Marceline Loridan-Ivens is known around the world for the superb documentaries that she codirected with her husband, the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898–1989). But the earliest part of her career, as well as her most recent work, depart from the documentaries by providing very personal, profoundly moving reflections on her identity as a Jewish woman, and it is her latest film, A Birch Tree Meadow/La petite prairie aux bouleaux (2003), that both established her as a significant voice in Jewish cinema and inaugurated (at age 75!) a new career as a feature film maker.
Born in Épinal, France, in 1928, Marceline Loridan was among the Jews already in hiding during World War II when she was arrested with her father in the Vaucluse in 1943. Deported to Birkenau, where her father perished, Marceline returned to France in July 1945. It was her experience as a young Holocaust survivor that made her the principal figure in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1959 landmark film, Chronique d’un été/Chronicle of a Summer. This film, a broad panorama of Parisian daily life in the summer of conflict in Algeria and the Congo, inaugurated both the Cinéma Vérité/documentary style of the French New Wave and Loridan’s close working friendship with Rouch, the outstanding ethnographic filmmaker, a relationship that lasted over half a century until Rouch’s sudden death in 2004. Chronique’s blend of intimacy and committed politics was to form Loridan’s early career as a journalist and television producer and in 1962 she codirected the provocative Algérie année zéro with Jean-Pierre Sergent.
By the time that Loridan met Joris Ivens in 1963, he was already a celebrated Leftist documentary and experimental filmmaker with a long list of international activist projects to his credit (including The Spanish Earth, 1936, Power and the Land, 1940, Indonesia Calling, 1946, and A Valparaiso, 1960). Their thirty-year age difference seems to have enhanced rather than detracted from their relationship. Their marriage and highly productive collaborative career ended only with Ivens’s death in 1989. Among their most famous documentaries are Le ciel, la terre (1965), about the origins of the war in Viet Nam; The 17th Parallel, Le peuple et ses fusils, and La guerre populaire au Laos (all 1968, all made in conjunction with the North Vietnamese and all about the Laotian popular struggle); and the highly-acclaimed series of twelve films about China, How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976). In 1985 Loridan began collaborating with Elizabeth D. Prasetyo on a screenplay for a documentary about Ivens’s life and work, A Tale of the Wind (1988), which critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls “a mind-boggling documentary full of magic and fantasy that beautifully encapsulates the career that preceded it.” Loridan subsequently created the Joris Ivens Foundation in Holland and the Association des Amis de Joris Ivens in France, both committed to human rights and social responsibility.
In 1993 Loridan began working on a project that she says had been in her mind most of her life, the scenario for Petite prairie, her first feature-length fiction film and the first film ever shot at Birkenau (whose German translation is “birch tree meadow”). Starring Anouk Aimée as an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor in her early seventies who returns to the camp in an attempt to banish haunting memories of the past, the film is ultimately uplifting in its hopeful message of human connection. In response to the question “Why so late?” Loridan answers, “I have let so many years pass before bringing my own contribution to that living memorial of the Holocaust made up from the memories of those who survived it, simply because for all that time I was incapable of doing it. As a person, like so many other survivors, [I thought] it was better to remain silent. But today, as an artist, although I truly fear that I don’t have the capacity, I know I have the duty to express myself and add my voice to those of people who have had the courage to speak before the death of the last survivor sends the camps into the realm of History once and for all.” And with this exquisitely meditative film that redefines the categories of documentary and fiction, Loridan has truly created what she calls “A history lesson, full of sensitivity, so we never forget, for our generation and for future generations.”
Chronique d’un été, 1959; Algérie année zéro, 1962; Europort Rotterdam, 1963; Le ciel, la terre, 1965; Le 17ème parallel, 1968; Le peuple et ses fusils, 1968; Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes, 1971–1976; Une histoire de vent, 1988; La petite prairie aux bouleaux, 2003.
Golem, l’esprit de l’exil, 1992; Peut-être, 1999.