The Innocents: Interview with Director Anne Fontaine

This week sees the release of The Innocents, Anne Fontaine's film tells the story of a young Red Cross worker sent to Warsaw in December of 1945 to aid the survivors of the war, who finds a group of pregnant Benedictine nuns in need of help. 

Sam Howlett, a member of the Curzon Film Podcast team, spoke to Anne about the film.

Director Anne Fontaine on the set of The Innocents

S: The Innocents is an incredible and devastating true story that I had never heard of before, and I’m sure many of our readers haven’t heard come across, either. Would you mind telling us about how you came about this story, and what the story is about?

A: The story takes place at the end of World War II, we have a young French doctor from the Red Cross, Mathilde, who is going to discover an amazing situation in a convent, where thirty-five nuns live in the middle of the forest in Poland and many of them are expecting babies - they are pregnant having been raped by the Soviet army. And it’s about this situation and this incredible story that was of course true. I discovered it through the diary of this French doctor who wrote the facts, not the whole story, but the facts about how she discovered these nuns who were expecting children and she has to help them to keep their energy and to find a solution for this terrible story. 

S: How closely did you stick to the diary? Did you try to keep it as close to what happened as possible, or did to fill in some of the blanks yourself in the screenwriting process?

A: The diary doesn't tell us about the personality of each nun, only the facts; it was very laconic - she was a doctor, she only wrote what she was doing every day as a doctor in a way that was not literary or romanticised. After that we wrote the script in a dramaturgical manner, imagining how these nuns would react, how each character had a different response. We tried to see the contrast between this French doctor who doesn't believe in God and the Mother Superior, who of course does believe in God and has to accept their differences. It's a story about maternity, about faith, about doubt, and it's going very deep inside of the souls of these women. 

S: When you make films like this and Coco Before Chanel that are inspired by true events, is there an added pressure, or a responsibility to tell a story that someone else in reality has experienced, as opposed to a fiction film?

A: It is a very good inspiration, very strong inspiration, and you have to be very true, but it’s true in each story you tell. Of course it’s not a documentary, it's an interpretation. It's important to be very accurate in depicting the religious work of Benedictine nuns - how exactly we represent their life, how we show their rituals and the way they pray with this story. Of course it’s a responsibility, it’s always a responsibility. 

S: Thinking about other films set around this time, war films, post-war films, they often deal with the male perspective; soldiers with PTSD, prisoners of war, or even films set in a concentration camp, it’s often with a male point of view, whereas here you are showing a female point of view. Was that something that was in the back of your head, that you were telling a female perspective on the war?

A: Because it was a young doctor who was a woman (which was rare at this time for women to be doctors, it was mostly a male job), and of course the story happened to Benedictine nuns, I was aware of course that it was a situation where many females are going to transgress orders. Because what you see in this movie is that they are going to disobey to keep surviving, and this French doctor disobeys [her boss] to take the risk to cross through the forest with the ambulance to go to see the convent for the first time. How a young nun in the beginning takes the risk to disobey the Mother Superior to find some help because one of their sisters is going to die, thats where it’s very interesting; female characters, very strong and very transgressive in a positive way. 

S: Do you see the film in a transgressive way?

A: I think it speaks about transgression. Of course of don’t know if it is a transgressive movie. What’s important is the fragility of the women’s condition through this story, to see how women can keep hope, keep face or not - all these metaphysical questions are in this subject matter. It was very interesting to create all these very complex things that happened to these women, who were not prepared at all to be raped. Of course nobody is prepared to be raped, but maternity is something they never had to live through because they gave their lives to God. It was very interesting and emotionally very strong. 

S: You mentioned maternity, which plays a major role in the film, and other themes like rape and male oppression. Do you think that in a film that has these themes, it’s important to have a female director, because these themes are so specific to women?

A: Yes, but I think it will touch men in the same way, because it’s human, of course they are women, not monks. It’s very difficult to answer this kind of question because of course a man could do a story like that, I don't know if he’s going to tell the story the same because he’s another personality. But maybe we can say that I took the choice not to show the rape, the violence, in flashback, but to imagine [its consequences], and maybe a male director would go to the violence, maybe, but I’m not sure, it’s difficult to say. 

S: Those issues you mentioned, do you think there’s a connection between them and what’s going on in the world at the moment?

A: Yes of course. When I was in the Vatican showing the movie to Pope Francis, the first thing he said was that it was a therapeutic movie for the Catholic Church, because today it’s exactly the same situation for many countries in Europe, or countries where women are raped during war, and the religious are also raped in many countries around the world, it has not changed very much. It’s not a current movie, it’s a period movie, but it could be today.

S: There were many striking images in this film, and theres a particularly powerful image where a nun is walking through the forest covered in snow holding a child. Can you talk about the locations you used in the film?

A: I was in Poland, in a small town, very provincial, you feel like you are in the seventies, nothing had changed there. This convent was there in the forest, it was abandoned. Only the architecture of the walls was left: we had to reconstruct everything inside - the dining room, the infirmary, the roofs. We had, as you have seen, a cast of incredible Polish actresses, and a crew of mostly Polish people, even though [the film] is spoken in French 70% of the time. and I was very lucky to find these amazing actresses because without them I wouldn't be able to do this movie. They are amazing, intense, subtle and they are very great actresses.

S: Is that important to you, to keep it real, using real locations?

A: Yes, for me it’s very important to believe myself that it’s true, I couldn't do it in England or America. I knew the story takes place in Poland, I didn’t understand Polish, but I spoke English and could manage it. And I think it gives a truthfulness to hear these voices, to see the faces that you don’t know. In the United States for example nobody knows these actresses, it makes people believe it’s happened. 

The Innocents is now playing at Curzon Bloomsbury and Curzon Mayfair.