Claude Miller lets Israel in on his 'Secret'

'Un Secret,' an emotional Holocaust-era film, has struck a chord in France.

Claude Miller 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Claude Miller 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sitting upstairs at the French-language bookstore Vice Versa in Jerusalem, director Claude Miller should be tired, but he's not. The 66-year-old director, on his first visit to Israel to promote his film, Un Secret, has just come from a screening of the movie at Yad Vashem. That venue was chosen because the film, based on the bestselling autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert, is about how the Holocaust and the fallout from it affected his family for generations. Grimbert, who has accompanied Miller on this trip, along with one of the film's stars, singer/actor Patrick Bruel, is downstairs at Vice Versa, addressing a group of admiring Jerusalemites, some of whom have headed over from the screening. The small store is standing room only and the atmosphere is full of energy, because the audience is excited to hear how Miller, Grimbert and Bruel collaborated on a story many of them identify with. This event caps a long day for the trio, which began with a walk around the Old City in the morning, followed by a tour of Yad Vashem in the afternoon, and a lively question and answer session that could have gone on forever after the screening of Un Secret. Says Miller, "It's been a big emotional charge." Miller is happy to talk about the film that has brought him here, and, reflecting on the film's success in France, says, "The success surprises me, because it's such a difficult subject." Even though the film is star-studded - its cast includes Bruel, Cecile De France, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric and Julie Depardieu - he worried that the Holocaust-era theme might not resonate with French viewers, who, he says, "have a bad conscience about that era. Usually when there's a movie about it, they stay away. But with this movie, the reverse happened." Even though he was apprehensive about how the film would eventually be received, he felt drawn to make it. Miller feels passionate about his identity both as a secular Jew and as a Frenchman and this film was a good way to express the complexity of being a French Jew. "My luck is that my parents were not taken in the Holocaust" but managed to avoid the Nazis. "Most of my family did not return [from concentration camps]," he says. "But my parents didn't have secrets like the ones in the movie." In spite of that, he says, "The fear was always there, the nightmare." MILLER FEELS the film has struck a chord with audiences, even those much too young to remember the events of that era, because, "It doesn't make the characters into angels. They're human beings, not victims. There's a story of a romantic betrayal, that could have happened in any context. It's a simple story, a regular love story, that becomes a tragedy because of Nazism." Speaking about the most shocking moment in the film, in which a young woman makes a choice out of anger that will haunt her family for decades, he says, "I don't want to excuse what she does, but I don't judge her. She's 25 and has a broken heart. People do things." It's this raw emotion in the film that he feels has torn down so many boundaries, making the film accessible to younger and non-Jewish audiences. Asked why he became a filmmaker, Miller, who has made such varied films as La Petite Lili, a contemporary reworking of The Seagull, Garde a Vue, a police thriller and Betty Fisher et autres histoires, a complex psychological drama, replies: "I never wanted to do anything else." He began his career at during the heyday of the Nouvelle Vague era in the Sixties and Seventies and worked on the crews of several legendary directors, including Jean-Luc Godard (he was an assistant director on Godard's Weekend, among other films) and Robert Bresson (as an assistant director on Balthazar). But it was with Francois Truffaut that he had his closest and most collaborative relationship. He began working for Truffaut as a production manager on several films, including on the director's love letter to the process of movie making, Day for Night. On Truffaut's next film, The Story of Adele H., Miller worked as a producer and eventually, in 1988, completed the screenplay for and directed The Little Thief, the script Truffaut was working on when he died. Miller began directing his own feature films in 1976 with The Best Way, a study of two homosexual camp counselors. Asked what he learned from working with some of the Nouvelle Vague iconoclasts, Miller replies, "Godard was more interested in cinema language. Truffaut was more interested in stories inside cinema." It was Truffaut who had the deeper and more lasting influence on him, he says. A different aspect of family life will be his theme both in front of and behind the cameras on is next film, a drama about adoption. He has just spent two months working on the screenplay. His collaborator on this film will be his son, Nathan, who has worked as a camera operator on several of his films. "I will be more with the actors, he will be more with the cameras," he says, just before he descends the rickety stairs to speak to the enthusiastic crowd.