ENTERTAINMENT

Colin Randall: The Bittersweet Memories Of Denise Epstein, Her Mother Irène Némirovsky And The Stunning 'Suite Francaise'

28/07/2015 13:34 BST | Updated 28/07/2015 14:59 BST

'Suite Francaise' is the thrilling and dramatic story set in WWII, a drama set against the terrifying chaos of German occupied France.

The film, now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, follows the book in setting one family's fortunes as Hitler’s armies take control of Paris and bring total occupation to France, Lucile (Michelle Williams) awaits news from her husband who is being held a prisoner of war.

Living with her mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) and leading a stifled existence, in a town struggling to cope with their terrifying German rulers, Lucile’s life is turned upside down when a handsome and charming German officer (Matthias Schoenaerts) is posted to live with them.

Despite their hopeless situation, they find themselves drawn to each other until the desperate realities of war threaten to destroy them.

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The film is based on the extremely moving book of the same name, written by Irène Némirovsky. Irène was killed in Auschwitz back in 1942; years later in the 1990s her daughter Denise Epstein discovered some of her manuscripts hidden in a suitcase, which were later published in 2004 as the novel we’ve come to know and love today.

Denise was interviewed by journalist Colin Randall in 2004. We now have the full text of that interview, which we're pleased to publish below...

More than 60 years on from the Fall of Paris, the France of 2004 was unrecognisable from the country that had spent much of the post-war period in self-denial of its role in the Holocaust.

From writers and academics to political leaders – perhaps excluding fascism’s sneaking regarders on the far right – there was candid acknowledgement of acquiescence in Nazi barbarism. A long-concealed gem of wartime literature, Irène Némirovsky’s novel 'Suite Française', written in the months before she died in Auschwitz, was the talk of French publishing.

And I was on my way across Paris to meet her daughter Denise Epstein, a warm and still, then, sprightly woman in her mid-70s.

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It was a brief encounter, requiring one of those breathless climbs of staircases in old Parisian buildings without lifts, and we would never meet again; Denise died nine years later.

But she was a striking interviewee, telling me a great deal more than my then employers at The Daily Telegraph in London were prepared to publish. Memories of the hour or two we spent together streamed back when I joined eight other souls in a French cinema earlier this year to watch Saul Dibb’s film based on the book.

The movie has now been released on DVD and, while its central love plot (French soldier's wife falls for German officer billeted in her home) can be criticised as sanitised, lightweight and predictable, it neatly depicts the torments of those who neither collaborated nor resisted but just did what was needed to get through the war.

When we spoke, Denise vividly recalled the first time she had started to read her mother’s book, in the mid-1950s. “It made me angry to read it,” she said. “Seeing my mother's wonderful lucidity just gave me a tremendous sensation of abandonment."

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She had more reason than anyone to be moved by the experience. But it has had a similar effect on others. Decades later, the English author Rosemary Bailey, who has also written of the effects of the Nazi occupation on both ordinary and extraordinary people ('Love and War in the Pyrenees'), told me 'Suite Française' was the first novel she had chosen to peruse in French. “I was I tears as I read it,” she said.

The wretched period of French history that began with Nazi invasion and capitulation of the French government, leading to the deportation of 75,000 Jews of whom no more than about 2,000 survived, has yielded a wealth of films, for big screen and small, books and documentaries. A long-running series, Un Village Français, gets a peak-time viewing slot.

As if to compensate for the embarrassed silence of the past, it sometimes seems no week can go by without television screening documentaries or films about the period, with no holds barred.

Epstein was orphaned, along with her younger sister, Élisabeth, when, first their mother, and then their father, were carted off to the Nazi death camp.

Némirovsky was Jewish, the daughter of an émigré Ukrainian banker who had fled with his family at the start of the Russian revolution of 1917.

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Her first novel, 'David Golder', published in 1929, was a major success and she became the darling of Parisian literary society in the 1930s. Gathering anti-Semitism proved a block to French citizenship; an application was rejected in the year before war broke out. Némirovsky even tried converting her family to Catholicism; neither that, nor the critical and social respect she commanded, could save her.

And when she was finally detained in the Burgundy village of Issey-l'Evêque, where her family had taken refuge, her captors were not even German soldiers obeying orders but French gendarmes content to do the Nazis’ dirty work for them. Within weeks of her arrival at Auschwitz in Jul 1942, Némirovsky, was dead; her husband, deported four months later, died there, too.

“I did not end up hating the Germans, at least ordinary German soldiers,” Denise told me. “They were doing what they were told was their duty. But I can never forgive the gendarmes, the French forces who were only too happy to round people up for deportation and also those, officials and others, who knew what was happening and did nothing.”

One gendarme involved in the arrest of Denise’s father did offer a glimpse of humanity. He told the young sisters, then aged 13 and five, to snatch what possessions they could, get away and hide; the gesture probably saved their lives. And Denise’s decision to grab an old suitcase saved her mother’s unpublished writing for posterity.

'Suite Française', the first parts of what was intended as a sequence of five novels, was necessarily an unfinished work. And the manuscripts had been stuffed into that suitcase salvaged by Denise as she made her escape.

Némirovsky had typed the first of two completed books in the series(Tempête). The second (Dolce) had been written in tiny script as paper became scarce. The suitcase containing the drafts remained unopened survived the war as the author’s daughters were hidden in convent, cellar and loft by a Catholic woman who had befriended their mother and to whom they turned when the gendarme urged them to disappear.

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It was several years before Denise could bear to look inside. She felt that to do so would someone violate her mother’s memory and privacy. Despite that early start at reading the manuscripts in 1954, it was not until the 1970s, after the work narrowly escaped being destroyed when her home was flooded, that she read them “properly”.

She and her sister then began the process that would lead to publication, donating the manuscripts to a literary archive. When the novel finally appeared, it won critical acclaim, became a bestseller and attracted the first Prix Renaudot, an award complementary to France’s Prix Goncourt, to be given posthumously.

'Suite Française' - the book as well as the filmed adaptation - has its critics.

One friend, a distinguished academic with specialist knowledge of France under occupation, told me flatly he did not regard Némirovsky as a particularly good novelist. He did concede, however, that 'Suite Française' could be seen as a remarkable achievement, describing events as she lived with no ending, and no opportunity for retrospective analysis, when it left her hands.

Before the film's credits roll, a note states that Némirovsky was "killed" at Auschwitz. This implies that she, like her husband, was gassed - a mistake frequently made when her name is mentioned.

In fact, as has been noted by Jon Weiss, an American professor of French and a Némirovsky biographer, she was among more than 200 inmates who died from an outbreak of typhus. Come to think of it, though, the filmmakers should not be faulted: Irène Némirovsky was, indeed, killed at Auschwitz. And Denise was right when she described what, to her, was perhaps the most valuable aspect of 'Suite Française' - that if only to a certain extent, it brought her mother back to life.

Written by: Colin Randall - a former Paris Correspondent and Chief Reporter for The Daily Telegraph. He worked at the paper for 29 years. He writes on France, current affairs and media at www.francesalut.com.

'Suite Francaise' is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray. Watch the trailer below...

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