Stories of one man’s descent into hell traverse the history of literature.
From classical accounts of men who are sent down to hell to retrieve someone undeserving of the fate, to characters (usually men) on a trajectory to their own personal hell, it is a well-tried theme.
In more modern times, the plot idea was immersed in Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and this novel was a major influence on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s book became the basis of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
In the last, government assassin Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) travels the rivers of Vietnam in his own descent into hell in search of a rogue US officer, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is already there.
In Adieu Monsieur Haffmann (2021), the descent is not as obvious but the destination is the same.
It is May 1941 and the German occupiers are beginning to close in on the city’s Jewish inhabitants.
Francois Mercier (Gilles Lelouche) is a recently employed assistant to long-time Paris jeweller Joseph Haffman (Daniel Auteuil).
Haffman’s family is Jewish, though he has “been French” since he left Poland when he was eight years-old. He sends his wife and three children, via a smuggler, to France’s Free Zone and hoped-for safety. Crucially, he delays his exit to consolidate his well-patronised shop.
Haffmann makes Mercier a life-changing offer. Become the shop owner through deed of transfer, run it for his own gain in Haffmann’s absence, and return it to its rightful owner when the war ends. Further, Haffmann offers to assist at that time in establishing a new shop for Mercier.
Mercier sees this as his big chance. He is poor; wears a leg brace, which has kept him from active duty; is frustrated designing jewellery patterns that will probably never be made; and is unable to father a child with his beloved Blanche (Sara Giradeau).
As Haffmann hurriedly packs, he offers Mercier money to assist the change over and shows him an original Monet painting and its provenance before packing it. He hopes the painting will be insurance for he and his family if the German grip becomes tighter.
All seems fine and the Merciers move into the Haffmanns’ flat but the grip has tightened further. Haffmann is abandoned by his smuggler and must return to refuge at the shop.
Committed to the cellar for safety, he is hidden and fed by the Merciers with the reluctant Blanche gradually accepting their lot.
Meanwhile Mercier sells Haffmann’s current stock and works on his own collection. The first attracts the eye of Paris Commandant Junger (Nikolai Kinski) and the shop is soon well patronised by Nazi bigwigs hoping to curry favour with their French paramours.
Mercier is seduced by the success and to being invited by Junger to gala dinners.
But he cannot let go of the need to be a father. He promises Haffmann he will post his letters to his family if the older man will serve his wife and create a child. This is anathema to both Blanche and Haffmann but the two strike a friendship in their duping of Mercier, pretending they are coupling when no contact is taking place.
Tension mounts as Mercier begins to deceive Haffman. He gives him up when he thinks he is being pressured by two soldiers, who do not understand what he has said to them in French. He takes money from Haffman’s mail and burns the letters; and begins using looted Jewish family jewellery to provide stones for Haffmann to work into pieces favoured by Junger. This has come about because Junger has belittled Mercier’s latest work and longs for the more stylish pieces from before.
Worse, Mercier rapes Blanche after a drunken night out.
The plot takes more turns, including Haffmann emerging from the cellar in front of Junger which sends Mercier completely to the edge of the precipice. Events ensue to put him over the edge and into the flaming pit.
Adieu Monsieur Haffmann is filmed from a play by Jean-Phillippe Dageurre. When the film was being set up, the play was active in Paris, on tour in Europe and playing in the USA. Three different casts worked and swapped roles in different cities depending on availability. Curiously, the Merciers’ character names in the stage version are Pierre and Isabelle Vigneau.
The plot runs like a play and I had no problem with its length or pace. I was enthralled by the hangdog demeanour of Lelouche and watched, almost in horror, at his character’s gradual demise. Giradeau and Auteuil were excellent too.
Haffmann’s cellar hideaway looked far from secure. It was lit by an open air cavity at street level. This would have allowed in a lot of rain and cold as well as invited the prying eyes of curious children.
This should have become apparent to the producers before shooting began because a part of the street – rue Androuet in 75018 Paris – had been turned into a period film set in February 2020.
On 17 March 2020, France went into lockdown and on the night of 10 May 2020, a thunderstorm hit the city, so for 2 months, the street was trapped in time and the set slowly destroyed. A lot of rain would have poured into Haffmann’s proposed shelter.
For further information on France’s Free Zone see https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/france