The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
26th May 2010
Dear Mr Ebert
Please let me first introduce myself. My name is Richard McDonald the middle grandson of the celebrated French filmmaker Jacques Tatischeff.
Having read with concerned interest your current blog documenting your experiences at this years Cannes Film Festival I hereby obliging write to you on behalf of my grandfathers only direct living family with information that you should be made aware of concerning the often ignored yet historically significant chapter of his life.
As you aware, having seen the trade screening at the Cinema Arcades in Cannes, this year will see the international release of an adaptation of my grandfather's original l'Illusionniste script by Sylvain Chomet and Pathe Pictures/ Sony Picture Classic. Before participating further in any active promotion of Chomet's adaptation of Tati's l'Illusionniste we would appreciate that you first consider how his interpretation greatly undermines both the artistry of my grandfather's original script whilst shamefully ignoring the deeply troubled personal story that lies at its heart.
I hope that you will be able to appreciate the significance of this information and compassionately understand the hurt that the misrepresentation of history by those involved in this production has already caused.
"Really I assure you, in all my films I did absolutely everything I wanted to do. If you don't like that, them, I am the only one to blame"
-- Jacques Tati: Cahiers du Cinema, 1980
It is well documented that my grandfather, Jacques Tati, wrote the script of l'Illusionniste as a sentimental semi-autobiographical reflection on how he was feeling about himself and in particular what he saw as his personal failings during the 1950's. It is also documented that the script was written as a personal letter to his teenage daughter. What is less well known however is the depth of his deceitful torment and how in the script he wrestles with the notion of publicly acknowledging his eldest daughter, my mother, who he had under duress from his elder sister heartlessly abandoned during the Second World War. At the time performing at the Lido de Paris with his long term lover, my grandmother Herta Schiel, Tati's deplorable conduct towards his first child was met with utter disgust by the majority of his then stage colleagues. Thrown out of the Lido by Leon Volterra, it was from this act, having been shunned by the Paris cabaret circuit for his caddish betrayal of one of their own and not as is often wrongly told to avoid Nazi recruiters, that Tati took refugee in the village of Sainte-Sévère in 1943, where he would later shoot Jour de Fete. The stage performers of Paris were a close knit community and in the same way that they had previously provided for Piaf they would also collectively help shelter Tati's abandoned infant daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne whom as Piaf was born in Paris at the Hôpital Tenon located in the 20th arrondissement.
At its heart the original script for l'Illusionniste focuses on a conjurer who upon finding that his act has became unfashionable is resorted to travel to ever further distant venues to earn a living. It is at one of these locations, originally intended to be a small town in Czechoslovakia that he befriends a young teenage girl who appears to be without family. Enthralled by the illusionist tricks which she believes to be real magic a father/daughter relationship evolves between the movies two protagonists. As the parental relationship builds the conjurer's engagement in the village comes to an end and the unlikely pair head to the big city, originally set to be Prague. For the first time in her life the young girl is exposed to the enchantment of a big city. Afraid to lose the young girl's affections to the charms of the city the illusionist unwilling to disappoint her with the truth about his life does everything he can to maintain the notion that his magic is real. However the lure of the city is powerful and the young girl attracts the attention of a handsome young man who exposes the conjurer's magic as fraudulent, nothing more than cheap tricks, illusions created to entertain an audience. Unable to hold onto her affections once his charade has been exposed the script concludes with the conjurer disappearing off into the sunset free of his deceit having as he always known he would lost the affections of the young girl to youth and the vibrancy of the city once she was able to see beyond his theatrics.
How the original script for l'Illusionniste reflects my grandfather's personal troubled dilemmas at its time of writing can be explained by taking account of the following facts.
1 It is well documented that Tati, my grandfather, wrote l'Illusionniste an emotive semi-autobiographical account of how during the 1950's he felt about himself and in particular what he saw as his professional and personal failings at the time.
2 It has been acknowledged that the script for l'Illusionniste was written as a personal letter to Tati's teenage daughter. Sophie his second child was not a teenager at the time of its writing, only his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne whom he had adversely neglected as an infant was. In 1955 Helga was thirteen years of age, Sophie had just turned nine. Consecutive versions of l'Illusionniste script exist dated from 1955 through to 1959.
3 Tati played with idea's for l'Illusionniste throughout the mid to late 1950's the writing of which coincided with a letter written to him by his eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne. As a refugee Helga Marie-Jeanne had become trapped in Marrakech during the Moroccan 1955 uprising for independence against its French protectorate. Having been at the centre of the Christmas Eve bombing of the main Marrakech market in which she witnessed the massacre of a number of her boarding school friends, Helga Marie-Jeanne was actively encouraged by the French Consulate to flee Morocco for her own safety. Holding only a French passport she wrote to her father in hope that he would show compassion towards her plight and help her escape the hostilities that had built up in Morocco by offering her safe passage back to her home city of Paris. He was never forthcoming with help. However the request for help from his own daughter could only have weighed heavily on Tati the man, the artist, who had during the same period written the most sensitive observations of childhood innocence and parenthood with Academy Award winning Mon Oncle.
In Mon Oncle Tati would take the opportunity to swipe fun at the notion of arranged marriages which his elder sister Nataile had manipulated him into after the rejection of his own daughter in real life. Natalie had an overbearing influence over Tati and his abandonment of his eldest daughter was greatly influenced by her depraved intervention. Tati's script for l'Illusionniste parallels many of the dilemmas he was facing in his real life at the time, acceptance that he wasn't getting any younger, the failing popularity of live cabaret, befriending and taking on his parental duties towards a teenage girl he knew little about, bringing that teenager to a big city and the dilemma of ultimately losing the child's affection once the veil of his stage persona was exposed.
4 Tati, in keeping with his preference of not working with professional actors, had singled out Sylvette David who had modelled for Picasso for the role as the teenage girl due to her resemblance to Bridget Bardot. In her letter from Morocco Helga Marie-Jeanne had innocently joked that the locals of Marrakech had nicknamed her the brunette Bardot of the Sahara. David did not sit for Picasso until 1954 so it can only be concluded that Tati did not know of her until after this date.
5 Tati had set l'Illusionniste in the Czech capital city of Prague. The mother of his eldest child Herta Schiel was of duel nationality and escaped the German annexation of Vienna using Czech papers. She remained a Czech citizen throughout the war. Tati always referred to Herta as being Czech.
6 The original l'Illusionniste script focuses on how from a distance the teenage girl believes with utter wonderment the enchanting life the conjurer inhabits. After making a sentimental bond through his stage persona with the girl he does not have the heart to reveal to the teenager that his magic and what she sees as his very life are little more than a fabricated illusion. Throughout his career Tati was often quoted as saying that his Hulot was just a character he had created and he himself was a very different person to what was seen on screen. His eldest daughter's perception of him as a child was mainly formed from what she had seen of him in character on screen. l'Illusionniste script deals directly with the dilemma he was facing on how would his daughter respond once she realised the gentile man on the silver screen was not the same man he was after the dim theatre lights had been switched back on.
7 The original script for l'Illusionniste concludes with the magician walking off into the sunset wiser for the experience and free of his deceit. Tati had hoped that by openly apologising to his eldest daughter he would in some way be free of his real life deception that increasingly contradicted his growing public persona. The very title, l'Illusionniste illustrates how Tati was aware at how his public persona was a veil that contradicted the real man. Conjurers by their very craft are deceitful.
8 Tati had never intended to play the role of the illusionist himself instead he had intended to cast Pierre Etaix in the leading role but Etaix fell out with Tati over moral issues concerning the script. A bitter feud surfaced and the two men never again spoke. Tati copyrighted l'Illusionniste script at the beginning of the 1960's as he was concerned that both Etaix and Jean-Claude Carrière would try and steal it. All of Tati's old music hall colleagues knew of his eldest daughter he had fathered in Paris during the Second World War and the majority felt his actions to one of their own betrayed them all. It is highly likely Etaix or Carrière would have known about Tati's eldest child.
9 My Grandmother Herta Schiel never lost contact with her Parisian music hall colleagues and throughout her life would travel nearly every year back to Paris. It was through these connections that she learnt that Tati had written a script for the daughter he had shamefully betrayed. No name was ever given to the script but knowing of only two other un-produced scripts by Tati, The Occupation of Berlin (which has currently conveniently gone missing) and Confusion it can be concluded that l'Illusionniste with the parallels it draws is indeed that script. The l'Illusionniste was written around the same period as The Occupation of Berlin when Tati must have been reflecting upon his war years. Performers of the Lido de Paris, Bal Tabarin and A.B.C. who had known Tati both as a friend and colleague since he himself was a teenager still remarkably live in Paris and to this day are in regular contact with his eldest daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne. Nothing that Tati did in his movies was by accident but exist as a result of meticulous planning to precisely convey his very personal vision.
On hearing that Sylvain Chomet had started production on l'Illusionniste in what for centuries has been my father's family home county of Northumberland on the Scottish border I confidentially approached him with the difficult true story that lay at the heart of my grandfather's script. Gratefully acknowledging l'Illusionniste true meaning that he had apparently always known was written by Tati as a "personal letter to his daughter" Chomet invited me to his Edinburgh studio to read the script he had adapted and to see the progress he was making.
After a long conversation Chomet revealed he had obtained the script for l'Illusionniste from my Aunt Sophie Tatischeff following nothing more than a single telephone conversation he had with her whilst seeking permission to use a segment of Jour de Fete in his Belleville Rendez-Vous animated movie. Sophie died regrettably young in October 2001 a full two years before Belleville was released in late 2003 and it is questionable that she would have released what she had protected for so long to an unknown director she would never in person meet and who at the time had nothing to his name but a well received short animation. It was impossible for Sophie to give Chomet the script for l'Illusionniste after she had seen Belleville Rendez-Vous as he has often been quoted as saying.
Chomet justifies using an animated caricature of Tati by saying that Sophie never wanted anyone to play her father however she would have been well aware that her father never intended playing the part of the Illusionist himself, he had no conjuring skills and wanted solely to concentrate his efforts on writing and directing this most personal movie. As stated above the role was originally written for Pierre Etaix.
After Chomet became aware of the troubled story that lay beneath l'Illusionniste he informed the current caretakers of my grandfather's estate, Jerome Deschamps and Mikall Micheff at Les Films de Mon Oncle, who without consent published the most deplorable inaccurate account of my family in the biography Jacques Tati by Jean-Philippe Guerand. This intolerable disfiguring of our lives provoked us as a family and all that remains of the Tatischeff line with no choice but to finally put on record our true heritage to which everybody who is currently promoting themselves through my grandfathers celebrity have no legitimate claim whatsoever.
The partners at Les Films de Mon Oncle certainly never had a hand in the creation of my grandfathers oeuvre nor are they in anyway related to him. When Tati became bankrupt the Deschamps family chose to do nothing but glee at his downfall. It is quite deplorable that today they should be allowed to parasitically exploit both his abilities and failings whilst disturbingly distorting history. Deschamps came into ownership of four of Tati's movies after he purchased them from a terminally ill Sophie Tatischeff in the last year of her life to pay her debts (she'd lost a fortune with her recording studio, Son our Son) as she did not want to die with the shame of bankruptcy like her father. Deschamps absolutely did not inherit the Tatischeff estate as a rightful heir as he would like the world to think. Working closely with highly respected Princeton academic David Bellos who is credited with writing the most discerning biographical account of my grandfather's life we have been able to publicly document for the first time the true events that were Tati's War years..
What we ask is that you please try and understand the most unjust personal anguish that my family has faced for so long with nothing but the utmost reserved dignity and why the promoting of my grandfathers most personal script on the issue without acknowledging his troubled intentions for its creation, never mind how it has been spitefully reinterpreted, will only add further insult to everyone personally involved. Not recognising the source for l'Illusionniste shows not only disrespect for Tati the artist but also subverts the man's only redeeming response towards his daughter he inconsiderately abandoned.
To the outside world my grandfather, Jacques Tati was the great mime, the celebrated cinematic artist who held the most special gift of being able to entertain and make people laugh through his unique humane way of portraying the often crazy world in which we all live. However as he always maintained his celluloid characters were not him but creations born from his real life observations. Like many artists he was also troubled for this was also the same man who in complete contradiction to his professional screen persona had heartlessly abandoned both his eldest child, Helga Marie-Jeanne and her mother, Herta Schiel in the most shameful of circumstances. Tati courted and performed on stage at the Lido de Paris with Herta for the two years previous to the birth of their child. Inseparable Tati would enthusiastically discuss with Herta his ambitious plans to create his own movies and as early as 1941 he already had L'Ecole des Facteurs/Jour de Fete envisaged.
In Herta existed a vibrant brave young woman who at just seventeen years of age had the foresight alongside her sister Molly to flee the impending annexation of Vienna whilst courageously providing shielding and eventual safe passage to Morocco for their most admired childhood Jewish friend, Heinz Lustig. A young woman barely out of childhood herself who having arrived in Pairs with little more than a visa allowing her only to perform on the stage went on to courageously at great personal risk learn Morse Code and translate intercepted German messages from the front line into French for the Resistance movement before they were sent to De Gaulle in London. A woman whose only mistake was to fall in love then be betrayed by the gangling clown who would go on to charm the world with laughter in the way he ridiculed and questioned it.
In a single year, 1943 Herta's gallantry would be severely challenged as she found herself isolated in a foreign occupied city holding a needy new born child having lost both the man she loved and heartbreakingly her sister to tuberculosis. The mother of Tati's first child was a valiant woman who was not afraid to stand up for the freedom of Europe and today rightfully deserves not to be forgotten.
Tati's eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne always maintaining a Parisian soul would spend most of her life to adulthood in between Paris, Marrakech and Vienna. Having grown without knowing the love of a father in adulthood she could not bare the thought of bringing the shame she had suffered as a child for his betrayal to her half-brother, Pierre and sister, Sophie. It is for this reason alone that at the height of her father's celebrity she remained dignifiedly silently even under pressure to create scandal. Helga Marie-Jeanne had suffered enough as a child for her father's betrayal, in adulthood she determinedly decided to make her own way in the world. In honour of Helga Marie-Jeanne's dignified humility and her mother's wartime intelligence work Croix de Guerre awarded Parisian Resistance leader Dr Jacques Weil would stand in the place of her father when she married in England in the summer of 1965. Today as a much loved retired grandmother living in the northeast of England the least she deserves is respectful acknowledgement. Had she not remained resolutely silent it is highly unlikely that her father, Jacques Tatischeff would have been able to complete his cinematic oeuvre that still enthralls today.
My grandfather's artistry did not come without a price and the one who suffered the most for his compulsive behaviour was inexcusably his eldest daughter. Had it not been for the love of her brave astute mother, the goodwill of others and Helga Marie-Jeanne's own self discipline her fate would have been far bleaker.
My family's story is unfortunately not the romantic fiction of Truffaut's Last Metro or Curtiz's Casablanca. It is however a true account of how during that most horrendous period in modern history people's moral character was challenged when faced with adversity. Had Tati not survived his military service defending the French borders on the Western Front he might well have died a war hero. Instead the subsequent war years would see him conjure up the most indefensible family tragedy, a betrayal that runs in complete opposition to the legendary tale of how his own grandmother had rescued her son from Russia. The suffering of a child is inexcusable in any society. The sabotaging of Tati's original l'Illusionniste script without recognizing his troubled intentions so that it resembles little more than a grotesque eclectic nostalgic homage to its author is the most disrespectful act that shows nothing but a total lack of compassion towards both the artist and the child it was meant to address.
Before his death Tati called for his body to be thrown out with the garbage as through his own eyes his life had been a failure. He bemoaned to friends his misgivings and how through his own errors of judgment he would never experience the joy of being a grandparent. We have opened this painful chapter of our lives not out of any vengeance but so that we can now be allowed to lay to rest a previous generation's mistakes, there is no spite only sorrow for what is ultimately a family tragedy. To fully appreciate an artist's work you first must acknowledge the person and the life they had lived.
If the integrity of my grandfather's work means anything to you then please take into account the wishes of his only three grandchildren who united stand loyally by their adored mother, the daughter he had heartlessly abandoned as a child and later addressed l'Illusionniste to. Together we ask that you please show moral compassion and chose in the future not to participate in the misrepresentation of our family history to suit the parasitic benefit of others. That Sylvain Chomet, Pathe Pictures, Sony Picture Classics and Les Films de Mon Oncle dare to rub my grandfather's remorse on our doorstep without respectfully acknowledging the facts is intolerable. The truth deserves a voice so that at the very least we do not forget the sacrifices made by others for our liberty.
"On le pleure mort,il aurait fallu l'aider vivant"
--Paris Match 19th November 1982 Obituary of Jacques Tati.
Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald
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