'I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many'

‘The Jewish Cardinal’ opens 17th UK film festival

French director tells The Times of Israel how he brought the conflicted life of Jean-Marie Lustiger, a convert to Catholicism while hiding from the Nazis, to the silver screen

'The Jewish Cardinal,' a dramatization of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger's life and work. (photo credit: courtesy)
'The Jewish Cardinal,' a dramatization of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger's life and work. (photo credit: courtesy)

LONDON — After the German invasion of France in May 1940, countless Jewish children were hidden in safe houses. Among them were siblings Aaron and Arlette Lustiger who were sheltered by a Catholic woman in Orleans.

The historical record clearly shows it was not unusual for children hidden in French religious institutions to convert to Catholicism, whether through force or desire. Aaron converted at age 14 in August 1940.

What is unusual, however, is that after the Holocaust — during which the children’s mother was murdered in Auschwitz — Aaron, now called Jean-Marie, became a priest and quickly rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church to become Archbishop of Paris, and later a cardinal. All the while considering himself “Jewish.”

Opening the 17th UK Jewish Film Festival on October 30 in London, Ilan Duran Cohen’s film “The Jewish Cardinal” dramatizes the story of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007).

According to UKJF founder and executive director, Judy Ironside MBE, this year’s festival is a “significantly good year” with 81 screenings from 21 countries including Norway, Serbia and Ukraine. Israel represents a third of all the films shown.

Showcasing cinematic stories of Jewish and Israeli life and culture, a small festival that began in Brighton in 1997 is now the largest film festival of its kind in Europe and is the major exhibitor of films with Jewish themes in the UK and in Europe.

“The Jewish Cardinal” will be screened at the first night gala of the festival, where director Duran Cohen is assured a packed house.

Born in Paris to Polish-Jewish immigrants, for his own part, Lustiger proudly maintained his cultural identity as a Jew, even after converting to Catholicism as a teenager and later joining the priesthood. Pope Jean Paul II, a close confidante, appointed him Archbishop of Paris in 1981. He was made cardinal two years later.

Lustiger's close ties with Pope John Paul II brought him out of relative political obscurity to becoming the Archbishop of Paris. (photo credit: courtesy)
Lustiger’s close ties with Pope John Paul II brought him out of relative political obscurity to becoming the Archbishop of Paris. (photo credit: courtesy)

For French director Duran Cohen, Lustiger’s life and work — a story imbued with conflict and complexity — “had all the ingredients for a great movie.”

Speaking on the phone from Israel where he had presented his film at the Jewish Eye film festival in Ashkelon earlier this month, French writer/director Duran Cohen explains he has always been fascinated by stories about identity.

“I kept asking, ‘How can it be possible? How can you be a Jew and a Catholic?’ To me it was a total enigma,” he says.

Lustiger, however, was always emphatic about his duel identity. In an early interview as Archbishop, he said, “I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”

Lustiger was a champion of interfaith dialogue and “The Jewish Cardinal” explores these intricacies of balancing faith, family and identity. In a scene in which nuns settle to build a convent within the walls of Auschwitz (where his mother died in 1943), his Jewishness comes most sharply to the fore and Lustiger finds himself a mediator between the two communities.

In “real life” Lustiger also led the battle against the canonization of the Spanish Queen Isabella I of Castille on the grounds that she and husband Ferdinand ruthlessly expelled the Jews of Spain in 1492.

Although documentaries have been made about Lustiger’s life and he has been the subject of several biographies, Duran Cohen says that he wants his historical drama to pose an element of mystery and questioning: Did Lustiger manage to maintain his status as both a Jew and a Catholic? Is it even possible?

The film is not didactic; it leaves audiences to decide for themselves. But Duran Cohen acknowledges that, being Jewish, it is crucial that he be objective in his account and not weigh too heavily on one side or the other.

Ilan Duran Cohen walked 'on eggshells' in creating 'The Jewish Cardinal.' (photo credit: © Fugitive productions)
Ilan Duran Cohen walked ‘on eggshells’ in creating ‘The Jewish Cardinal.’ (photo credit: © Fugitive productions)

“I was treading on eggshells with this movie. It’s still a touchy subject; for the Catholics he’s a Jew and for the Jews, he’s Catholic.”

Duran Cohen says Lustiger’s family was very against the project — as was the French Church — in spite of his assurance that his intention was to be respectful and not depict Lustiger in a negative manner. Duran Cohen did meet with Lustiger’s niece who had been close to him, but to date has not received a response from any of the family about the film.

Central to the film’s narrative is the close relationship between Lustiger and Pope John Paul II. Lustiger’s family told Duran Cohen that they held much love and mutual respect for one another but he says that what is shown on screen is a rather dramatized interpretation of their relationship, based on extensive research.

“I treated them like two cowboys; they wanted to change things and [at times] were in conflict.”

Considering this is not a documentary, Duran Cohen took creative freedom with certain details, but “not a lot,” he says.

Lustiger was known as “The Bulldozer” and his dramatized character is tamed a little. In reality he was much angrier, more inflamed, says Duran Cohen.

His epitaph, which Lustiger wrote himself in 2004, declares that he was born Jewish and remained so

When pressed to elaborate on where else the truth was elaborated or dramatized, he says, “It’s always a tricky question. I’m always asked and I’m trying not to answer!” He reiterates that the film was inspired by Lustiger’s life and it remains a fictionalized unauthorized account, but adds, “We were pretty close.”

He says that Jews from mixed faith backgrounds have told him that they have been moved by the film and suggests that, “somehow it’s their subject too.”

For a film made for French-German television network, Arte, Duran Cohen says that he is amazed at the positive response. It is being sold outside France and recently won the grand prize at a film festival in Korea.

For those watching it through Jewish eyes, there are moments when “The Jewish Cardinal” can make particularly poignant viewing, such as witnessing Lustiger’s decision not to say kaddish for his father. But, explains Duran Cohen, it is unknown what actually happened, with some books saying he did say kaddish, others that he did not or could not.

What is known, however, is that Lustiger requested kaddish be recited for him after his own death, which was performed by his cousin in front of the portal of Notre Dame Cathedral, where he was buried. His epitaph, which Lustiger wrote himself in 2004, declares that he was born Jewish and remained so.

Duran Cohen believes that “the movie is about reconciliation with yourself and reconciliation with the other, with your identity.” He thinks Lustiger came to terms with himself, with his father, his family and with the Jews.

Lustiger tried to bridge both faiths Duran Cohen says, “It was as if he tried to be accepted by his past, his future and his present. I guess he walked on a tightrope and found his equilibrium.”

“Maybe it’s a bit idealistic, but the bottom line is that kaddish was said for him.”

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