The Two of Us

To have no oppressions of the nations and no unnecessary wars,…very little, it would seem, would suffice, namely, that men should merely understand things as they are, and should call them by their real names, should know that the army is an instrument of murder, and that the levy and maintenance of the army … is a preparation for murder. …

… If men are not yet doing so, this is due only to the hypnosis in which the governments carefully maintain them from a feeling of self-preservation. And so it is not with murders that we can contribute to this… but with an awakening from the hypnosis.

Leo Tolstoy, Thou Shalt Not Kill

“I just thought we’d be past war by now.”

– My 19-year-old son

War only works if the aggressor sees the enemy as less-than-human. This is part of the hypnosis that Tolstoy describes, and part of what makes war so tragically absurd to any clear-eyed empathetic person. It goes further than that, of course, because for war to be possible and for soldiers not to be seen as murderers and psychopaths, the victim must be seen as not just inhuman, but as a monster, and must be unknown to the killer.

The Two of Us (or Le vieil homme et l’enfant) is a remarkable semi-autobiographical film directed by Claude Berri. During world war II, Claude, an eight-year-old Jewish boy, is sent to live in the country with his landlady’s parents. Pépé and Mémé are an elderly Catholic couple who live on a farm. Because the story is based on Berri’s memories of his childhood, it has the beautiful glow of a child’s perspective filtered through memory. With the ease that children approach friendship, Claude takes to Pépé, the old man. And Pépé loves him back, not realizing, as he weaves frightening tales of Jews as villains, that the boy himself is Jewish. Pépé tells him that Jews have horns and big noses, and he fervently believes that Jews, in a dastardly conspiracy with Communists, Masons, and Churchill, started WWII.

There’s such a simplicity and grace to the film – it has a feeling of effortlessness and honesty – that the emotional impact is powerful and immediate, and it took me a while to realize just how intelligent it is. Pépé, as played by the incomparable Michel Simon, is so human – so wonderful in some ways, and so flawed in others. Without moralizing or judging, Berri provides a vivid illustration that prejudice is born of ignorance. In the context of the war going on around them – tragic news on the radio, threatening posters around the town – Pépé’s bigotry takes on a looming dangerous shadow. The very fact that Pépé is sweet like a child, himself, that he plays with Claude, and that he really loves Claude, makes his prejudice all the more disturbing.

Pépé is a vegetarian. Not a common or popular position in the French countryside at the time, it would seem. The rest of the populace is trying to find a way to scrounge some meat to overcome the deprivations of WWII, but he proudly announces that he only eats vegetables. By choice. Not because that’s all the rations allow. His wife raises, kills, and cooks rabbits. But to Pépé, that isn’t an option, because he knows the rabbits. He loves the rabbits. Exactly in the way he loves Claude. The film The Shooting Party, directed by Alan Bridges, examines similar themes. It takes place on the brink of WWI and involves a group of very rich friends gathering to shoot birds. A pair of children save their pet duck from a duck hunt as though she’s the only duck that matters, because she’s their duck, they named her and they love her. Similarly, the accidental shooting of an old man is only seen as important because they know they know the man. Many of these characters don’t know it, but we do, they’re soon to be sent to fight in WWI, in which surely it was only possible to kill other humans in fear and ignorance, because you didn’t know them and they were the enemy.

Of course prejudice and bigotry exist outside of the realm of war. They’re a disease that feeds on ignorance, insecurity and hatred. They’re a tool of evil men and women everywhere, used to prey on and cause the ignorance, insecurity and hatred; a nauseating cycle. They’re an integral ingredient in the hypnosis that makes humans hurt other living creatures.

The Two of Us doesn’t end with any great revelation. Pépé and Mémé never realize that Claude is Jewish, we don’t have a scene of epiphany and redemption in which they understand that much of what they believe is based on false prejudice. But such a scene doesn’t feel necessary. Somehow the film is so full of grace and truth and generosity that it would feel false, contrived. What feels important is every scene of connection–every bountiful moment of affection between Pépé and his wife and his dog and his rabbits and his land and Claude. The love they all feel for each other. It’s so simple, in the end, it’s so raw and so sweet: to know one another and to love one another, this is what will wake us from the hypnosis.

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