← Back to Reviews

The Two of Us

The Two of Us (1967)

A little boy named Claude lives in Paris with his parents during WW2, but the family is Jewish and his parents are afraid of what will happen to him. Claude is thus sent to stay with the parents of family friends in the countryside. The elderly couple, called Pepe and Meme, do not know that Claude is Jewish and hold some anti-Semitic beliefs.

There are a lot of movies out there about prejudice/bias, and many of them take the same basic structure: two people are forced to work/live together and as they learn more about each other they come to appreciate one another's culture.

This is decidedly not how The Two of Us chooses to approach the topic. Claude is given a crash course in Catholicism before he leaves home, and his hosts never suspect that he is Jewish. The film instead makes its point by demonstrating the gap between the biases that people hold and how they actually come to feel about those people in reality.

The film displays this point in multiple ways. Perhaps the most obvious is the subplot of the rabbits. Pepe is a former soldier and your typical "grumpy old man". Pepe is also . . . a vegetarian. Why? Because he loves the rabbits, he knows the rabbits, and he cannot eat them.

As the film goes on, Claude quietly and attentively listens as Pepe lectures about "the Jews". In perhaps my favorite sequence, Claude freaks out because he "must be a Jew", and then Pepe takes him in front of a mirror and explains to him all the reasons why he cannot be Jewish--the straightness of his nose, the lack of curly hair. Suddenly, a wide-eyed Claude points out that Pepe has a hooked nose and curly hair and runs to tell Meme that Pepe is Jewish. Under Claude's gentle questioning, Pepe's biases repeatedly show that they are illogical.

The movie isn't about Pepe learning a lesson or changing his beliefs. Instead it's about understanding that Pepe's perception of the Jewish people comes from what he hears on the radio and old cultural biases. He has a Jewish person in his household, and unabashedly comes to love and treasure him. Pepe's biases come from ignorance, not hate. At the same time, though, it's easy to see how his biases are harmful. Pepe believes that the War is the fault of the Jews. And when he talks about them as being a "greedy" people, there is an undertone of suggesting that they've brought troubles on themselves. It is possible for someone to be a loving and caring person, and yet to have prejudices that cause harm to others.

On even a third allegorical level, the film devotes a chunk of time to Claude's treatment at the local school. He is routinely picked on by the other students for being different. In a harrowing scene, he is punished by the headmistress by having his head shaved. The response in watching these scenes is "someone should do something!", and Pepe reacts strongly to Claude's despair. As the nation frets about involvement in the war, the film poses the question of what one should do in the face of injustice.

Overall the film is incredibly well-acted, especially Michel Simon as Pepe. The dynamics between the characters are very real feeling, in particular the grumbling-but-loving banter between Pepe and Meme. The film exists in a very specific place and time, but I think that its message about empathy, understanding, and prejudice is universal.