It would be hard to imagine a less necessary Holocaust picture than A Secret. Intricately patterned, filled with careful (if rarely striking) compositions, and acted with solid professionalism, Claude Miller’s film not only breaks no new ground in its treatment of its central subject, but its smooth narrative progression—which neatly glosses over the screenplay’s several moral ambiguities—and complete lack of emotional resonance threaten to reduce the events of WWII to the stuff of César-baiting kitsch (made all the more disturbing by Miller’s questionable decision to use actual footage recorded at death camps). The story of a boy living in post-war France who discovers he’s Jewish and had a half-brother who was killed in Auschwitz, the film unfolds over multiple time periods which Miller juggles with consummate ease, but the director’s narrative manipulations feel more like the necessary framing required of the contemporary prestige picture than any sort of testing ground for an investigation into the inter-temporal implications of historical event.
As the film builds toward and then quickly issues its pivotal revelation, the narrative settles into its central segment, a lengthy wartime flashback. Under the pressure of an increasingly anti-Semitic collaborationist government, the family, armed with fake passports, retreats to the countryside hoping to ride out the war unmolested when, in the film’s one genuine moment of motivational ambiguity, the mother (inadvertently?) reveals her status as “Jewish” to a questioning gendarme and then proceeds to implicate her son. Needless to say, they’re quickly carted off to the camps. The question of intentionality in this act of self-betrayal should represent the moral heart of the film, but rather than tease out the implications of why a person would (consciously or unconsciously) resign oneself—and family—to a certain death, Miller, as if afraid of what he might find, pulls away from any potentially disturbing investigation, zipping the narrative into the present day for a final inconsequential father/son reunion. Adapting a tone of staid, finely honed elegance, the film gives us enough aesthetic distance from the material that we needn’t be unduly troubled by anything that happens on screen. Craftsmanlike in the worst sense of the word and perpetually evasive, A Secret is the very definition of inessential.