FAREWELL, MR HAFFMANN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Fred Cavaye

Stars: Daniel Auteuil, Gilles Lellouche, Sara Giraudeau, Nikolai Kinski, Mathilde Bisson.

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This tense and claustrophobic Holocaust themed drama is set in Paris in 1941.  

The city is under Nazi rule. Troops round up much of the Jewish population and close down their shops. Joseph Haffmann (played by the prolific Daniel Auteuil) is a respected jeweler in the city, known for his craftsmanship, his elaborate designs and the care he takes with his work. After watching Jews in his neighbourhood being forcibly removed at gunpoint he sends his wife and two children out of the city and to safety. He remains behind to hand over his shop and business to his newest employee Francoise Mercier (Gilles Lellouche, from Little White Lies, etc). In the deal Francois will take over the business and run it as his own for the duration of the war and then hand it back after the war. The impoverished and partially crippled Francois is married to Blanche (Sara Giraudeau, from The Translators, etc) but the couple are unable to have children. They move into the apartment above the shop, but Blanche is skeptical of the arrangement.  

However Haffmann is unable to leave Paris and returns to the shop. Francois reluctantly agrees to hide him in the basement, and lets him continue his work as a jeweler. His designs capture the attention of Junger (Nikolai Kinski), a German officer who approaches Mercier for more elaborate pieces for his mistress (Mathilde Bisson). Mercier provides the stones and basic needs for Haffmann to continue his work, but he passes off the creations as his own work.  

But when Haffmann discovers that the pieces he is creating are using jewelry stolen from Jewish victims he resists, setting up a conflict between the two men.  

Farewell, Mr Haffmann is based on the stage play written by actor and writer Jean-Philippe Daguerre, and it retains much of its theatrical origins with its claustrophobic setting, moral complexity and heightened tension as the power dynamics between Haffmann and Mercier shifts. The drama explores themes of greed, loyalty, betrayal and the desperate lengths some people will go to in order to survive. Scriptwriters Fred Cavaye (The Next Three Days, etc) and Sarah Kennedy make some efforts to open up the material, but for the most part the drama is confined within Haffmann’s shop and basement. There is some great production design from Philippe Chiffre (The Rose Maker, etc) that creates the claustrophobic interiors. The setting of Paris in the early 1940s under Nazi control has been well realised, with its empty shops and deserted streets, and the film has been atmospherically shot by cinematographer Denis Rouden (the 2005 crime thriller Anthony Zimmer, etc). Christophe Julien’s moving score is evocative. 

The film has been directed by Cavaye, who superbly ratchets up the tension and elicits solid performances from his small cast. Auteuil is solid and gives a nicely rounded and understated performance as the essentially decent and trusting Haffmann. Lellouche plays his role well, making his character not an out and out villain but a more  nuanced one. Giraudeau brings compassion and empathy to her role as Blanche, who becomes horrified to learn what her husband has done in the name of greed and survival.  

Farewell, Mr Haffmann first screened during the recent Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, and now it is getting a cinematic release. This tense WWII drama is well worth catching. 

★★★☆ 

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