children run across a grassy field
Scene from “Fanny’s Journey” (Photo/Menemsha Films)

True story of young girl’s derring-do lifts Holocaust escape film

Movies about Jews evading the Holocaust are, frankly, irresistible. We never tire of these celluloid beacons of hope, not least because we can never forget that the victims greatly outnumbered the escapees.

The challenge that filmmakers face in this area is keeping the rays of light in proportion to the vast darkness of reality. The vivid and moving drama “Fanny’s Journey,” based on the true story of survivor Fanny Ben-Ami, succeeds on that score by showing occupied France through the eyes of children who can’t fully apprehend the dangers all around them.

The viewer brings all the context that the titular heroine and her even younger charges lack. We fill in the off-screen horrors, from Paris deportations to labor and death camps in the east that are only briefly alluded to.

Consequently, the preponderance of bright, sunlit exteriors in “Fanny’s Journey” feels like a reflection of normal childhood rather than a phony but syrupy depiction of a grim day-to-day existence.

At the same time, every close call and near escape — and the movie abounds with them — is even more tense for the audience than for the fleeing children.

Adapted by French writer-director Lola Doillon from Ben-Ami’s 2011 autobiography, “Fanny’s Journey” will screen March 5 and 8 in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

The movie starts in 1943 at an idyllic country house teeming with children and a few doting adults. Thousands of French Jewish parents brought their kids to rural enclaves like this for safekeeping, hoping to reunite after the Nazis were expelled and the war ended.

With their father in a camp, Fanny and her two younger sisters cherish their mother’s letters, and Fanny takes bittersweet comfort in recalling vignettes from the family’s brief period of happiness together.

The siblings’ security and stability comes to an abrupt end when the staff learns the Nazis have been tipped off to the presence of Jewish children. This leads to a scene in which the kids are quickly loaded onto buses.

Across the border, the no-nonsense Madame Forman (Cécile de France) rules the roost. She has no time or inclination for coddling, but her harsh manner is both bracing and necessary: From here on, everyone’s survival depends on paying attention and following instructions.

After Forman hears the news of Mussolini’s arrest on the radio, she instantly assesses the consequences: The brutal Germans will now be in charge, not Italian soldiers and police, and Jews are in immediate danger.

children run on a train platform
Scene from “Fanny’s Journey” (Photo/Menemsha Films)

Forman and her assistant, a teenager named Eli, manage to board the children on a train toward the Swiss border, although it requires a desperate, gutsy distraction on her part.

She briefly meets up with the children subsequently, by which time Eli has fled. Out of options, Forman puts Fanny in charge of leading the eight other kids to safety. (In actuality, the 13-year-old shepherded 27 children. Apparently the truth would have been too much for moviegoers to accept.)

“Fanny’s Journey” depicts people helping endangered Jews for a variety of reasons, from love and innate humanity to simple commerce. The entire gamut of responses is evoked, with gratifying understatement: heroism, self-sacrifice, self-interest, indifference and betrayal.

The heart of the film, though, is the children’s response to the disorienting and difficult circumstances with which they must continually contend. The film rarely invokes the paranoid feeling of not knowing whom to trust; rather, the viewer understands that Fanny and her charges will have to ultimately save themselves.

To her credit, Doillon intersperses her film with interludes when the kids behave like kids — kicking a soccer ball, splashing in a stream, collecting wind-strewn currency in a meadow.

The director generally resists using the score to manipulate our emotions, though she occasionally veers into the broadly sentimental. For the viewer equipped with tissues, it’s not a problem.

“Fanny’s Journey” is an intelligent, gripping saga that honors the painful Jewish past and calls out French collaborators. If it also makes us mindful of child refugees and immigrants — compassion is a universal value.

“Fanny’s Journey,” 7:30 p.m. March 5 at Vine Cinema & Alehouse, 1722 First St., Livermore, and 7:30 p.m. March 8 at Century 16, 125 Crescent Drive, Pleasant Hill. $12 (In French with English subtitles, 94 minutes, unrated)

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.