Claude Berri, the maker of `Jean De Florette', has turned his attention to the real-life story of a husband and wife who fought in the Resistance. But, as he tells Geoffrey Macnab, `Lucie Aubrac' is as much about love as politics
A preview at the Berlin Film Festival. The house-lights go up in the cinema 10 minutes into the movie. A man strides to the front of the packed auditorium and reads names from a list. Anybody mentioned has to leave. Still blinking, half a dozen of us shuffle out like furtive mice, not quite sure what we have done to warrant such peremptory ejection. Only later is it explained that the screening was for "the buyers". The press shouldn't have been invited.

The irony doesn't take long to sink in. Claude Berri's Lucie Aubrac, which is receiving a special Gala screening at this year's London Film Festival, is set in France during the dog days of the collaborationist Vichy regime. It is full of scenes of courageous French resistance fighters being rounded up by officious Gestapo officers. Our little humiliation might almost have been designed to give us a taste of what was happening up on the big screen.

The Nazi occupation of France isn't exactly an event that has gone unnoticed by French film-makers. In 1971, Marcel Ophuls's lacerating and seemingly definitive documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, revealed the extent to which the French collaborated with the Nazis. A year or two ago, the dreary biopic, Petain, looked at the Vichy era through the eyes of the senile old Marshal who "governed" France during the occupation. Berri himself has already tackled the subject twice, first in his autobiographical 1966 effort, The Two of Us, and again in 1990's Uranus.

Sitting in his hotel suite in Berlin, a grizzled, animated figure in his mid-sixties, Berri seems insulted when asked why he is rehearsing the same old themes yet again. "If it was only a film about resistance," he proclaims in fractured English through a fog of cigarette smoke, "I don't do the movie. If it was only a film about romance, I don't do the movie. But..." he speaks slowly for emphasis, "it's resistance and romance - so I do the movie!" He continues: "In any occupied country, you resist. If you are a wife and your husband is in jail, you want to save him. That is the movie!"

The film is based on a book by the real-life Lucie Aubrac, a teacher whose husband fought in the Resistance alongside Jean Moulin. Like Moulin, Raymond Aubrac was arrested and tortured by Klaus Barbie, the "butcher of Lyons". But largely thanks to Lucie, he was able to escape. Carole Bouquet (best known to British audiences for her role as the Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only) stars as Lucie. Daniel Auteil, whose association with Berri stretches back to Jean De Florette, plays Raymond.

Berri's approach is deliberately matter-of-fact. Lucie and Raymond are an average French couple. Through force of circumstances, they are obliged to act heroically. At the start of the film, we're treated to scenes of their happy domestic life, but whether or not to resist the occupying force is never an issue for them - they do so as a matter of course. There is none of the guilt, violence and recrimination that Berri explored in Uranus. "They are two faces of the same period," the director says of the two, very different films. In Lucie Aubrac, he adds, he is only concerned with moral and political complexities in as far as they affect the lives of a typical family like the Aubracs.

Despite the intimate focus on the couple, Lucie Aubrac is hardly a chamber piece. Like Berri's previous feature, his sprawling adaptation of Victor Hugo's Germinal, this is film-making on a heroic scale. Barely five minutes into the movie, a German supply train is blown up by Raymond and his resistance colleagues. In the city scenes, there are thousands of extras. The look of wartime Lyons is reconstructed in microscopic detail. We see the trams people used to travel on, the hats they wore, the newspapers they read. "We had 80 different sets and making a period film in a modern city is very difficult. Lyons gave us one day to build and one day to shoot. If it rained, we were... kaput! But the story needed this scale."

Berri denies that it takes any great genius to achieve the De Mille-like effects. "To make a movie is like a military campaign, but I'm not alone. You have to have the right people. It's like being a cook. You give me onion, oil and vinegar. Then it's easy. If each department gives me the right thing I need, then it's easy." He even explains away the massive train explosion as a doddle. "You need money, yes, and eight cameras and a train," reeling off the list as if these are items available in the local newsagent. "But it's not a problem. I can control that. It's much easier than the scene when Carole Bouquet has to cry. I cannot control whether I can do that."

Berri has made 16 films in 30 years. He produces as well as directs, and his approach is determinedly traditionalist. "I make and love popular movies. I like to make movies that engage audiences emotionally, and afterward, they can think and speak about it. That's my way."

To his detractors, his films are a modern-day equivalent to "le cinema du papa,' the hidebound, literary / pictorial style of film-making that Truffaut and the New Wave rebelled against in the late 1950s. He admits that he likes to "look into the past" and that literature and painting are key influences on his work. Even so, at times, he almost seems like a polemical film-maker. Germinal was savagely critical of the 19th-century mine owners who treat their workers with such lofty contempt. Lucie Aubrac attacks fascism. But the work is set safely in the past. As he puts it, "I'm an artist, not a political film-maker." Quiz him about an angry new French movie like Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine, which deals with police brutality and racism in the suburbs, and he looks a little bewildered, "I admire the form, the Steadicam, For abstraction, it is fine. It's very spectacular, but inside there is nothing. What does it say? What does it mean at bottom?"

Actors and stories, he says, matter most in his work. In Lucie Aubrac, he seems especially fascinated with Daniel Auteil. In the scenes in which Raymond Aubrac languishes in prison, there is close-up after close-up of him, as if Berri believes the suffering of the character can be read in the lines of his face without the inconvenience of dialogue or plot exposition. While this doesn't do much for the tempo of the film, which remains solemn and slow throughout, Auteil has an extraordinary martyr- like screen presence which Berri exploits brilliantly. The director also elicits a strong, if self-conscious, performance from Bouquet as Lucie Aubrac. As a heroine, she seems to stand for free France itself - loyal, courageous, beautiful.

The real Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, both now in their eighties, prove rather livelier than their screen counterparts when they arrive in Berlin, a city which Lucie hasn't visited since the 1936 Olympics, to promote the film. "Those two guys, Mussolini and Hitler, we didn't realise that they were devils at first," she remarks in her press conference, recalling the years before the war. "For about 30 years afterwards, we were too busy living and working to think about those events," her husband adds "but then people started to ask questions."

What Berri focuses on most intently in the film is not the Aubracs' revelations about Nazi brutality nor their courage in the face of it, but the couple's enduring love. Gratifyingly, then, Raymond Aubrac turns out to be as chivalrous as ever 50 years on. Asked about the film, he replies, "Daniel Auteil is without doubt much better than his original model and Carole Bouquet is almost as beautiful as Lucie was during those years..."

`Lucie Aubrac' will be screened at the Vins De Pays French Gala at this year's London Film Festival on Saturday 15 November; for more details see LFF preview below