On January 12, French cinema lost one of its truest enablers. Claude Berri was as well-known for his support of cinema, both financial and critical, as he was for his own filmmaking. The actor turned director-writer-producer made twenty-three films (the multi-award-winning Manon of the Spring and Jean de Florette among them); produced with his company, Renn Productions, more than fifty (Roman Polanski’s Tess, Claude Miller’s The Little Thief, etc.), including some of the biggest-grossing films in French history; and served as president of the Cinémathèque française from 2003 to 2007.
His filmmaking career began with the short Le poulet (1965), about a boy whose parents bring home a new rooster to raise, for its nutritional value. But the little boy takes a liking to him and begins to tease his parents that the rooster is in fact laying eggs. This debut won Berri his only Academy Award and international fame overnight. In many ways, it set the tone for his first feature, The Two of Us (1967), for which Berri transformed his personal childhood experience of living undercover during the Nazi occupation of France into a surprisingly gentle and endearing film. For safekeeping, a Jewish boy is sent to live in the countryside with an older couple. Though the man, played by the great Michel Simon, is in fact a supporter of Vichy France and his dear Marshal Pétain, the unlikely twosome become friends and (to an extent) confidants.
In January of 2007, Berri agreed to be interviewed for our DVD release of The Two of Us, accompanied by Le poulet. It had been well over a year since our first letter of interest to him, during which time Berri had been recovering from a stroke and relearning to speak after the resulting paralysis. Yet he was still pushing forward with a new film production (Ensemble, c’est tout, with Audrey Tautou, released in 2007).
Our shot was set up and ready to go when Mr. Berri arrived. After a few urgent phone calls, he was able to sit down for the video interview. He told us sweet anecdotes about working with Simon, finding the young Alain Cohen, and returning to a story he himself had lived during the occupation. The interview lasted about forty-five minutes, and as soon as the camera stopped rolling, he was out the door to his next appointment, but not before a very sincere thank-you to us for keeping the spirit of his work alive. Claude Berri clearly never stopped working and made cinema his life.