1921 – 1985
It might come as a surprise that Simone Signoret, the legendary French actress known primarily for the ageless radical sensuality that she brought to the screen, deserves to be included in the pantheon of genuine Jewish heroes. Certainly her five-decade career of more than sixty films, her Leftist politics (that earned her and her husband Yves Montand [1921–1991] both the admiration of liberals around the world and vilification by the United States State Department), and her unassailable talent in creating not only memorable but iconic female heroes at every stage of her career, give her an important place in twentieth-century cultural history. But the Jewish nature of her activities, both on screen and off, is relatively unknown to her public, discernable primarily in the projects she undertook during the last decade of her life: a documentary about foreign Jewish resistance fighters during World War II, Terrorists in Retirement by Bulgarian filmmaker Mosco Boucault (1983); her autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be (1978), whose paradoxical title Signoret says she found as graffiti in New York City; and her highly acclaimed second novel, Adieu Volodia (1985), which evokes Jewish immigrant life in Paris between 1919 and 1945 with extraordinary sensitivity and power.
It is to be expected, perhaps, that Signoret’s particular commitment to issues of Jewish identity would be absorbed in the general assessment of her career as an actress and an activist. As Jack Lang, French minister of culture, eulogized, “Miss Signoret was an unshakeable militant, in the front rank of all the battles for human rights, under all regimes and on all horizons. It was faith that sustained her, faith in her ideals of liberty and progress.” Or as the novelist Marguerite Duras proclaimed, “She was a queen. She freed France from all her limitations and made her an international presence.” Upon the actress’s death, the leftist paper Libération put it most succinctly, covering the entire front page with one word: Simone. Yet for all the general praise for Signoret’s cinematic, political, and humanitarian endeavors, the connection to Jewish values is seemingly unacknowledged, until one looks closely at the character of these final works.
Born Simone Kaminker on March 21, 1921 to French parents in Wiesbaden in the Rhineland where her father was stationed after World War I, Simone spent her childhood in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-Sur-Seine mainly with her mother and two brothers. Her father was the son of a Polish Jew and an Austrian Jewess who, according to Signoret (who took her mother’s name in the early 1940s to avoid Nazi scrutiny when she began working in films), never forgave him for marrying out of the faith. Signoret writes about her father as “the archetype of the assimilated Jew” and points out that her first recognition of what was happening to Jews in Europe came from her mother’s (not her Jewish father’s) concern about the Jewish refugee children fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. By the time the Germans occupied France, Signoret’s father had fled to England and she herself had joined the group of politically conscious intellectuals around the Café de Flore who were to remain her friends and professional colleagues throughout her life. It was in this atmosphere of political discourse and committed camaraderie that Simone Signoret’s film career began.
In the 1940s the “thinking man’s sex symbol” started work as an extra in French films, where her stunning beauty attracted the attention of director Yves Allégret, who became her husband (1948–1949) and the father of her only child, her daughter Catherine. It was in one of Allégret’s films, Dédée d’Anvers (1948), that Signoret produced her signature role of the “prostitute with a heart of gold,” lending a subtlety and depth to the performance that transformed the cliché into an enduring icon. Signoret was to provide ever more complex variants of this role as she matured, creating heroines noted for their strength and independence while retaining the dazzling sensuality associated with her screen personae. Two years after Dédée she played a more vicious version of her character as the scheming shrew in Allégret’s Manèges (1950), but she had already divorced him and become involved with the great love of her life, Yves Montand, to whom she remained married until her death in 1985 (“Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years. That is what makes a marriage last—more than passion or even sex!”). Montand adopted Catherine immediately, and by the time Signoret wrote her autobiography, the family unit of Montand-Signoret, Catherine, and Catherine’s son Benjamin was the unassailable core of the actress’s life.
From 1950 to 1955 Signoret created the roles with which she is most identified in the early stage of her career, a moody, sensual, scintillating presence that made her first a national and then an international symbol: La Ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950), Thérèse Raquin (Marcel Carné, 1953), Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), and Casque d’Ôr (Jacques Becker, 1952). The latter film not only established Signoret as an actress of range and complexity, but galvanized her career as a first-rate star; it remained her favorite rôle, along with Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958, for which she received an Oscar). Room at the Top marked the next phase of Signoret’s career and truly launched her on the international scene; she was honored as Best Actress by both British and American film academies and by the Cannes Film Festival for her role as Alice Aisgill, an aging, unhappily married woman who believes she has found true love. Signoret gave all of her scenes (not only the sexual ones) a depth and passion that gave the film itself, a modest production of the British cinema, the status of high art.
The couple Signoret-Montand is known for its engagement with causes of social justice and human liberation. They campaigned publicly against the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Vietnam War and the Algerian War; at the same time they refused to obey the party line and personally told Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev of their opinion about Hungary in 1956. Throughout the 1950s the U.S. State Department made it difficult for Montand to tour the country; later they welcomed the French activists/performers who became involved in a variety of causes on the left. It was their deep opposition to the execution of the Rosenbergs that led them to make a filmed version of Arthur Miller’s anti-Blacklist The Crucible (The Witches of Salem, Raymond Rouleau, 1957). This resulted in the famous stay in California where Montand had an affair with Miller’s wife, Marilyn Monroe. Signoret was never threatened by this, as the longevity of their marriage confirms. Claiming that she was not surprised that Marilyn was in love with Montand (“If Marilyn is in love with my husband it proves she has good taste, for I am in love with him too.”), Signoret staked her own professional terrain with the same logic: “Hordes of young girls never copied my hairdos or the way I talk or the way I dress. I have, therefore, never had to go through the stress of perpetuating an image that’s often the equivalent of one particular song that forever freezes a precise moment of one’s youth.”
And in fact, as she matured, Signoret created new and memorable roles that defied the more traditional pitfalls of the aging female star: Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965), The Sleeping Car Murders (Costa-Gavras, 1965), Is Paris Burning? (René Clément, 1966), Games (Curtis Harrington, 1967), L’Armée des Ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969). In the 1970s Signoret continued to create iconic female figures, most notably as the age-worn but compassionate madam who takes care of prostitutes’ children in Madame Rosa (Moise Mizrahi, 1977). From this, one might be able to extrapolate the emergence of a Jewish consciousness in Signoret’s work, not as an actress, but as a writer and activist.
This is most apparent in the work Signoret did around Mosco Boucault’s documentary film, Terrorists in Retirement. This extraordinary film about a group of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who, during World War II, formed an activist wing of the Communist Resistance in Paris and elsewhere, was almost not shown. Both Signoret and Montand supported the film’s production (Signoret provides the narration) and agitated tirelessly for its release. The documentary caused a two-year controversy which saw it banned from French television. When the ban was lifted (the year of Signoret’s death), it introduced a whole new dimension to studies of French historical memory, specifically so far as the reality of Jews was concerned. Signoret’s part in this cannot be underestimated. Her autobiography, written some ten years before this film, describes the atmosphere of wartime France, her emerging political consciousness and her enduring commitment to issues of social justice. But it is only after the experience of Terrorists in Retirement that Signoret was able to write her novel, Adieu Volodia, which heralded her amazing new literary career, sadly cut short by her death on September 30, 1985. The French daily paper Le Figaro called it “An enormous, massive, monumental novel. Signoret emerges as a novelist of exceptional breadth and generosity, with a human warmth most current novelists completely lack.”
In 1968 at Cannes, Chris Marker’s homage film was screened to an audience who appropriately celebrated Signoret’s years of screen excellence and political commitment. But the inner story of her specifically Jewish identification is yet to be told. We can find it in the interstices of her writing, the profound sadness mixed with celebration, as she looks at the lives of two families of Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, through the heady days of the Popular Front (which saw the election of a Jewish Socialist as Premier), to the devastation of the deportations and Nazi persecution, and finally to the affirmation of Jewish cultural history and family in the present time. Or perhaps one can see the unintended legacy in the screen work of her daughter Catherine, who played the role of Jewish survivor Simone Lagrange in the 1986 TV movie Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story, which outlines the heroic struggle of the women of Izieu as they challenged the establishment and brought Klaus Barbie to justice.
Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be. San Francisco: 1978; Adieu Volodia. London: 1985.
Boléro, 1941; Les Visiteurs du Soir, 1942; La Boîte aux Rêves, 1943; Macadam, 1946; Dédée D’Anvers, 1948; Manèges, 1949; La Ronde, 1950; Casque d’Or, 1952; Thérèse Raquin, 1953; Diabolique, 1955; Les Sorcières de Salem, 1957; Room at the Top, 1958; Dragués au Poivre, 1963; Ship of Fools, 1965; The Sleeping Car Murders, 1965; Is Paris Burning? 1966; Games, 1967; The Seagull, 1968; L’Armée des Ombres, 1969; L’Aveu, 1970; Rude Journée Pour la Reine, 1973; Madame Rosa, 1977; Judith Therpauve, 1978; L’Adolescente, 1979; Chère Inconnue, 1981; L’Etoile du Nord, 1982.
Terrorists in Retirement (Narrator), 1985/2001; Hommage à Simone Signoret, 1986; Cinéma d’Ombre, 1977; Fond de l’Air est Rouge/Grin Without a Cat (Narrator), 1977/2002; Henri Langlois, 1970; Cinéma de Notre Temps, 1967; The Love Goddesses, 1965; Le Joli Mai, 1963.