An icon of French cinema.

In his eulogy to eminent film-maker Claude Berri in January, President Nicolas Sarkozy described him as 'the great ambassador of French cinema". With a directing, producing, acting and screenwriting career that has spanned over five decades, it was fitting the head of state paid tribute to a revered national icon who proved that Europe can make big budget films to match Hollywood.

Claude Berel Langmann changed his name to Berri for professional reasons, and began his career as an actor but moved behind the scenes in the early 1960s.

Few filmmakers can claim starting their careers with an Oscar but in 1962 his 15-minute black-and-white film, Le Poulet (The Chicken), about a boy’s attempts to save a chicken from becoming his family’s dinner, nabbed the Short Film Academy Award and an award at the Venice Film Festival. Made with loans from friends, The Chicken was turned into a company, RENN Productions that made dozens of films.

Le Poulet became a children’s classic confirming that Berri’s sensibility was more attuned to mainstream entertainment than French New Wave.

Berri used his Jewish background as inspiration for many of his comedic films, based around the Nazi occupation of France. His 1967 directorial feature debut, Le Vieil Homme Et L’Enfant (The Old Man and the Child), a tale of a young Jewish boy who befriends an anti-semite based on his life growing up during Nazi regime. The film, winner of two awards at the Berlin Film Festival was praised for its compassion, sensitivity and a tasteful humor.

Between 1972 and 1975 Berri directed four comedies revolving around love, marriage, sex and pornography of the average French male are reflected in low key films such as Le Sex Shop (1972). 

Berri’s strength lay in understanding the comedic and dramatic aspects of humanity, exploring prejudices and anxieties whether on a large historical and political canvas or through intensely personal stories. 

The pinnacle of Berri’s career was in 1986, when seeking to break away from his light and comedic roots and work towards more serious, artistic projects, he produced and directed the film duo Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both 1986), adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s classic story of greed, desire and unrequited love.

Following a young male protagonist, Berri unveils a story of the essence of man, ownership and love folllowed by more hard-learned lessons and morbid themes in the film’s sequence, Manon des Sources.

Both films are probably the best known films outside of France made in the last 30 years. The sequence earned Berri a BAFTA Film Award in 1988 and propelled the main actors, Emmanuelle Béart, Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil into stardom.

In one of the most expensive French films of its time, Berri treated Emile Zola’s classical 1885 novel, Germinal (1993) to a $US30 million dollar remake. Set in a poor French mining community, this uncompromisingly graphic and disturbing historical drama depicts life at the end of the nineteenth century in a graphic and disturbing way through scenes of hunger, death and mutilation.

Berri’s popularity waned in the late 1990’s when two of his films were flops, but made a surprising comeback with last completed film Ensemble, c’est tout (Hunting and Gathering, 2007), where he returned to his roots of down-to-earth films.

At the time of his death Berri was directing his 20th film, Tresor (Treasure, 2009), a marital comedy, when he died of a sudden stroke. Filming will continue, the Berri camp assures.

After his company RENN proved to be a success, producing upwards of 50 films by 1968, Berri opened his own distribution arm, AMLF, which enabled him assist in financing films, to work with the best actors, directors and producers in the business.

– Mary Colbert