything, but for sending a Valentine to a pretty girl in his class named Dinou — 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,” said Alain Cohen, “because Berri offered me my first bicycle for that. And to go on the street I was given a peruke [wig].”

I had said to 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 – had put me in mind of the moment when Marlon Brando is chasing his little grandson here and there through a tomato garden (is it?) just before Don Vito Corleone collapses with heart attack. Might not “The Two of Us” 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, sensitive, impassioned appreciation of this other autobiographical motion picture – “the real film about the real France during the real Occupation” – that, said Truffaut, had “moved me from beginning to end.”

Well, Cohen pointed out, “the year after Berri’s movie came out, Truffaut made a movie with Jeanne Moreau called ‘The Bride Wore Black’ (‘La mariee etait en noir’). In several minutes of flashback in that film, he shows Jeanne Moreau as a young girl. The young girl is played by Elisabeth Rey, the actress who was Dinou in Berri’s movie. And those scenes are shot in the house and garden in which one had seen Michel Simon as the old man.”

Berri, whose later great successes would include “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Springs,” 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, Alain Cohen appeared as Claude. Then for the next close to 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, “And They Lived Happily Ever After.”

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

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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