“There are thousands of us living in basements. We have nothing to lose. We’re rats, but we fight!” says Jacques Fonzic (François Cluzet), the titular character in the new movie The Man in the Basement, articulating what might be called the credo of online hate mongers and Holocaust deniers.
“There are thousands of us living in basements. We have nothing to lose. We’re rats, but we fight!”Jacques Fonzic
He utters this cri de coeur in the climactic scene of Philippe Le Guay’s latest film, which opens on January 27 in New York to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and will soon be shown around the US (and eventually, one would hope, in Israel).
Holocaust denial and antisemitism are in the headlines on an almost daily basis around the world, unfortunately, but are rarely the subject of dramatic movies, only of documentaries. The best-known feature film to date on this topic is Mick Jackson’s Denial, a dramatization of historian and current US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt’s court battle against British Holocaust denier David Irving, after he sued her for libel (a movie that is well worth seeking out).
This outrageous court case where Lipstadt was forced to defend herself and her work gave a fascinating and sobering glimpse into the playbook these trolls use, to strike out at those who expose their hate-mongering, forcing those who seek to debunk their vile lies to waste time and money on lawsuits.
Based on the true story of a Holocaust denier
Fonzic, the Holocaust denier in The Man in the Basement, which is based on a true story, is a much smaller figure than Irving, but is a bright, educated man who also knows how to use the legal system to make life hell for those who cross him. The main character in this story, whose life is turned upside down by his encounter with Fonzic, is Simon Sandberg (Jérémie Renier), a Parisian Jewish architect. He lives with his wife, Helene (Bérénice Bejo), a blood technician, and their teenage daughter, Justine (Victoria Eber), in a beautiful apartment he inherited from his father. During World War II, this apartment was stolen by neighbors when the Sandbergs were deported and only some of the family survived. Simon’s Jewish identity is an important, if not central, part of his life.
Deciding to sell an unused cellar, he meets Fonzic, who presents himself as a lonely retired history teacher, looking for a place to store his files and the possessions that belonged to his late mother, whom he says passed away recently, and Simon sells it to him very quickly, without checking his background.
Perhaps it should have been a red flag that, like the antihero of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Fonzic is not particularly sad about his mother’s death, and says so. But the liberal Simon feels sympathetic to Fonzic, who seems to be all alone in the world, and, seeing that Fonzic has moved into the cellar, which has no bathroom, accepts Fonzic’s explanation that he is waiting for his new apartment to be ready.
Simon invites Fonzic to move into the studio his family owns on the sixth floor (a kind of apartment that will be familiar to those who saw Le Guay’s gentle comic, The Women on the 6th Floor, about Spanish maids living in fancy Parisian buildings) for a couple of weeks.
BUT THINGS go bad from there, and Simon learns that Fonzic fled a place where he owed seven years’ back rent, and, much worse, is a Holocaust denier who was fired for teaching his views to high school students. Fonzic disseminates Holocaust denial via the Internet, and when Simon boots him out of their upstairs apartment, he digs in in the cellar.
The other tenants are up in arms about the mess he makes, but no one really wants to bother helping Simon get rid of him. Simon tries through legal means to evict Fonzic, with a determined, politically committed lawyer (Laetitia Eido, who played Dr. Shireen on Fauda) and through his old classmate (Sharif Andoura), who is now a high-profile corporate attorney
But at every stage, Fonzic finds a way to push his buttons and get him to do something impulsive that harms Simon’s own case. Fonzic defaces Simon’s door at night, writing “Juden” on it, and tries to convince Justine that he is simply a free thinker who questions assumptions. In one very telling scene, Fonzic sends copies of a lease that was signed in the Nazi era, which the co-op board takes as evidence that the apartment might not really belong to the Sandberg family.
Forced to prove how his family was deported and robbed during the war, Simon begins to lose his bearings, which causes him to freak out and alienate his wife and daughter. In a short period of time, Fonzic has turned him into an emotional wreck, who lashes out violently.
I’m sure it’s no accident that Le Guay cast Cluzet as Fonzic, because he is an actor who is inherently likable, and whom many remember fondly as the wheelchair-bound hero in Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s Les Intouchables. He has been so good in so many movies and gave a particularly enjoyable performance as a devoted doctor in Irreplaceable (Le Médecin de Campagne), that it’s jarring to see him as such a hateful figure.
It’s a brilliant casting decision and so much better than if an actor who was more obviously tough or aggressive had played the part. When he tries to reach out to Helene or discusses history with Justine, you are on the edge of your seat, thinking he’s changed, that he truly is thoughtful, that someone like him can’t possibly believe these sick ideas.
But in a flicker, it turns out that the benign comments are manipulation to soften up his listeners for his antisemitic message. This is how many of these deniers work, making valid points to lull the ignorant into accepting their invalid ones. This is what the movie does best, showing us how a man like Fonzic operates, and he is more insidious for having a nice side.
All the actors are good here, among them Renier, who starred in a number of films by the Dardenne brothers, among them The Child, and Bejo, who was in The Artist and starred in an Israeli film, Shake Your Cares Away.
But the movie really belongs to Cluzet and the vile character he portrays, who uses all the legal means and all the media at his disposal to chip away at the foundation of everything that means something. The drama of Simon’s deterioration is not as interesting, ultimately, as Fonzic’s slow and steady determination to debase history.
Le Guay, who has made many engaging comedy-dramas, such as Nude Normandy, about the farmers’ protests in France, raises questions too big to answer in a single movie, but lets the story unfold as a thriller. If the payoff is not quite what you would hope, that’s because Holocaust denial cannot be easily defeated.