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Nicolas Steil • Director

“Choosing between the plague and cholera”


- A tale of resistance and hiding during WWII in the mines of the Franco-Luxembourg border region. The French-language film is the directorial debut of Luxembourg producer Nicolas Steil

Nicolas  Steil  • Director

Cineuropa: How did you decide on the topic of Réfractaire [+see also:
film review
interview: Nicolas Steil
film profile

Nicolas Steil: I have always wondered what I would have done if I had lived during WWII and would have had to face some of the things my parents and grandparents went through. So I decided to explore these possibilities by making a film about a young, 20-year-old man faced with these issues and confronted with the different attitudes that existed at the time.

The real question for this young man is a terrible one, it is like choosing between the plague and cholera: does he accept to be sent to the Russian front by the Nazis, where he’ll be “fighting on the wrong side” and might be killed, or does he go into the mines where he might be buried alive and which might have repercussions for the family members that stay behind? Or, a third option, does he become an active member of the resistance and risk his life every second of every day?

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How did you prepare the film?
I dedicated a lot of hours to research. As a producer I have been nurturing this project for the past five years. The screenplay went through several versions and we have been in contact with the Conseil National de la Résistance and worked with a specialised historian, Paul Dostert, who provided us not only with books and documents but also offered invaluable access to people who had actually lived through some of the events and situations depicted in the film.

One of the things that co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Schlesser and I noted while interviewing these people was that time seemed to have somewhat transformed their memories into something more acceptable for themselves, but as we kept digging, the darker side of the stories slowly came to the fore: bad hygiene, rivalry, promiscuity, constant darkness, fear of accidents in the mine or discovery by the miners. The horrors of the time slowly came back to them.

You shot a big part of the film actually in the mines…
We filmed part of the film in the mines and some of the galleries where we filmed had been closed to the public for a long time, almost since the end of the war. Some work had to be done to make these areas safer for cast and crew, but nevertheless there were a couple of times we had blocks falling down around us, though thankfully no one got hurt. The shoot took place in a part of the mine that took about 45 minutes to get to after entering the mine by train, so first we rehearsed in an industrial space with markers on the ground and only then moved into the mine, going into the earth for 12-hour-long days, as it was impractical to even go out for lunch since it takes such a long time to go in and out. So even more than on other film projects, it was important that the atmosphere on set was a good one, since there was no way to really leave the set, and thankfully, this was the case.

What is the film’s target audience?
I’ve wanted to make a film for a young, cinema-going audience. Since the protagonist is a young man, I hope these viewers will start to wonder what they would have done had they faced similar situations. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that when I was around that age, I was convinced that I would have done the right thing. So it is an interesting question to ask.

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