Michel Hazanavicius on His Cannes Competition Film ‘The Most Precious of Cargoes’: ‘It’s About People Who Saved Lives’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of “The Artist,” makes a first foray into animation with “The Most Precious of Cargoes” which world premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on May 24. Adapted from Jean-Claude Grumberg’s bestselling novel, “The Most Precious of Cargoes” is the first animated feature to vie for a Palme d’Or since Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” in 2008; and it will be the last movie watched by the competition jury, presided over by Greta Gerwig, before the closing ceremony.

Hazanavicius developed the project for years and wrote the script with Grumberg, as well as created the drawings. Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat created the original score. The drama intertwines the fate of a Jewish family, including newborn twins, deported to Auschwitz, with that of a poor and childless woodcutter couple living deep in a Polish forest. On the train to the death camp, the young father wraps one of his twins in a shawl and throws her off the train into the snow. The lonely woodcutter woman, watching the trains go by in the hope that they’ll leave some resources behind, stumbles across the “cargo’ and discovers the little girl. She decides to take her home.

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“The Most Precious of Cargoes” is co-produced and represented internationally by Studiocanal which will release the movie in France on Nov. 20. It’s produced by Patrick Sobelman and Robert Guédiguian at France’s Ex Nihilo, as well as Florence Gastaud and Hazanavicius at Les Compagnons de Cinéma. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are co-producing via their banner Les Films du Fleuve. Hazanavicius spoke to Variety ahead of the film’s world premiere to discuss his personal attachment to the story, its timeless appeal and universal themes.

You first told me about this project several years ago. How did it come together?

Michel Hazanavicius: It all started five years and a half ago, with Jean-Claude Grumberg’s eponymous book…although you could almost say it started when I was born, as Jean-Claude was my parents’ best friend since they were 16. In any case, even before the book was published, Robert Guédiguian gave it to [producer] Patrick Sobelman. The latter and Studiocanal then approached me to see if I’d be interested in making it into an animation movie. I hesitated a bit for that very reason, because it’s animation, and also because of it’s a story related to the Holocaust, which seemed so daunting to me. But ultimately the story is immensely beautiful, and after speaking to Jean-Claude, I knew I had to come on board.

The animation in the film looks singular. How did you create this aesthetic?

MH: It’s 2D with true drawings. It’s my first passion as I’ve been drawing since I was 10 so I drew all the characters. I was primarily inspired by the early Disney movies. But then together with my artistic director Julien Grande, we shifted a bit. We looked into painting, mixing it with Japanese prints that have flat areas, so it’s more suited to animation and to this literary feel. There are certain images that look like beautiful illustrated books from the 1930’s. That’s the style I wanted to create.

How does the film’s historical backdrop resonate with you?

MH: The story echoes a very personal family experience, as I am the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe -Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania. My grandparents survived Auschwitz, but not members of their family and friends.

Did you grow up hearing stories about the death camps?

MH: Of course, and with insight from people who had survived, stories of people who had escaped, who had been taken, others who had died. I was also born in the late 60’s and that’s about the time when you had the first revisionists and the works of Robert Paxton emerged. This meant that all of the sudden, there was a sort of establishment of History where the survivors, in particular, who had practically not spoken since they had returned from the death camps, began to speak out, to share their testimonies.

The film is truly important because it shows that part of History, especially in today’s troubled times and the rise of antisemitism, doesn’t it?

MH: Yes, I’m glad it exists. But my intention was not to make a movie about the Holocaust. It’s really the magnificence of this story that took me on an adventure, which turned out to be extremely heavy in terms of production, time, investment, etc. Once again, it’s not a preachy movie, neither a film about the victims nor about the executioners. It’s about people who saved lives. We see a beautiful chain of solidarity, of love that sets in motion to save the life of a little girl. You don’t cry because it’s sad, but because it’s beautiful.

Yes it’s a beautiful tale, a fable in fact…

MH: Let’s say it’s a twist to the traditional tale, because it’s more poisonous than a fairy tale, but also more beautiful and stronger. In a way, I had the feeling when reading the book, that that story had always existed, like an instant classic, which is the feeling I tried to recreate in the movie. But for me, the story is what I would call ‘ultra-fiction’. It does borrow codes of fairy tales, starting out with “once upon a time in a forest, there was a woodcutter, a woodcutter’s wife,” so you’re immediately thrown into a classic fairy tale. But then, as the story progresses, the film takes you to the Gare de l’Est [in Paris], when you have cars, etc. and it’s clear you’re in real life.

This playfulness between fiction and reality is really interesting…

MH: Yes, that’s what really interested me and why I got involved in the first place. Today, Auschwitz, for a 20-year old kid, is very, very far away; it’s ancient story. There is no more emotional bond to that part of history, and as the last remaining Holocaust survivors are disappearing, so soon there will be no oral testimonies of what happened. That’s why I liked the idea of making a film that would go from fiction towards reality, to tell history with a big ‘H’. As a storyteller, I love to tell stories that touch me, and reality, truth are things that I like to explore in my work.

If I’m not mistaken, the word Jewish is never mentioned in the film. Was that a choice or was it the same in the book?

MH: In the book, the author had to pronounce the word Jewish, because the narrator speaks in a subjective way. With the film, I follow a narrative structure and therefore I had to readjust elements, give a new life to the characters. But I loved the way Jewish people are called ‘The Heartless’ in the book, as it’s a fairy-tale. I did portray Jewish people wearing yellow patches in the movie, but I didn’t have to say the word “Jewish.” At the end, the beauty of this story-and of any fairy-tale, is that it’s universal. Grumberg’s message is, “You have to love all children.” Yours as much as anybody else’s. It’s not a Jewish story, but a story that concerns the whole world, the way Rwanda concerns everyone.

Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” also deals with the Holocaust through an unusual prism.

MH: Well it’s literally impossible to show the reality of the camps, but in my case, I had the advantage of using animation, which offers some freedom and allows you to use symbolism, to suggest, rather than show.

How challenging was it to finance an animation film with this topic?

MH: We started before COVID, and the pandemic put the project on hold as we couldn’t fully-finance it. Distributors had to deal with a backlog of titles waiting for release and couldn’t invest it in anymore. So we put the project on hold. That small parenthesis gave me the opportunity to make “Coupez” (“Final Cut”) which was great. Then I came back to this movie.

Alexandre Desplat created a magnificent score. How did you work with him?

MH: He was on board from the very beginning. He was fully committed all along, and we talked a lot. He is hugely delicate, in the way he approaches music and feeds off a lot of stuff. The music plays a big role in anchoring the dramatic moments in the film, especially since there is very little dialogue.

Do you still have a US agent?

MH: Yes although I’m not particularly looking for jobs in the US.

Didn’t you have projects with U.S. stars attached?

MH: Yes, I did have a project with Tom Cruise and another with Will Ferrell. There were two very good comedy projects, but they fell through. Working with studios is complicated for me. I need full control, and can’t wait for studio bosses to approve every decision. It doesn’t work. That said, the U.S. indie sector would perhaps be better suited for the way I work. If something comes up, then why not. There are wonderful American actors, and the Hollywood mythology is absolutely fascinating and wonderful. But if I have to sacrifice the way I work, then it’s not for me.

What’s next? A comedy?

MH: Not necessarily. First of all, I’m going to wait and see how this one is received. I always have the feeling of being not quite in tune with the market. A bit on the edge. I’ll see how it goes and hope for the best.

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