Holocaust denial, a relatively new form of antisemitism, is at the core of Philippe Le Guay’s sizzling drama, The Man in the Basement, which will be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on June 1.
It all starts innocently enough, but ends violently in a welter of fisticuffs and a cascade of epithets.
Simon Sandberg (Jeremie Renier), a Jewish architect in Paris, sells a dark basement in his apartment building to Jacques Fonzic (Francois Cluzet), a retired history teacher, on the understanding that it will be used as a storage area. When Sandberg learns that Fonzic violated the terms of the sale, he grows angry. What is Fonzic up to?
Another alarm bell goes off when Fonzic asks Sandberg’s adopted teenage daughter, Justine (Victoria Eber), an inappropriate question.
Having aroused his suspicion, Sandberg learns that Fonzic was dismissed from his position in a high school because he is a Holocaust denier. In France, Holocaust denial is illegal.
In a rage, Sandberg tears up his sales contract with Fonzic and orders him to leave the basement. Fonzic refuses to cooperate and refers to Sandberg in a derogatory fashion.
Sandberg is confident he can evict him, but his lawyer dashes his hopes. David (Jonathan Zaccai), Sandberg’s brother, is upset that they are saddled with a Holocaust denier. David eventually confronts Fonzic, but he remains unflappable and unmoved.
A soft-spoken, gentle man on the surface, Fonzic tries to mollify Helene (Berenice Bejo), Sandberg’s Catholic wife, but she’s on to him. Helene reads Fonzic’s Holocaust denial articles online and urges her husband to act more aggressively.
The burning question facing Sandberg and his brother is how to nullify the sale. Since both are the descendants of a Holocaust survivor, the emotional stakes are high. Sandberg wants to challenge Fonzic’s ownership to the basement claim in a court, but David seeks to discredit him as a Holocaust denier.
In the meantime, Fonzic is bombarding Sandberg with annoying e-mails and trying to persuade Justine — a devotee of krav maga, an Israeli martial arts program — that he is merely a “researcher” challenging “preconceived ideas” and attempting to ascertain the truth.
At one uncomfortable point, Justine seems to have been brainwashed when she states that Fonzic has the right to challenge the “official truth” about the Holocaust. Little does she know that he is a crude antisemite.
The film succeeds in capturing the high tension between the Sandbergs and their stubborn adversary. This is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill dispute. It goes to the heart of their respective identities.
The escalating conflict between the Sandbergs and Fonzic draws in the residents of the building, one of whom seems to sympathize with Fonzic. It also undermines Sandberg’s loving relationship with his wife.
On two occasions, the tension escalates when the door of Sandberg’s flat is daubed in white paint with the word “Juden” and a Star of David.
The Man in the Basement addresses an important issue. Nearly 80 years after the end of World War II and the fall of the Third Reich, the veracity of one of the most horrendous and documented catastrophes of the twentieth century is distressingly being questioned and denied.
This phenomenon speaks to the somber fact that antisemitism never dies and mutates into different forms, forcing every generation to combat this malevolent evil.