Kilian Riedhof Dives into the Underworld of Grief With ‘You Will Not Have My Hate’

In Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera “Orpheus and Eurydice,” Orpheus must travel to the underworld to reunite with his dead wife, Eurydice. To do so, he must placate the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, and hold onto his love for his wife.

German director Kilian Riedhof had the opera in mind when adapting Antoine Leiris’ autobiographical book “You Will Not Have My Hate.” The film world premieres on Aug. 12 in Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival.

The book is based on Leiris’ experiences following the murder by Islamic State jihadists of his wife, Hélène Muyal-Leiris, on Nov. 13, 2015, at the Bataclan night-club — one of 130 people killed that evening in a string of terrorist attacks across Paris.

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The film begins on that fateful day with Hélène preparing food for their toddler, Melvil, and the couple discussing a holiday in Corsica that they had to abandon so Hélène could pick up some freelance work. Later Hélène leaves with a friend, Bruno, for the Bataclan.

We follow journalist and author Leiris, played by Pierre Deladonchamps, as he learns of the attack on the club, and his mounting sense of dread after he hears from Bruno that Hélène had been injured. Leiris and his brother set off on a frantic tour of hospitals looking for Hélène, but eventually discover that she did not survive.

Three days later, after seeing his wife’s body in the morgue, Leiris posts an open letter on Facebook. In moving words, he addresses the assassins and denies “the dead souls” his hatred – and that of his son. He writes: “On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate.” The post goes viral, triggering a wave of empathy worldwide, and is printed on the front page of Paris newspaper Le Monde. Leiris becomes a well-known media commentator, but — at home — he struggles to come to terms with the loss of his wife and to cope as a single parent.

“You Will Not Have My Hate” Courtesy of Komplizen Film

Riedhof only met Leiris twice before making the film. The first time they met — in the company of producer Janine Jackowski — was about “getting to know each other and gaining trust,” Riedhof says. The rights to his story were coveted worldwide, but Leiris wasn’t sure if he wanted it to be adapted. The fact that both the director and producer were Germans was seen as an advantage as they could view events from a distance, Riedhof says.

“For me, meeting Antoine was one of the most emotional moments in my work as a director. Because I knew that we weren’t talking about simply a novel, but about Antoine’s destiny, which had run its course less than 24 months ago,” Riedhof says. After the meeting, Leiris agreed to the film.

Riedhof met with Leiris again six months later, in the company of co-screenwriters Marc Blöbaum and Jan Braren. They asked him about the details of his story in order to make the film as authentic as possible. He then told them that it was their story from that point on, and he didn’t want to be involved in the creative process.

Since completing the film, Riedhof has shown it to Leiris, who was “very touched by it; he was really overwhelmed,” Riedhof says. “He said he could can identify with the film, saw himself in the story, and that it’s close to his experience.”

It was casting director Constance Demontoy who suggested Deladonchamps for the role of Leiris, and during the audition Riedhof saw a resemblance — not just in terms of looks but psychology as well — between the actor and the real-life Leiris. “There is a fragility and a certain nobility that he shares with Antoine,” Riedhof says. The two had to have “the same soul in a way.” Leiris is an intellectual and describes himself as a “Bobo,” a bourgeois bohemian, which the actor is able to convey. Deladonchamps’ ability to express his character’s inner state in a “transparent and tangible” way was very important, Riedhof says.

“You Will Not Have My Hate” Courtesy of Komplizen Film

Central to the film is the performance of the child who plays Melvil. The search for a suitable candidate stretched across four countries and eventually three-year-old Zoé Iorio was chosen. A children’s coach worked with Iorio for three months so she could deliver the performance that the script demanded. “Only a few kids and Zoé in particular can express their thoughts and feelings, and give you as the audience the possibility to look into their soul, and to get the inner action and not only the outer action,” Riedhof says.

When reading the book, Riedhof found himself thinking of his relationship with his own child, who was of a similar age as Melvil, and imaging how he would cope if this happened to him. But although he could identify with the central character, the challenge was to put on screen the book’s “interior view” of Leiris’ life, written in a “poetic” way, with very little action. The other issue was how to manifest the evil that the terrorists represented — the potential object of Leiris’ hatred — without showing the attack itself, which would have been too “on the nose,” Riedhof says. He adds that it was a condition laid down by Leiris that they should not dramatize that part of the story.

In the film, Riedhof wanted to focus on the victims of the attack, rather than the perpetrators, and show how it is not just about the death of one woman, but the destruction of a family. “It’s one thing to talk about terrorism in a political way, but to feel the effect, to feel terrorism as an anti-familial power, this is so striking in this story, and so touching, and this makes us cry when we read the story.”

“You Will Not Have My Hate” Courtesy of Leonore Mueller

One way that the effect of the attacks on French society is conveyed is through the television news reports that Leiris watches. The use of mobile technology, social media and traditional media to convey information is an important element in the film. For example, initial reports of the attack come to Leiris via text message, and he makes his response to the terrorists on Facebook. That post is shared 250,000 times, and sparks a huge number of comments from around the world. We then see Leiris appearing on TV shows to talk about his views. Eventually, we see him steeling himself to watch a video of the attack on YouTube.

“I think it was — for a certain time — important for Antoine to have this media response, just to survive,” Riedhof says. “At one point in an interview, he said: ‘Well, we are living alone, the three of us.’ So in a way, he was able to keep [the memory of his wife alive], even though she was dead.” It was a kind of coping mechanism for Leiris, Riedhof says. However, there came a point when it became too much for him to bear — the pressure of this unwanted fame and the public’s expectations. “He is a public hero; people recognize him in the metro. So, he has to get rid of it, because otherwise he would abandon himself and his son. And I think what really helps him is committing himself to his son.”

Another element of the film is a shift in Leiris’ relationship with his brother and sister, and his wife’s mother and sister after the attack. “You can see that he’s closer to them at the end than at the beginning. Because I think at the beginning, he wants to keep the memory of his dead wife exclusive. This story is about how he comes to share his grief, to share his emotions with his family, and to discover that they can help him.”

Kilian Riedhof Courtesy of Mathias Bothor

Most of the action takes place in Leiris’ apartment, which gives the film an almost claustrophobic air, tinged with a sense of enveloping madness and horror as he struggles to cope with his loss. As noted before, Riedhof had Gluck’s opera “Orpheus and Eurydice” in mind. “I think it has to do with the forces of darkness, which are obviously the forces of terrorism. And, on the other hand, there is the heavenly appearance of his wife. So it has to do with hell and heaven, with light and dark, and it oscillates between these two poles. So it was important not to do a realistic description, but to let us dive into this subterranean-world of a man who loses his wife in such a tragic and brutal way.”

“You Will Not Have My Hate” is produced by Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach and Maren Ade at Komplizen Film. It is coproduced by Haut et Court, which is the French distributor, and Frakas Productions. Beta Cinema is handling world sales.

Next up for Riedhof is the World War II drama “Stella. A Life.,” which stars “Undine” actor Paula Beer. Based on a true story, it follows the German Jewish jazz singer Stella, who — after being tortured and threatened with deportation by the Gestapo — agrees to be a “catcher,” someone who tracks down fellow Jews in hiding. From September 1943 until the end of the war, she delivers hundreds of Jews to the Gestapo. The film is being sold by Global Screen.