… a man governed by memory and conscience, who has long waited to pay singular homage to his parents and to all the Jews who were caught in the Nazi abyss.
Claude Lelouch all but grew up with a camera in his hands, declaring, “Cinema is omnipresent in my life. It drives my motivation, my thoughts, and my past. It is like oxygen in the blood to me.” Lelouch was deeply affected by his experiences as a child during the Second World War, and draws heavily on those experiences in several of his films.
Lelouch’s father was Jewish, and while his mother converted when she married, she still attended church, leaving Lelouch somewhat confused as to which religion was his. But when the Nazis invaded France, his parents knew they were targets and had to leave Paris to protect themselves and their son. Lelouch learned to hide in cupboards whenever someone knocked at the door, and had a list of emergency phone numbers in case he needed them for any reason. He became a choir boy, thanks to his mother still practicing her faith, helping to both disguise and confuse him about his religion. He spent a lot of time hidden away at the cinema, where he grew to love films. Despite these precautions, Lelouch and his mother were captured and sent to a concentration camp just months before the end of the Second World War. Lelouch credits his knowledge of Catholicism with sparing his life at the hands of the Germans, recalling that “During the war a German officer asked me to drop my trousers. I told him I was circumcised because I peed sideways. I recited a Catholic prayer, which saved my life.”
Fortunately, both he and his mother survived the camp, and the family was reunited after the war. His father gave him a camera when it was evident that Lelouch was not going to be an outstanding student, with the understanding that he make a living out of it someday. Camera in hand, Lelouch set to work right away. He began making documentaries, culminating in Le Mal du Siecle (1954), which parodied the war using games found at fairs, which won the amateur division of the Cannes Film Festival when Lelouch was a teenager.
He moved on to full-length films, such as the award-winning movie Un homme et une femme, as well as many others, which used the Second World War as their primary subject. In the musical Les Uns et Les Autres, Lelouch follows the lives of four families in wartime. One couple sees the husband killed in the fighting, while another couple is sent to a concentration camp. Elsewhere, a pianist is complimented by none other than Hitler himself—dubious praise that will trouble him for the rest of his career. The plot then advances twenty or so years, where the children of the families try to piece together their personal histories. It was one of Lelouch’s more popular and successful films, but it is in his retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables that Lelouch uses his own childhood war experience to create a new story from an old classic.
The plot follows Henri Fortin as he emulates Hugo’s Jean Valjean in being strong, resourceful, and generous in helping the daughter of a Jewish couple (Salome) and the son of a tavern owner (Marius) as they all try to survive the Nazi occupation of France. Salome’s time hidden in a convent, being taught Christian prayers to protect her from the Nazis, echoes Lelouch’s time as a choir boy and his life-saving knowledge of Catholicism. Salome’s mother was sent to and survived the concentration camp in the film, as did Lelouch’s mother. In the end, Salome’s family is reunited, just as it was for Lelouch’s family. More than the elements of Lelouch’s childhood, however, is the overriding theme that the inhumanity man can inflict upon man in the days of Victor Hugo’s novel is just as real and ugly in the Second World War era. In the film, Henri Fortin sees his life unfolding much as Jean Valjean’s story did, and the audience realizes that the cruelties of life repeat.
Claude Lelouch survived the Nazi concentration camp at a very young age, and the memories of that experience have stayed with him throughout his life. Rather than forget them, Lelouch chose to use filmmaking as a way to explore his experiences and bring them to the screen for all to see.