What happens when a Holocaust denier moves into your cellar?
French psychological thriller is based on the true story of a Parisian Jewish couple who unknowingly sold basement space to a neo-Nazi antisemite, and fought for years to evict him
It’s a nightmare scenario: A Parisian couple sells storage space in its basement to a genial-seeming former history teacher, only to discover that he had moved in. Worse yet, the couple uncovers that the new tenant is an antisemitic Holocaust denier — and property law makes it nearly impossible to evict him.
That scenario is a new film that is based on a true story. The French-language psychological thriller “The Man in the Basement” was written and directed by Philippe Le Guay. The film opened on January 27 in New York, followed by screenings in Los Angeles and other US cities.
“This really happened to a couple I know,” filmmaker Le Guay said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.
In the film, architect Simon Sandberg (Jérémie Renier) and his medical technician wife Hélène (Bérénice Bejo) make the mistake of accepting payment from Jacques Fonzic (François Cluzet) and giving him the key to their cellar before signing over the deed to him. According to French law, handing over a key in exchange for money constitutes a sale. Between making the exchange and meeting at the lawyer’s office about the deed, the Sandbergs learn of Fonzic’s beliefs, but it is too late.
Fonzic, a high school history instructor fired for teaching untruths to his students, repeatedly claims to be misunderstood. To his mind, he is just an independent thinker who simply asks questions about what the world takes as given facts.
Slowly but surely, Fonzic begins to influence the Sandbergs’ teenage daughter, Justine (Victoria Eber). He also insinuates himself into the life of the apartment building, where other tenants begin to doubt that he poses a danger and take his side over the Sandbergs, who are desperately trying to find a legal way to oust the Holocaust denier.
“But unlike in the film where the husband is Jewish and the wife is not, the real-life couple are both Jewish,” filmmaker Le Guay said.
Speaking from Paris, Le Guay explained that he chose to portray them as an intermarried couple because he is not Jewish and he wanted that perspective in the film. It was a way of showing that Holocaust denial is an affront and danger not only to Jews but to everyone.
“The other reason for having this mixing of cultures is that the [non-Jewish] wife is almost more touched and exposed by this antagonism. She is much more reactive because she is very edgy and nervous about it. In the meantime, the main character [the husband], who is Jewish, is more easygoing with it. He doesn’t stand up for his identity. It gives a contrast and a very interesting opposition between the two characters,” Le Guay said.
Over time, however, Simon Sandberg’s equanimity is tested as he becomes increasingly frustrated by the legal obstacles to evicting Fonzic. When he learns that his impressionable daughter has been influenced by the conspiracy theorist, his rage spills over into violence.
Actor Cluzet plays Fonzic excellently, building up the tension between his character and Simon until the latter explodes. Cluzet keeps viewers on edge, portraying Fonzic with a down-on-his-luck-guy facade that hides an infernal mind that purposely aims to torment a Jewish family.
You don’t feel he is a violent man because he portrays himself as a victim
“I think there is nothing more dangerous than [Fonzic’s] way of thinking. He has this kind of respectability and smoothness, and the violence is hidden. You don’t feel he is a violent man because he portrays himself as a victim. That’s the whole irony. In the past years, it was the Jews who were the victims, and now in a twisted way, he becomes the victim of the Jews, the outcast. But of course, he chooses to be an outcast but he pretends to be a victim of the system,” Le Guay said.
The Fonzic character is inspired in part by French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. A former professor of French literature at the University of Lyon, he claimed that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and that deported Jews died of disease and malnutrition. Faurisson was dismissed from his position in 1991 and was repeatedly prosecuted after France made Holocaust denial a criminal offense in 1990. Friendly with and honored by prominent antisemites, Faurisson died in 2018.
“His was a very famous case. He was one of the fathers of negationism, but he was in the university and was not an ordinary schoolteacher. He had a prestigious position and managed to fool a lot of people for a while, including the leading newspaper Le Monde. He managed to publish an article where he questioned the existence of Auschwitz. It was in the 1970s. It was a real shock for everyone,” Le Guay said.
A current case of Holocaust denial does involve a dismissed French schoolteacher like Fonzic. Vincent Reynouard was fired in 2001 from his math teacher job for printing and distributing Holocaust-denying pamphlets and giving his students homework that involved counting concentration camp victims. He fled after being convicted, and was taken into custody in Scotland pending extradition to France this year.
In “The Man in the Basement,” the Sandbergs turn to several lawyers for help in evicting Fonzic, each of whom takes a different approach. One is knowledgeable about prosecuting Holocaust deniers, but she warns Simon Sandberg that it will take quite a long time. A friend who is an attorney ultimately agrees to take the case on and plans to approach it a different way.
“This lawyer sees it as a game and is portrayed closely to the lawyer who ultimately managed to win for the real-life couple after three trials. They managed to get rid of the Holocaust denier by establishing that the rules of property did not allow for the man to defecate in the corridor of the basement. And he was using the building’s electricity and water, and it was his being a nuisance that made the whole shift,” Le Guay said.
“And the story about the excrement in the film is a true story. Ultimately the lawyer put the guy’s dried feces on the judge’s table and that is how he got the judge to rule in the couple’s favor so they could finally get rid of the guy,” he said.
Le Guay takes the opportunity in the film to explore the differences within the Sandberg family in terms of their Jewish identities, which are brought to the fore by the crisis with Fonzic. Wife Hélène, although not Jewish, becomes more involved than anyone in the family’s Holocaust history both intellectually and emotionally.
Ultimately the lawyer put the guy’s dried feces on the judge’s table and that is how he got the judge to rule in the couple’s favor
And while it takes Simon a while to come to grips with why he is so angry with Fonzic, his older brother David (who co-owns the Paris apartment with Simon and their mother) is immediately ready to take an aggressive stance.
“David is much more physical. He knows every inch of his history. He is a practicing Jew. He goes to synagogue. He is very active in his relationship with Judaism,” Le Guay notes.
David does Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense sport. In the film, his son and Simon’s daughter Justine join the Krav Maga club and are seen practicing. This is perhaps a not-so-subtle hint that in this time of rising antisemitism Jews must learn to defend themselves.
The visual language of “The Man in the Basement” is full of metaphors beyond Krav Maga, including a mold stain on the Sandbergs’ bathroom ceiling that keeps growing and withstands efforts to remove it. In fact, the film’s entire premise is a powerful metaphor.
“The basis of the story is already a metaphor. I didn’t have anything to invent. Having this man in the basement is a metaphor for all the low instincts of hatred and despise and ambivalence. All the things we want to repress and ignore in life you put in the basement. And this man is like a symbol, a metaphor for this situation. I had to tell the story and the metaphor would speak for itself,” Le Guay said.
According to the director, it is imperative that we not ignore the words and deeds of contemporary Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists like Fonzic as they shift from pretending to raise questions to progressively abandoning the truth, history, and reality.
“The perversity of the thinking of these guys… how they twist reality and say that they are not pretending that this thing didn’t happen, but ask if we really have the proof and the truth. It is not a way that wants to find a different truth but that wants to destroy the truth. It’s a way of thinking that is entirely destructive,” Le Guay said.
The damage these people do can have a huge social and political impact, but it can also affect things on a much more intimate scale.
The stress of dealing with the Holocaust denier in their basement led the real-life couple upon which the film is based to split up. In the film, the Sandbergs are torn apart but ultimately reunite.
“They manage to come back together but you see that they are wounded,” Le Guay said.
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