Michael Hasanavicius in his Cannes film 'The Most Precious of Merchandise’

Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of „The Artist,” makes his first foray into animation with „The Most Precious of Cargoes,” making its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 24. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Jean-Claude Krumberg. The Most Precise of Cargoes is the first animated feature to compete for the Palme d’Or since Ari Follman’s „Waltz with Bashir” in 2008; It was the last film seen by the competition jury, chaired by Greta Gerwig, before the closing ceremony.

Hassanavicius developed the project over several years and wrote the script with Krumberg, as well as drawing the drawings. Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat composed the original score. The play intertwines the fate of a Jewish family deported to Auschwitz, including newborn twins, with that of a poor and childless woodcutter couple living deep in the Polish forest. On the train to the death camp, the young father wraps one of his twins in a shawl and throws him off the train into the snow. A lone woodcutter saw the trains pass by and stumbled across the „cargo” hoping they would leave behind some resources and found the girl. She decides to take him home.

„The Most Precious of Cargoes” is co-produced and represented internationally by Studiocon, which will release the film in France on November 20. It was produced by Patrick Sobelman and Robert Cudigouen at France’s Ex Nihilo, as well as Florence Castaud and Hasanavicius Compagnons de Cinema in Les. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are co-producing under the Les Films du Fluve banner. Hasanavicius spoke Variety Ahead of the film’s world premiere, to discuss his personal connection to the story, its timeless appeal and universal themes.

You first told me about this project years ago. How did it come together?

Michael Hassanavicius: In Jean-Claude Krumberg’s eponymous book, it started five and a half years ago… you could say it started when I was born, Jean-Claude was my parents’ best friend since they were 16. Anyway, before the book was published, Robert Kudikuen presented it [producer] Patrick Sobelman. The latter and Studiochannel approached me to see if I would be interested in making it into an animated film. I was a bit hesitant because it was animation and a story about the Holocaust, and it seemed very scary to me. But ultimately the story is so beautiful, and after talking to Jean-Claude, I knew I had to get on board.

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The animation in the film looks singular. How did you develop this aesthetic?

MH: It’s 2D with real graphics. I have been drawing since I was 10 years old and drew all the characters, it was my first passion. I’m primarily inspired by early Disney movies. But then together with my art director Julian Grande, we changed a bit. We mixed the painting with Japanese prints that have flat areas, so it really fits the animation and this literary feel. There are some pictures that look like beautiful illustrated books from the 1930s. That was the style I wanted to create.

How does the historical background of the film resonate with you?

MH: The story echoes a very personal family experience as I am the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe – Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania. My grandparents survived Auschwitz, but their family members and friends did not.

Did you grow up hearing stories about death camps?

MH: Of course, and with the insight of survivors, stories of those who escaped, were taken, died. I was also born in the late 60s, which is when you had the First Revisionists and the works of Robert Paxton came out. This meant that suddenly, survivors, especially those who had been practically silent since their return from the death camps, began to speak, to share their testimonies.

The movie is really important because it shows a piece of history, especially in today’s troubling times and the rise of anti-Semitism, right?

MH: Yes, I’m glad to have it. But my intention was not to make a film about the Holocaust. In fact it was the grandeur of this story that took me on an adventure which turned out to be very difficult in terms of preparation, time, investment etc. Again, this is not a preachy film, nor is it a victim film. Executioners. It’s about the people who saved lives. We see a beautiful unity, a chain of love that saves a little girl’s life. You don’t cry because it’s sad, but because it’s beautiful.

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Yes it is a beautiful story, actually a myth…

MH: It can be said that it is a twist on the traditional story, because it is more poisonous than a fairy tale, but very beautiful and strong. In a way, while reading the book, the story was always there, like an instant classic, and I tried to recreate that feeling in the film. But for me, I would call the story 'ultra-fiction’. It borrows symbols from fairy tales, beginning with „Once upon a time in a forest, a woodcutter, a woodcutter’s wife,” and you’re immediately thrown into a classic fairy tale. But then, as the story progresses, the film takes you to the Gare de l’Est [in Paris]When you have cars and such, it’s clear that you’re in real life.

This playfulness between fiction and reality is very interesting…

MH: Yes, that’s what really interested me and why I got involved in the first place. Today, Auschwitz, to a 20-year-old, is very, very far away; It is an ancient story. There is no emotional attachment to that part of history, and as the last remaining Holocaust survivors disappear, oral testimonies of what happened will soon be gone. That’s why I liked creating a film that veers from fiction to reality, telling history with a capital 'H’. As a storyteller, I like to tell stories that touch me, and reality and truth are things I like to explore in my work.

If I am not mistaken, the word Jew is not mentioned in the film. Was it a test or was it in the book?

MH: In the book, the author had to pronounce the word Jew because the narrator was speaking in a subjective way. With the film, I follow a story structure, so I had to rearrange elements, give the characters a new life. But I loved that the Jewish people were called 'heartless’ in the book because it was a fairy tale. I pictured Jews wearing yellow patches, but I didn’t have to say the word „Jew.” Ultimately, the beauty of this story — and any fairy tale — is that it’s universal. Krumberg’s message was, „You must love all children.” Yours as much as anyone else’s. This is not a Jewish story, but a global story in the same way that Rwanda is about everyone.

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Jonathan Glazer’s „The Zone of Interest” also deals with the Holocaust through an unusual prism.

MH: It’s really impossible to show the reality of camps, but in my case, I had the advantage of using animation, which gives you some freedom and allows you to use code and suggest instead of showing.

How challenging was it to finance an animated film with this title?

MH: We started pre-Covid and the pandemic put the project on hold because we couldn’t fully fund it. Distributors had to deal with a backlog of titles awaiting release and were unable to capitalize on it. So we have shelved the project. That little bracket gave me the opportunity to „coupés” („the final cut”). Then I came back to this film.

Alexandre Desplat created a wonderful score. How did you work with him?

MH: He was on board from the beginning. He was totally committed and we talked a lot. He’s very gentle, the way he approaches music and feeds off a lot of things. Since there are very few dialogues in the film, music plays a major role in anchoring the dramatic moments in the film.

Do you still have a US agent?

MH: Yes, although I am not specifically looking for a job in the US.

Don’t have projects linked to American stars?

MH: Yes, I had a project with Tom Cruise and another project with Will Ferrell. There were two good comedy projects, but they failed. Working in the studio is complicated for me. I want full control and can’t wait for studio bosses to approve every decision. It won’t work. That said, the US indie sector would be a better fit for the way I work. If something comes up, why not. There are amazing American actors, and the Hollywood legends are absolutely fascinating and wonderful. But if I have to sacrifice the way I work, it’s not for me.

What’s next? A joke?

MH: Unnecessary. First, I’m going to wait and see how it’s received. I’ve always had the feeling of being out of step with the market. A little on the edge. I’ll see how it goes and hope for the best.

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