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Assassinat d’une Modiste (The Murder of a Hatmaker)

2005
Distributed by Docs for Education, 10a Holland St., Afulla, Israel 18371; fax: 972-3-5291726
Produced by ARTE France, iO Production
Directed by Catherine Bernstein
DVD, color with b&w, 56 min. (52 min. bonus material in French)
Sr. High-General Adult
Biography, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, World War II


Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 9/27/2012

Assassinat d’une Modiste (The Murder of a Hatmaker) is filmmaker Catherine Bernstein’s profoundly moving tribute to her great aunt Fanny Berger, a French Jewish woman who, ahead of her time in the early 1930s, left her “good family” domicile to set up her own fashion business designing hats. She experienced considerable success in Paris’s haute couture milieu until France, beginning in 1940, succumbed to and started cooperating with the German occupiers in the systematic persecution and deportation of Jews. Fanny, along with thousands of other French and resident Jews, was eventually transported to Auschwitz, where her life was extinguished. (Coincidentally it was only in these past weeks that newly elected French President François Hollande apologized for the first time for the cooperation French bureaucracy lent the Germans in carrying out the death transports.) Of tangible objects related to Fanny’s professional or personal life, little remains. No childhood photos and, as far as we know, only two adult ones, which we see. A clipped letterhead reads Fanny Berger/ Mode/ Modèles/ 4, Rue Balzac/ Paris,. We also get a quick look at an invitation to a fashion show. There was apparently a fiancé, though nothing came of it. Of relatives, a niece and a nephew recall glimpses of her. If not for Bernstein’s film, that would be all. In the film, Fanny tragically comes to some kind of life – through, among other things, documents carefully, bureaucratically, preserved that record her grim journey into the abyss of annihilation. The film is largely told through these documents residing in various French archives. They tell the story of Fanny registering at the local Paris arrondissement as a Jew; registering her business; agreeing and signing to sell her business to an Aryan, a non-Jew, since yet another noose-tightening law forbade Jews to have any involvement in France’s economy. (In a stunning scene in the film, a co-signatory witness to the signing, now riddled with Parkinson’s or some other debilitating disease, barely recognizes Fanny when shown her photo through a magnifying glass and doesn’t recall signing either. Is it his signature? He cannot say. A forgery? Who knows….) Fanny’s incarceration in an intermediate camp soon follows – a group of women interned at the same camp think they spotted her there – as does, not long after, her removal to Drancy, the infamous station from which the Eastern transports departed. Telling her great aunt’s story, Bernstein’s camera moves slowly, sometimes at a funereal pace. The film is beautifully shot. The various locales associated with Fanny’s life make Fanny’s presence felt. Still, the film is anything but lachrymose. It sustains an almost documentary sobriety as it relates its painful story, and is all the more poignant for it.