While writing over the past few months I came across some indie historical romance gems that I really liked. Some you may have heard of. Some, maybe not.
So, I wanted to share in case you might like them too.
Let’s start with Suite Française. This is the one you may have heard of. The story behind the movie is that it’s based on a series of books written by Irène Némirovsky, a French Jewish Author who finished the first two books and was then sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where she was killed. All she had of the third book was a basic outline. But these were not published books. They were hand-written. Fast forward to 1998 when her daughter discovered the hand-written manuscripts, found a publisher and they become a world-wide hit.
I haven’t read the book (and I really should), but what struck me about the movie was the nuance of detail that came across with an authenticity I frankly haven’t seen before in a film set in World War 2. Little things like the Stukas bombing a train, the Germans setting the clocks to German time when they first occupied a town, the simple notion of a German officer billeted in somebody’s house asking the wife for a bar of soap. Guns being turned in but everyone keeping their unregistered weapons in hiding. The letters neighbors wrote about each other before the Germans arrived. It all comes across as being live and in person during the actual occupation. Things you couldn’t know unless you were there.
Unlike so many movies, this one does not portray the German occupiers as sadistic boot-laden warmongers stomping on every head they come across. Rather, they come in a variety of characters, from the impossibly polite – and yet displaying their attitudes borne of political indoctrination – to the sublimely cruel. In short, they’re human, which I think is one of the artistic choices that makes this film so compelling.
As far as story-telling goes, I found this to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen. The characters border on archetypal, but they all serve their roles extremely well and the plot hums along with a nice pace that ends in a delicious pang of irony and anguish. The war taketh, my friend, with no recompense.
So, what’s it about? (I think I’m supposed to do that part first, but anyway…) A young woman lives with her mother-in-law while her husband is away at war. As she is out with her mother-in-law collecting rent from what Mom clearly considers to be riff-raff, they encounter cars and people fleeing Paris and then come under attack from a Stuka bomber raid. The Germans have arrived and life quickly changes into something they weren’t prepared for.
The tanks and troops arrive and sternly announce the new rules while the town’s mayor, who speaks fluent German, quietly negotiates to have a German officer billeted somewhere besides his own home. There is a certain undertow in this story that talks about how people continue to try and hold on to a life that is clearly disintegrating even as tanks and soldiers take over their town.
When a young German officer is billeted with the woman and her mother-in-law, we discover that he is a composer and writes beautiful piano music. I found the soundtrack to be exquisite and found it on Spotify, but unfortunately they don’t have ALL the really delicious piano sequences. Anyway… the mother-in-law steadfastly refuses to even talk to the officer while the young woman slowly discovers that there is more to the man than his uniform.
It’s romantic and bitingly tragic all at the same time.
And – for you fans of Downfall, Alexandra Maria Lara plays a French housewife who… well, you’ll see.
My favorite line, from the mother-in-law: “But I’m damned if I’m living by German time.”
As of this post, it’s on Netflix. If you like historical romance, I think you’ll really like this one.