Staying alive in Nazi-occupied Paris, 1941 by Richard Jones

A look at Farewell, Mr H

This French beauty is set during the Nazi occupation of Paris in the early 1940s. Master jeweller Mr Haffmann (Daniel Auteuil) had fled Poland with his Jewish family when he was a child and now he feels –quite accurately –the tide turning again.

So in mid-1941 he sends his wife and three children off to a safe zone, but what are his options with his booming little business? He has to ensure the jewellery shop will keep going so he makes an arrangement with his poorly skilled assistant, Francois Mercier (Gilles Lellouche). Haffmann sells the shop to Francois, using his own money in the transaction, on the understanding that when Mr Haffmann returns to Paris after the war is over he’ll take back the business.

Francois can’t believe his good fortune. He shows wife Blanche (Sara Gifraudeau) through the Haffmann upstairs apartment (above the shop) with its double bed, a fully fitted-out kitchen, a bathroom and a living room. The double bed seems to be the main attraction. The couple bounce up and down on the bed before inspecting the other rooms.

But things go awry when Haffmann can’t leave Paris.

He returns to the store and even though Francois visits the abattoir worker, who arranges the underhand exits from Paris at his place of employment, no transaction takes place. So Haffmann has to stay in the French capital and live in his very own basement. He keeps extremely quiet, reading a lot, and working on sparkling new jewellery pieces. Francois and Blanche feed Mr Haffmann taking his food and wine down the basement stairs to his table.

But despite the domestic upheaval the jewellery business thrives.

German officers, prompted by Commandant Junger (Nikolai Kinski), bring their French lovers into the shop to buy pricey necklaces and brooches. Of course most of the precious items and jewellery Haffmann works with are the confiscated property of many of his former Jewish clients.

Much to his horror he has to keep on designing and working.

Francois changes from a humble, not very skilled, jeweller to an on-edge chilling character feted by German officers at Paris bars and nightclubs. He has a wardrobe full of smart double-breasted suits and formal shirts. And then Francois even goes to Haffmann’s safe, keys in the combination, takes out the jeweller’s compact Monet painting and sells the prized impressionist artwork at a nearby pawnbroker’s office.

Blanche is troubled by her husband’s character change and she starts to take centre stage. After Mr Haffmann eventually manages to find an escape route, and is farewelled by Francois, Blanche decides to ‘fix’ her repugnant husband.

The film takes a couple of unexpected turns with Blanche firmly in centre stage and the climax, surprising though it is, really works.

It’s an excellent film from director Fred Cavaye and kept us entranced for the entire two-hour run.

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