Directed by Lola Doillon
Boston premiere, screens May 11, 6:30 pm and May 21, 2:30 pm, at the Museum of Fine Arts. Presented by the National Center for Jewish Film’s 20th Annual Film Festival, May 4–21, 2017.
Many memoirs have been written by children who survived the Holocaust, in flight on their own with terrifying murderers on their heels. Fanny’s Journey, based on one of those memoirs, by octogenarian Fanny Ben-Ami, illuminates the unifying phenomenon that exists in all these stories, and that is a child’s innate survivor abilities. True, not all humans have this instinct to the same degree, many collapse in surrender, but resilience and wily survivor skills saved many children fleeing a monolithic enemy with pointed guns. It mind-blows safe and comfortable audiences that even three and four year olds understand the life-and-death importance of utter silence—the silence of hunted animals in the bushes as the predator goes sniffing by. It’s horrible to witness unprotected children dealing with war and the enemy—they’re vulnerable scavengers propelled onward by hunger and terror. The nine children’s flight toward Switzerland in Fanny’s Journey has relevance today with the Syrian and other civil wars ongoing.
The subject of adults hunting down innocent children in order to kill them takes a new tack in Doillon’s film. She intentionally eschews scenes of violence: “I wanted to make a movie on World War II that children of any age could watch with their family or teachers. I hope it opens a dialogue,” she says. Some critics will complain about this approach, because it overly softens some of the movie’s scenes, further sweetened by sentimental music. In particular, the recurring “play motif” might feel heavy-handed; the movie begins with boarding-school children in rural France playing ball on a grassy lawn, their laughter and fresh-air delight keenly felt. They’re called home by a teacher who hands out the mail, one of the letters for Fanny and her two younger sisters—Jewish children who have been placed at the tucked-away school for safekeeping in Nazi-occupied France. Fanny’s mother writes of the camp where their father has been interred—he’s alive but no one knows his fate. Later, when the children endure the terrors of their flight to Switzerland, periodic moments of the same playful abandon and laughter occur. On the point of exhaustion and dehydration, the children find a stream and drink deeply. Afterward they splash each other and then abandon themselves to water play. These periodic intrusions to the otherwise harrowing drama are actually purposeful on the director’s part: They remind us that only children have the ability to lose themselves in play and laughter, and this precious innocence is the adult world’s responsibility to safeguard. Additionally, the Holocaust should be taught in schools to cultivate humanity from an early age, and making this unimaginably cruel subject acceptable for young audiences through a film for all ages benefits global societies. The nine children in the story have heartwarming appeal that draws us immediately and intimately into their journey. Fanny, age thirteen, leads her brood through every travail, so that for younger audiences the escape is a kind of adventure with a heroine they can identify with.
The historical details surrounding the children’s supervised moves to safe havens, followed by their unaccompanied flight, are excellent. The story’s characters are well-drawn, in particular, Madame Forman, who works for an organization saving Jewish children. Her location is on the Italian border, so that when Mussolini falls, she scrambles to move the children to Switzerland, as the Germans will be pouring into her town at any moment. Her mentorship of Fanny helps the youngster lead the children onward when Madame Forman’s original plan goes awry. That’s when the kids’ “adventure” begins.
Throughout the escape, the kids are dealing with their loss of parents in a realistic way. When standoffish Viktor, who is Fanny’s age, weeps quietly one night that he wants his mother, Fanny holds his hand and weeps with him for their shared losses. She awakes the next morning to find that they’ve fallen asleep curled against one another—as if the parents of their younger charges. We see how the kids can flare-up and fight but a few minutes later be comrades again, their emotional world fluid the way it is with children in real life.
The film’s camera work by Pierre Cottereau also deserves praise; there’s a timing and emotional depth to it, besides the exceptional angle and shot work. Tension achieved by the camera helps advance the plot, along with a strong musical score, some of it “innocent” singing by children.