Farewell, Mr Haffmann – movie review

The tense Holocaust drama Farewell, Mr Haffmann concerns a Jewish jeweller in France caught up in the maelstrom as the Nazis spread their tentacles.

It is May 1941 and Joseph Haffmann (Daniel Auteuil) runs a small jewellery shop. He’s noted for his fine craftsmanship. Haffmann sees the situation in occupied Paris worsening and understands the urgency of arranging safe passage out of the country for his wife and three children. Haffmann promises to follow behind shortly, but first he enacts a plan to hand ownership of the shop (and the residence attached to it) to his relatively new employee. That man, Francois Mercier (Gilles Lellouche), who walks with the aid of a calliper, is married to Blanche (Sara Giraudeau). The pair is very much in love and would like to have a baby, but she is having difficulty falling pregnant. Mercier aspires to open his own jewellery business one day, so while this unexpected arrangement with Haffmann comes out of the blue, he welcomes it … even though Blanche does not.

The deal is that Mercier will take over and change the signage on the shop to reflect his name, only to hand the business back to Haffmann after the war, when he’s able to return. In return, Haffmann will help Mercier open his own shop. The deal done, Haffmann leaves with a handshake. But just as the Merciers are getting settled in to their new lodgings, Haffmann reappears. There are Germans everywhere and his intended smuggler has gotten cold feet. Mercier puts Haffmann up for the night, with Haffmann intending to try to make his getaway again the next day. Only that move is scuppered because the German presence has become overwhelming and a second approach to the smuggler receives a violent rebuke. Now, Mercier is stuck with Haffmann in his basement for the long term as the roundup of Jews starts.

Flirting with danger, Mercier sees the business do well thanks to the arrival of a German commandant (Nikolai Kinski) who admires his workmanship (in reality, it is Haffman’s work).
Shocks follow as the dynamic between Mercier, his wife and Haffmann changes.

While you could question certain plot elements, there’s no doubt the story is compelling. Unease and discomfort are always close at hand. The key roles are well played. Auteuil is credible as a decent, hardworking man caught in a dangerous position. Lellouche captures the transition in Mercier, in a movie in which power shifts. Giraudeau shows vulnerability, compassion, fear and horror as Blanche.

The screenplay by director Fred Cavayé and Sarah Kaminsky from a play by Jean-Philippe Daguerre maintains and builds interest. Intensity is the name of the game. The question is how will Haffmann and the Merciers end up?  To find out, you will just have to buy a ticket to see Farewell, Mr Haffmann.

Alex First

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