The Jewish woman who entered a Nazi camp to marry the French prime minister
‘An Irrepressible Woman’ tells the true WWII story of Jeanne Reichenbach, who went voluntarily to Buchenwald, where she married three-time French premier Léon Blum
In an improbable wartime wedding at the infamous concentration camp of Buchenwald, two Jewish captives were united in matrimony: a Frenchwoman named Jeanne “Janot” Reichenbach and her longtime lover, Léon Blum, a former socialist prime minister of France. The ceremony was made possible because Reichenbach had voluntarily sought to join Blum at the camp after he was imprisoned there in 1943.
Reichenbach’s courage is reflected in a new French feature film, “Je ne rêve que de vous,” with the English title “An Irrepressible Woman.” Directed by acclaimed French Jewish filmmaker Laurent Heynemann, it was recently screened at its Midwest premiere at the Chicago JCC Jewish Film Festival on March 1.
A veteran director and a member of the Legion of Honor, Heynemann described himself as “passionate about history” in an email interview with The Times of Israel. In addition to World War II, his previous work includes films about other significant periods in French history, such as the reign of Louis XIV and the Algerian War. For his latest WWII project, he wanted to tell the story of the war through a female perspective.
Heynemann learned about Reichenbach — who later took Blum’s surname — from a novel by French historian Dominique Missika. “When you have such a strong character, you’re pretty sure there’s a movie behind it,” Heynemann said.
As the film reflects, Reichenbach had to make difficult choices during the war, including forgoing escape from Europe to stay with Blum — the first Jewish prime minister of France, who served as premier three times over the course of his life, both before and after the war.
Reichenbach did not leave Blum even as his situation worsened after the Fall of France. Vichy placed him and other former leaders on trial for alleged responsibility for France’s 1940 defeat by Germany, then suspended the trial and sent him to Buchenwald.
“This is a film about two amazing people, both of whom made a profound impact on the world in which they lived,” Ilene Uhlmann, director of the JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival, said in a statement. “Léon Blum was a respected politician in France until becoming vilified by the Vichy regime. Jeanne Reichenbach was a woman born before her time. Her ambitions, strength and perseverance were remarkable for this time.”
César award winner Elsa Zylberstein stars as Reichenbach. The actress has played historical roles in the past, including in the 1991 Maurice Pialat film “Van Gogh.”
“I was looking for someone who could modernize Janot, give her an active and energetic tone,” Heynemann said. “When she acts, it feels like she’s grabbing the movie and I love it.”
She and co-star Hippolyte Girardot, who plays Blum, have drawn rave reviews in the French press for their individual roles and collective chemistry. Heynemann said that “my favorite scenes are the ones that show the intimacy of Janot and Léon.”
According to Heynemann, he and his co-screenwriter, Guy Béraud, came up with “a lot of different versions of the structure of the film” before deciding upon the final cut.
“There was even a version which began with the death of Janot — like in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” Heynemann said. “Another began with the return of Léon Blum in France in 1945, but we realized that the scenario needed to be articulated around the romantic relationship, and not only on the historical reconstruction.”
“I hope that Jeanne’s constant impulse for Léon, this slightly crazy, undivided monomania, speaks well of the type of romantic relationship between these two characters,” Heynemann said.
In the film, Reichenbach (née Levylier) is described as first falling in love with Blum when she was 16. He was a 43-year-old husband and father, an intellectual who discussed Goethe with Marcel Proust. After the death of his first wife, Lise Bloch, he remarried to Thérѐse Pereyra, who also predeceased him in 1938.
By decade’s end, the celebrated author had been prime minister twice, but his achievements as head of the Popular Front socialist government — including a 40-hour workweek and paid leave — were unappreciated by anti-Semites.
“Léon Blum was a great victim of French anti-Semitism in the 1930s,” Heynemann said. “Insulted, physically assaulted, he always claimed that he was French, republican, atheist, socialist and Jew.”
By WWII, Reichenbach had married and divorced twice. Her first husband, Henry Torrès, was a prominent French Jewish lawyer whose clients included Herschel Grynzpan, a Polish Jew who fatally shot German official Ernst von Rath — an event which the Nazis used as a pretext for the Kristallnacht pogrom. The couple had two children. She then married French Jewish businessman Henri Reichenbach. The film depicts both of her ex-husbands, and her son Georges Torrès, in flight from France. She is offered a chance to leave as well, but decides to stay with Blum.
Her loyalty is tested as Blum is imprisoned by Vichy, making it hard for her to visit him. She is challenged in another way by Blum’s stepdaughter Renée Blum, who also stays in France to support him. Played by Cannes award-winner Émilie Dequenne, Renée Blum initially disapproves of Reichenbach’s presence, which she considers scandalous. Yet she softens as she realizes how much her stepfather and Reichenbach love each other and benefit from each other’s company.
When the stakes get higher for Blum, his stepdaughter and his lover work together to support him. In the Riom Trial, which began in 1942, Vichy accused him and other former leaders of responsibility for France’s defeat. Reichenbach and Renée Blum show solidarity during the trial, as do other women with ties to those before the court — including singer Cora Madou, the wife of accused former minister Guy La Chambre, and Béatrice Bretty, a TV star and significant other of French Jewish politician Georges Mandel.
In a memorable scene, Madou is unable to pay for her hotel room and sings for it instead. She and Janot team up for a rousing performance of Madou’s “I only dream of him” — a song that “had the benefit of [echoing] something Janot might have said about Léon,” Heynemann said.
The trial is suspended after Vichy grows fearful of sympathy toward the defendants. In 1943, Blum is sent to Buchenwald. Reichenbach visits the notorious Vichy second-in-command, Pierre Laval, and asks for permission to join her lover at the camp. She stays there with Blum, his Jehovah’s Witness aide Joachim, and a fellow inmate, Georges Mandel, in conditions isolated from the misery of the more than 200,000 general inmates during the war. The Nazis even permit their wedding, which is attended by Joachim and Mandel, as well as by camp staff members, one of whom officiates.
“This wedding will allow her to never leave Léon and especially in the episode of their release [which is not in the film], she was able to prove her legitimacy as a wife to stay with him, because the Germans wanted to separate them,” Heynemann said.
The couple survived the war, but at significant cost. Mandel was killed by the Fascist Milice militia. Reichenbach’s ex-husband Henri Reichenbach committed suicide during the war, and her son Georges Torrès died fighting for the Allies during the liberation of France in 1944. He had, however, married his wife Tereska Torrès, and they had a daughter, Dominique Torrès. Heynemann calls Tereska Torrès “an extraordinary woman.”
After the war, Blum went on to serve a third term as prime minister before his death in 1950. That same year, his widow founded a school to train disadvantaged girls in medical careers that still exists today.
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