‘The Most Precious of Cargoes’ Review: Michel Hazanavicius’ Mawkish Animated Holocaust Fable

Competing for Cannes’ top prize, The Most Precious of Cargoes deploys animation to tell a semi-contemporary fairy tale about a lost baby girl who is thrown from a train bound for Auschwitz and found in the snow by a childless woodcutter’s wife. It’s the latest feature by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, who’s been a favorite of the Cannes programmers ever since his cinephile- and crowd-pleasing serio-comic pastiche The Artist (2011) broke him onto the international stage, going on to scoop up awards — including a best picture Oscar — and box-office records (for a near-silent film, at least) worldwide.

Sadly, Hazanavicius’ subsequent films haven’t enjoyed the same success. This latest effort, however, might just be his most commercially viable in a while since Holocaust films nearly always travel. Its portability is only enhanced by it being animated, making it easy to dub this for different territories. If nothing else, The Most Precious of Cargoes will surely live on as a pedagogical tool in schools, able to show kids the horrors of the Holocaust but in an easier-to-digest, less visually traumatic cartoon form — and with a far briefer running time than, say, Claude Lanzmann’s 566-min documentary Shoah.

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Examined strictly on aesthetic terms, without reference to any broader context, Cargoes is a disappointment, mawkish and excessively manipulative, thanks especially to Alexandre Desplat’s syrupy score. The original novel on which it’s based, by eminent French dramatist and writer Jean-Claude Grumberg, may be more effective, but Hazanavicius’ adaptation lacks the postmodern irony that many praised in Grumberg’s original.

At least the animation here is often striking, especially the watercolor-style backgrounds that convey the harsh, unfeeling beauty of the landscape. What a shame there isn’t the same finesse in the screenwriting, which morphs from a suggestive fairy tale into just another litany of sorrows and suffering, the hallmarks of so much middling Holocaust fiction.

At first, it all seems quite promising. In the snow-napped landscape, a burly woodcutter (voiced in the French version by Gregory Gadebois) and his wife (Dominique Blanc) live a bare existence, dress in head scarves and wooly coats, and seem like they could be characters from a story set anywhere in the last thousand years. It’s only the sound of a train, an entity that the couple talk of as if it were a demi-god, chugging though the fields nearby that betrays the 1940s setting.

When the wife finds a baby girl in the snow — located by the sound of her crying — she brings the kid home, as if the train gods had gifted her with a child at last after years of barrenness. Her husband, however, spots that the blue-and-white cloth the girl was wrapped in means she’s of the people he describes as “God killers,” echoing ancient anti-Semitic tropes. Nevertheless, he eventually warms to the sweet-natured infant, and comes round to trying to protect her from the authorities who would punish anyone who would shelter Jews.

While the baby’s adoptive parents struggle with sinister neighbors who might snitch and the local police, the film cuts away to show how she came to be dropped from the train by her father, a Jew en route to Auschwitz with his wife and another child who might be the baby’s twin sibling. The wordless sequence in which he pushes the baby out through a hole in the box car is preceded by a montage of the faces in the carriage, each one precisely observed and brought to life through a combination of Hazanavicius’ own character designs and the animation department’s meticulous rendering.

These expressions of pain, in a scene that has little music and just the sound of the train engine, would have been enough to suggest the horror of the death camps. But the film doesn’t stop there and goes all the way with an admittedly restrained scene in which the wife and the other baby are just pulled away and never seen again, clearly taken to the gas chamber, while the father becomes a literal ghost of his former self. Forced to labor in the camps, he must help pile emaciated dead bodies in heaps and more until one sunlit day when he’s suddenly liberated by the Allied victory. Will he find his child again or not?

Other viewers are likely to be more entranced by the film’s borderline magical realist elements, but for this viewer the story felt rote, on the verge of trivializing and exploiting the horrors of the Holocaust. Mileage will certainly vary, but for me there’s very little that’s either original or artistically interesting about The Most Precious of Cargoes.

Now let’s stick our hand in the fire and ask what it means for this film to be shown in competition in Cannes at this moment. Hazanavicius of course has a perfect right to make this film, and an understandable investment in the story, having known Grumberg since he was a child, as he explains in the press notes. No doubt this project has been in production for a good long while, and means a lot to him given that he’s descended (as am I) from Ashkenazi Jews hailing from the Pale of Settlement, an area that includes what is now parts of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

Moreover, he has explored genocides and ethnic cleansing before, as a writer on Passé sous silence, a TV documentary about Rwanda, and as writer-director of his 2014 feature The Search, a remake of Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 post-Holocaust story that Hazanavicius reset in Chechnya in the late 1990s after Russia’s devastating invasion of that country.

But when asked in the press notes whether the events of October 7, 2023, add a dimension to the film, Hazanavicius dodges, says he doesn’t know and asserts that it’s a film that has “a humanist, appeased and pacific message,” a statement that’s rather lost something in translation. Given the way the current war in Gaza has polarized people everywhere and sparked red-hot discourse not just about the war but also definitions of genocide, no cultural artifact that deals directly with the Holocaust during WWII — no matter how rooted the story is in the times in which it’s set — can be easily so siloed off from the wider conversation.

Just look at the uproar caused by Jonathan Glazer, the director of The Zone of Interest, denouncing Israel’s bombing of Palestinian civilians when he won the Academy Award. Whether he likes it or not, Hazanavicius is inevitably going to have to take a position, which will irrevocably color how people read his film.

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