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Friendship crosses barriers in “The Two of Us”


Claude plays checkers with Pepe's son, as Pepe eggs him on. (Frame shots courtesy of Cohen Film Collection)


Blu-ray, DVD; 1967; Not Rated

Best extra: Feature commentary by critic Wade Major

FRENCH DIRECTOR Claude Berri co-wrote his debut feature, “The Two of Us,” an autobiographical story of a Jewish 8-year-old boy named Claude Langmann (Berri’s real name).

It takes place when World War II is nearing an end, but France is still occupied by the Germans. Claude’s parents decide it’s too risky to keep him in the city, where Jews continue to be arrested, so they send him to the countryside to live with the elderly parents of one of their Catholic friends. For his safety, and for his acceptance by the pro-government oldsters, Claude must pretend to be Catholic and memorize a new last name, as well as the Lord’s Prayer.

Claude decides to shoplift a toy tank.
Claude and his buddy, lighting up in the outhouse.
Claude and his family taking shelter during a bombing raid in Paris.
Claude's parents bidding him goodbye, as their friend takes him to her parents in the countryside.

The film focuses on Claude’s relationship with Pepe (“Grandpa”), played by the legendary character actor Michel Simon. The old man has been living a lonely, frustrated life with his wife, who is kindly, but insists on killing and eating Pepe’s beloved rabbits. Nor does she want to hear anymore of her husband’s stories about his service in the first war. Claude turns out to be an eager listener, as well as an affectionate surrogate grandchild for Pepe, even as the curmudgeon rants against Communists, Freemasons, the English and, of course, the Jews.

All performances in this good-hearted film are perfection, but Simon and Alain Cohen, who plays Claude, are particularly good, making the bond between the unlikely pair especially poignant at a time of so much hatred and division in our country – and the rest of the world.

Claude lives with a Catholic couple, sent for his safety by his parents.
Claude (who is Jewish, but pretending to be Catholic) and Pepe attend a church service.
Claude and schoolmates

This Cohen Film Collection celebrates “The Two of Us’s” 50th anniversary with this Blu-ray, sourced from a 4K restoration. The film looks pristine in black and white, offering sharp-edged detail and satisfying gradations in tone, from bright whites to inky blacks. The audio is also very good; French dialogue (with English subtitles) is consistently clear, and the gentle score by the great Georges Delerue is always well-modulated.

Extras include two brief archival featurettes, one with Michel Simon, and the other, a conversation between Simon and great director Jean Renoir; a podcast from NPR affiliate KPCC-FM; and an illustrated booklet with lists of the film’s chapters and credits.

The commentary by Wade Major, despite his frequent over-explaining of what’s obvious on the screen, provides some interesting information. He describes Berri, who died in 2009, as being a “pivotal figure in the French film industry,” an accomplished producer and distributor, in addition to writing and directing such films as “Jean de Florette,” “Manon of the Spring,” and “Germinal,” which happened to have been the most expensive ever made in France at the time.

Pepe and Claude, whose head is bandaged after a fight at school.
A shaved head, Claude's punishment from his schoolteacher, for sending a love letter to a girl in the class.

It is Berri’s own voice that narrates “The Two of Us.” He discovered little Alain Cohen, the grandson of Auschwitz survivors, in a French Hebrew school. Major explains that Berri, while much of his work was contemporary with the French New Wave, was not a part of that avant garde movement. His films were much more classical and humanistic. He often dealt with the subject of collaboration during wartime, and was concerned with the issue of identity.

With “The Two of Us,” Major says, Berri was looking at the concept of “Jewishness vs. Frenchness … He doesn’t want us to judge anyone.” Major notes that Berri “wrote the film with mixed emotions.” When he cast Simon, the actor had not made a film for many years, as a result of a bad reaction to make-up that had left him partially paralyzed. For his come-back role, as Pepe, Simon won the best actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

— Peggy Earle

Claude and his parents, reunited, begin their train ride back to Paris.
Pepe's time with young Claude has ended.

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