Exploring a little-known side of occupied Paris during World War II, “Free Men” is a quiet and tense film that feels like a fable wrapped in history. It’s the story of Younes, an Algerian immigrant and black market profiteer, who slowly becomes politically and ethically conscious when he comes into contact with Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the head of the Mosque of Paris, and Salim Halali, a charismatic Algerian singer who, he discovers, is actually a Jew. Director Ismaël Ferroukhi decided to make the film when he learned that Paris had a significant Muslim population before the war and that the Paris mosque sheltered Jews under the Vichy regime. He wasn’t allowed to film at the mosque, but used a Moroccan mosque by the same architect as a stand-in — a strategy that was so effective that moviegoers in the same Paris neighborhood didn’t notice the difference.
“Free Men” was shown during Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and opens in New York today. ARTINFO France sat down with Ferroukhi and star Tahar Rahim to talk about ordinary heroes, how the Algerians were treated after the war, and why the shocking ending in the original screenplay didn’t get made.
Mosque director Si Kaddour Benghabrit and singer Salim Halali were actual people, but the main character, Younes, is a composite. How did you go about developing the character?
Ismaël Ferroukhi: When we studied the history, we discovered the different fates of these men, who arrived in France, who were workers, who fought. Some of them died in the camps. Others were able to escape or were liberated at the end of the war and returned to North Africa to continue the fight there. It was interesting to symbolize this with the character of Younes, who symbolizes all these individuals.
Tahar Rahim: Which is indicated at the end of the film, actually.
Was it important to you that Younes start off as a politically indifferent person, someone who’s just trying to make money and doesn’t care about what’s going on around him?
IF: Yes, it was very important because at the beginning I wanted somebody who was not political, who only needed to live, to help his family. Because he is colonized in his country, he can’t become political quickly. He has to have a path, to meet other people, Salim, the singer, Benghabrit, Leila, the girl...
TR: Even the Gestapo.
IF: Even the Gestapo. It was very interesting for us to be very accurate, and to speak not about heroes, but about humans. Simply humans.
Tahar, how did you go about preparing for this role? Was Younes someone whose motivations were easy to understand?
TR: It’s never easy to understand the motivations of a character, and especially this one. We started talking about it together, we had meetings, well before the filming, and tried to understand what were his primary motivations and what led him to become a different person, as Ismaël was saying before. And that leads to specific questions, such as, do we give him an accent or not? Very technical things. And we said no accent, because it would have been ridiculous. And then we asked, “Who is this hero? Is he a real hero? Is he an anti-hero?” And finally we decided he was an unassuming hero, who, as the film shows, and as Ismaël said, is a composite of all those people who fought for freedom and France, and the only way was to show this unassuming character, and to make sure he didn’t seem too modern in his movements and speech.
Was it a challenge to show him developing a political conscience very gradually?
TR: I think it’s something that comes out through confidence; it must be physical. After that, the rest comes from the screenplay, which was already carefully constructed. Because if the screenplay doesn’t allow for political consciousness, I don’t know how you act it.
IF: Yes, it’s the encounters, it’s the contact with others that lets him become aware. When he learns the story of the children [whose parents have been sent to a concentration camp], he doesn’t really want to look after for them, but it comes from something deep inside him, he can’t just let them...
TR: It’s his humanity. That’s what the film is about. You can’t let people die without doing anything.
What do you imagine Younes doing after the war? Would he go and become an Algerian freedom fighter?
TR: We don’t have to imagine it, we know. He goes to Algeria and continues the revolution.
IF: The people Younes is based on were in the streets on May 8, 1945, which was a celebration of the victory over the Germans, and during this an Algerian took out an Algerian flag, and something like 40,000 people were shot — it was a massacre. After that, the Algerians who had fought for freedom, who had fought alongside the Resistance, were ashamed to have helped people who would massacre them.
TR: It was the day Paris was liberated.
IF: So either Younes died waving the Algerian flag, which he finds at the end of the film, or he doesn’t die and he continues the fight in the Algerian War.
So the scene at the end where Younes takes out the Algerian flag raises these two possibilities.
IF: Exactly. I even had another ending in the screenplay with Younes taking out the flag and he gets shot and we ended the film there. That scene still exists for me, because we see him take out the flag. That’s the next fight.
And why didn’t you use that ending?
IF: I didn’t do it because there were two real figures in the film, Benghabrit and Salim Halali, whom we had to honor. And since Younes was inspired by many different people, I couldn’t tell Younes’s story — it would have been untrue to the others. So we had to keep it on the symbolic level.