In 'Simone: Woman of the Century' Elsa Zylberstein Gives Us a Moving Portrait of a Jewish Legend – Kveller
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In ‘Simone: Woman of the Century’ Elsa Zylberstein Gives Us a Moving Portrait of a Jewish Legend

Kveller spoke to the French actress about how her own connection to the Holocaust made this role all the more powerful.


via Samuel Goldwyn Films

There’s something alchemical that happens when you watch Elsa Zylberstein on screen. The French Jewish actress simply becomes her characters — be they amazing or villainous, comedic and dramatic. Some of her roles will haunt you forever, like that of Lea, the sister of a recently incarcerated woman in the 2008 “I’ve Loved You So Long,” a role she won a César award for.

After watching her in “Simone: Woman of the Century,” in which she stars as a somber, serious and heart-rending Simone Veil, the French politician and Holocaust survivor who helped legalize abortion in the European country, it’s jarring to speak to Zylberstein “in real life” over Zoom — she’s bright, effusive, almost nymph-like in a light summer dress. She virtually takes through her French countryside home at dusk, walking and talking about this project that has been her soul and heart for 10 years.

Veil isn’t Zylberstein’s first Jewish or Jewish-adjacent role — she’s played Yiddish singer Rosalie Baumann in the 1998 film “Man is a Woman,” the extroverted Ethel Benegui in “Mina Tannenbaum,” Orthodox Mathilde in “Little Jerusalem” and Jewish Italian artist Modigliani’s common-law wife, Jeanne Hebuterne, in a biopic about the artist. She peppers some Hebrew into our conversation and tells me she longs to visit Israel, which she hasn’t seriously explored since her cousin’s wedding there over two decades ago. She talks about her chat with Quentin Tarantino and his Israeli wife Daniella Pick at Cannes last year.

Yet “Simone: Woman of the Century” is her biggest Jewish role yet — embodying a woman who is larger than life, a French historical icon who survived Auschwitz and dedicated her life to preserving the dignity of women and other persecuted people. Zylberstein was also an associate producer on “Simone,” and the movie, which came out in 2021 in France and is out this month in the U.S., marks the first of many hopeful projects she hopes to spearhead — including a TV series about Jewish couple’s therapist Esther Perel and a movie about French humanitarian Elise Boghossian.

Kveller talked to Zylberstein about this life-altering project and why Simone Veil’s story is relevant now more than ever.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you know about Simone Veil before you started working on this project? I know you met her in the past, but watching this movie it’s incredible to see just how much she has done in her lifetime. 

She was a very big figure in my country, but I didn’t know how much she had done. The first time I met her 10 years ago, I was supposed to give her a prize at a special dinner. I was invited to her table. I had dinner with her and her family — I was so impressed with her. Then she came to dinner at my house, we had tea, and I thought, “Oh my God. Oh, all that she has done! We should do a film.”

When she was still alive, it was complicated to do a film on her. Then she died [in 2017] and I went to the funeral [in 2018], and I thought, coming out of that, with President Macron at the Pantheon, now I’m doing it. I set up the whole thing in three years, after 10 years of desires and discovering everything [about her] day after day, more and more.

A small story that I didn’t tell anyone in France: After I had met her, one day I ran into her ex-stepdaughter at the hairdresser, and she came to me and said, “Oh, Elsa, I’m shocked. I just had lunch with Simone Veil. And she said she didn’t want to give the rights of her book, nothing. She doesn’t want any film when she’s alive. And she said, ‘If one day there is one film when I won’t be here — the only actress who could play me is Elsa Zylberstein.'”

That’s so moving!

But to answer your question, I didn’t know how much she had done for women — and for people, not just for women. Besides the abortion law, she fought like crazy to further respect and dignity of all people.

I was really moved by her desire of changing the world, knowing where she was coming from. Knowing that she was a Holocaust survivor — the roots of all her fight came from that. So it’s very special and gives you goosebumps when you discovere that oh, what she was doing was because she was a Holocaust survivor, because her mother told her don’t depend on anyone, because her mother died during the Death March. Because of all this, she fought like crazy and she became the first woman to be the head of the European Parliament. Because of all this she became this strong woman. That’s fascinating to me.

The movie starts with you as Simone, talking about how the last of the Holocaust survivors are dying. Did that feel important to you? Because you have a personal connection to the Holocaust, right?

My father was a hidden child during the war. And my grandmother was hiding in Paris, hiding in Lyon; my grandparents went to the camps. It was maybe for my father that I did this film.

But besides this, I got to talk more and more to Simone and to [fellow Auschwitz survivors] Ginette Kolinka, Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Paul Schaffer, who was best friends with Simone in Bobrek [a subcamp in Auschwitz]. I saw and spoke to Paul for a year before he died. He was an amazing man; he was obsessed with transmission. That the film did 2.5 million seats [in France] is important for the transmission. This film will tell 13-, 14-year-old people what happened.

And some girls wrote me, “Oh my God, I didn’t know about her. I’m 14. I didn’t want to do anything with my life. Now I want to become like her. I didn’t want to work at school. Now I’ll be a hard worker. I want to become a lawyer. I want to change the world.” So many letters like this. That their life wouldn’t be the same after this film is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life. And for that I’m so proud that I produced the film. I’m very proud as an actress as well, and as a woman.

You’ve played a lot of different Jewish characters in your career. Do you ever feel limited by that?

No, no, no, no, I don’t feel limited. I did 60 films, and maybe eight of them are linked to [Judaism]. I wanted that film.

It’s interesting… before being a Jewish woman, Simone Veil was just a French woman, a French citizen. So it’s the war that made her Jewish. My mom is not Jewish. My father is Jewish. The war would have made me Jewish.

There’s a really fun scene where Simone is visiting an Israeli kibbutz where her son is volunteering.

I love this scene. I love this scene because he wanted to stay, the little boy, the 15-year-old boy. And she said, actually, I’m not going to stay here, I have more to do.

In the movie, when she was saying, “The most important word for my mother is justice,” I was thinking about the Jewish concept of justice. We talk about “tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” — justice, justice, you shall puruse — which was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s motto.

Exactly. To you guys in America, [Veil] would be like a Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It was so interesting to watch this movie and see what’s happening in the U.S. now with abortion, because the same rhetoric can be found here.

That’s why this film is important now. Even in Spain, Poland, or even here [in France], but also in America, I know a lot of Republicans are against abortion. I mean, you want women to die? Because they’ve been raped, you want women to die because they don’t desire that baby? I can’t believe that. It’s interesting to have this film nowadays in America, especially. [Abortion] is a very essential right for a woman. It is essential. What’s interesting about Simone is she didn’t say oh, it’s our desire as women [to have access to abortion]. She put it on public health. That’s why she succeeded in what she did.

Another thing that I found remarkable about her is that she started her career after becoming a mother.

Yeah, she has to be a mother. She has to be a magistrate. She has to become a minister. She was everything. She was remarkable for that time, especially. For me, the key of this part is that she’s doing that for her mother. Her mother’s taught her to be free as a woman and never to depend on anyone.

There are so many moving scenes in this movie, but the scene where she starts telling her personal story was especially powerful. 

In 1974, she was fighting like crazy for the law for abortion. She thinks, “OK, now I’m going to tell where I’m coming from. I’m going to tell the world who I am.” And she sat in front of a fireplace… and I said exactly the words she was saying. She speaks and she says, voila, look what I did. I did the death marches. Look what I went through. I lost my mother in front of my eyes. For almost a year, I went through hell. Look what I did. And I’m here in front of you talking about my sister who I lost. It’s an example for rebirth. A part of herself is dead inside. That’s my feeling.

The movie is so much about women. I think Simone wouldn’t have been who she was without her mother, her sisters, the women in the camp, the people who lifted her up. It feels like it’s a tale of sisterhood.

You’re totally right. And as a woman, the fact that she chose me in a way [to play her], to be honest, she gave me something that day. The link of women, even all the letters I’m getting from women, 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds, all the messages I was getting from women are so empowering. She was saved in the camp by a woman, and by her mother and her sister, everything she went through. She loves women. It’s beautiful and empowering.

Did you get to talk to her family after they saw the movie?

I’m very close to her son Jean Veil. I think he was one of the first people I spoke about [making the movie to]. And then I went to see his father, Antoine, and he said, “OK, let’s ask the sons.” They saw the film four times — they love the film.

That’s such a good feeling, that they liked it!

I was so stressed, to be honest. But they didn’t want to make it [look like] they paid for a film on their mother. So they’re very far from the film, but they followed [its progress]. I introduced [director] Olivier Dahan to Jean Veil. I did everything I should. I’m very cautious. It was very respectful with the family.

Why do you think Simone didn’t want a film about her while she was still alive?

I don’t know — I never speak for her. I think she’d be happy with the power of the film. The 2.5 million admissions and the letters from the younger generation, she would be happy, I’m sure of that. She was obsessed with “never forget.”

You know, those people in camps went through hell. It’s unspeakable what they went through. Unspeakable. That’s why their obsession is to never forget. Tell the world. Her best friend Paul was going to schools [to share his testimony]. Ginette Kolinka keeps going to schools every week — she’s 98. I’m very proud that the film was such a success in my country because of that, because I want people to know about this woman and know about what happened. It’s such an amazing example and journey, a unique case of resilience and will and desire.

When I developed this film, when I wanted this film and produced this film, I couldn’t even expect how relevant it would be. The film’s release was postponed because of COVID. And during the summer, we heard in America of so many states going back with abortion bans. I was like, “Oh my God, this is destiny.” Literally.

Every battle in the film, all her fights for HIV patients, for incarcerated people, against racism, for women’s rights. It’s not a period film. Everything she’s fighting for: It’s happening now.

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