innocents_poster_finalWarsaw, December 1945. The second World War is finally over and French Red Cross doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laage) is treating the last of the French survivors of the German camps. When a panicked Benedictine nun (Agata Buzek) appears at the clinic begging Mathilde to follow her back to the convent, what she finds there is shocking: a holy sister about to give birth and several more in advanced stages of pregnancy. A non-believer, Mathilde enters the sisters’ fiercely private world, dictated by the rituals of their order and the strict Rev. Mother (Agata Kulesza). Fearing the shame of exposure, the hostility of the occupying Soviet troops and local Polish communists and while facing an unprecedented crisis of faith, the nuns increasingly turn to Mathilde as their beliefs and traditions clash with harsh realities. I spoke with director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) about this beautiful and intense film.

Danny Miller: This is such a gorgeous movie about a very difficult topic. How closely was it based on actual facts?

annefontaineAnne Fontaine: There really was this young French doctor who was working for the Red Cross in 1945 who helped the nuns that were raped by the Soviet army. Her real name was Madeleine Pauliac and she left a diary about her time in Poland including her meetings with these sisters who were pregnant. But she only recorded the basic facts. We took those and interpreted the psychology of it for our film.

And this doctor really had to keep what she was doing a secret from the Red Cross?

Oh, yes, she had to disobey her superiors in order to help the nuns. This was a direct transgression against her orders.

I saw Lou de Laage last year as a chess-playing teenager in The Tournament and was amazed to see her in this kind of role which she performs so beautifully. And the two main Polish actresses, Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza, are simply extraordinary. How did you find them?

I was very lucky because there are such amazing actors in Poland, they are very well trained. I chose Agata Buzek first for the important role of Sister Maria. I had seen her in this Jason Statham movie, of all things, called Redemption, my producer had shown this to me, and it was hard to imagine her in The Innocents. But then we met and I found her to be a really incredible actress. I didn’t think of Agata Kulesza in the beginning because she was so much younger than how I imagined the Mother Abbess and also very beautiful and sexy but she asked to do a screen test and you wouldn’t believe the transformation, I didn’t even recognize her. It was great to have an actress of that caliber in this very difficult role, she was perfect. With Lou it was a little more complex. As you say, she was very young and hadn’t ever had an adult lead role in a serious film like this. We did tests with a bunch of French actresses but I was entranced by Lou’s charisma and her incredible beauty and strength. I really think she is one of our most interesting actors in France today. And she had that timeless look to her face, I could so see her in 1945.

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As the Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza has to do something in the film that’s pretty shocking and violent. Did you talk to her a lot about her character’s motivation for that moment?

The very first scene I shot with her was when she is crying in the church after she had done that horrible thing and she is really suffering. We talked a lot about why the Mother Abbess would have done that. What was so great about all of these actresses is that they were intensely interested in the whole story, not just their parts. With Agata Kulesza and Agata Buzek, we talked every single day about what was happening inside the minds of their characters and what was going on for them emotionally. In the process of doing that, we occasionally rewrote some of the dialogue so it would match. It was an incredible experience to work with such sensitive actresses.

It’s hard to watch that scene with Mathilde at the Soviet checkpoint even though she’s saved from a worse fate. Even though this is a movie and no one is really being hurt, are such scenes difficult to shoot for the actors involved?

Oh yes, very. When you do these kinds of scenes, you choreograph them very carefully and plan very well but at some point you just have to get in there, you can’t hold back. I felt this scene was extremely important for Mathilde’s understanding of the nuns — it’s something that makes her change how she is with them. So it had to be quite brutal. We were shooting it outside in Poland in the bitter cold, and we had to make sure it felt real and true.

It certainly felt real. As did all of the scenes in the film, including the births of the babies.

Yes, scenes like those are so intense that everyone has to stay very focused and inside the situation, you just can’t think about anything else. You prepare and rehearse as much as you can in advance, and then you have to just believe in the actors that you chose.

I’m Jewish and grew up fascinated by the nuns I saw in the movies but they were very sentimentalized such as the ones in The Sound of Music or The Trouble with Angels. The life of the convent that you show in this film is so much more austere and realistic. Did you have a lot of religious people consulting on set?

The best preparation I did was going on two long retreats in that community. I lived with the nuns for a while and really tried to understand what it was like to be in this community from the inside. I was lucky because they really adopted me. They knew I was about to make this film and they were very touched by the story so they let me participate in everything thy do: pray, eat, work. That helped so much. But I also had consultants on the film, including a wonderful priest who helped me choose the Latin songs that the nuns sing.

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What do you think the film says about faith?

That it is something very fragile and very fluid. It’s not something that once you have it, it’s there forever. Personally, I am not somebody who believes in God, I believe in people and art and many things, but I don’t believe in God even though I had a Catholic education. But I learned so much living with the nuns and working on this film. I also learned that even though our story is set in the 1940s, this kind of thing is still going on every day. Wherever there are wars and fundamentalism, these kinds of abuses are still happening.

Has Russia ever acknowledged what some of the Soviet troops did during this time?

No, they really don’t want this story to be known at all. Of course, as I say, it wasn’t only the Russians, it’s still happening. But, you know, this film was bought by countries all over the world except for Russia. I was in Vietnam last month for a retrospective of my movies and when they showed The Innocents, this one government representative asked me if the movie was a statement against communism. Of course I said that is not the message of the movie in any way. Some people still have a hard time discussing the content of the film.

Do you know if any of the convents in Poland who had these things happen ever found a solution like the one we see at the end of your film?

To be honest, I met people from a convent in Vietnam where the nuns adopted local orphans which then made it possible for the children of the actual sisters to mix in with the others. I combined that reality with the story of this real French doctor. I believe such things did also happen in Poland, but not at the same convent where this woman worked. In real life, sadly, Madeleine Pauliac died very young, shortly after working with these nuns, I believe she was killed in a car accident.

I was very grateful for this ending in The Innocents.

I don’t think I could have directed the movie without that ending. It’s still a very harsh film but I needed that element of hope — to know that not everything wsa completely awful and terrible.