Mining local history
by Boyd van Hoeij
- Luxembourg producer-turned-director Nicolas Steil explores a relatively unknown part of WWII history for his coming-of-age drama Réfractaire
Fiction films set during or about the effects of WWII are a staple of the film diet of many European countries, but this is not really the case for the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, whose local output amounts to just a handful of feature films each year.
In the French-language production Réfractaire [+see also:
interview: Nicolas Steil
film profile], Luxembourg producer-turned-director Nicolas Steil explores a relatively unknown part of local WWII history by telling the story of the men who refused to be sent to the front to fight at the German side after the country was annexed by the Third Reich. Instead, they went into hiding in the disused parts of the iron mines in the south of the country.
Together with co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Schlesser, Steil has extensively researched the story of these réfractaires (“refractory people”) who occupied a grey area between the more active resistance and the collaborators – depending on the former for food, medicine and news from the outside world while hiding from the latter. Because other parts of the mines were in use during the day, the people in hiding reversed their day-and-night rhythms to avoid calling attention to themselves.
Fictional protagonist François (doe-eyed Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, from Love Songs [+see also:
film profile]) is a 20-year-old local boy who refuses to go to a German university as his collaborator father demands, perhaps because he is more artistically inclined, like his mother. He becomes a réfractaire and is guided to the hideout in the mines because of a family friend who trusts him despite the fact his father is a party member.
The arrival of François creates friction among those already in hiding, allowing Steil to show the fragile status quo of this ragtag group of people who rarely saw the light of day. François himself will be forced to grow up quickly and define his own personality if he wants to stand a chance among these roughnecks, which the filmmaker shows – at times relying a bit too much on clichés – by turning François from a timid boy into a valued member of the resistance.
Production designer Christina Schaffer recreates a 1940s Luxembourg that looks treacherous both above and below ground and cinematographer Denis Jutzeler deftly keeps his camera moving. Actors, a mix of local character actors and young French talents, make for a believably motley crew.
Réfractaire is a Luxembourg-Swiss co-production, produced by Steil’s Luxembourg production company Iris Production and Lausanne-based CAB Productions, who have collaborated on several features before, notably on Dominique Rivaz’ Lift for Sale [+see also:
film profile]. It was produced with backing from the Luxembourg Film Fund, Swiss broadcaster TSR, Swiss Office fédéral de la culture and MEDIA Programme of the European Union.