Identity battles survival in WWII

Special to The Times

That Nazi evil was so pervasive and widespread has yielded, over the decades, a steady stream of splendid films illuminating the myriad aspects of the Holocaust and, in turn, the equally myriad facets of human nature. Adapted by the veteran French director Claude Miller from Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical novel, “A Secret” is one of the finest.

A complex, subtle telling of how a French Jewish teenager, Francois (Quentin Dubuis), in 1955 learns how his parents, Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier) and Maxime (Patrick Bruel), survived the occupation, the film explores the ironic and tragic workings of fate and of human character. In this sense, “A Secret” is a harrowing and wrenching coming-of-age story in which Francois wrestles with the question of identity.

With the advent of the occupation, Maxime has decided that there will be no wearing of yellow stars, that the Grimbergs will become the Grimberts and that Francois will be baptized Catholic. The Grimberts flee Paris for the bucolic safety of the rural South of France, under Vichy control.

By 1955, the Grimberts are a secure, bourgeois Parisian family. They never refer to the occupation. Hannah is a stunning blond, a terrific swimmer and diver, and Max is a handsome, macho gymnast, ever disappointed that his son is no athlete like him. Miller moves easily and revealingly between past and present -- principally in the years 1942, 1955 and 1985, when Francois has turned 37 (Mathieu Amalric); he is 15 when his Aunt Louise (Julie Depardieu) reveals his family’s pivotal secret.

“A Secret” explodes in a collision of fate and character that has the feeling of having been drawn closely from life. Grimbert, Miller and his co-adapter Natalie Carter don’t judge their people; they reveal the familiar tolls exacted by the Holocaust upon the Jews and also the high cost of the loss of identity in the desperate struggle for survival. The family changed its name, but Philippe is in essence a Grimberg.



“A Secret.” MPAA rating: Unrated. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. The Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581.