Indefatigable Australian filmmaker-artist Philippe Mora criss-crosses the globe tracing his family’s survival during the Holocaust in Trevor Graham’s ingredient-heavy documentary “Monsieur Mayonnaise.” Revisiting some of the material Mora himself used in last year’s “Three Days in Auschwitz,” the film is a frequently fascinating if over-egged affair in which the French-born subject storyboards a personal graphic novel while recounting the remarkable story of his German-Jewish father’s work for the French Resistance and his French-Jewish mother’s miraculous escape from the gas chambers. Unnecessarily structured as a tongue-in-cheek mystery with Mora himself in the guise of a film noir detective, “Monsieur Mayonnaise” is nevertheless an eye-catching, engrossing romp sure to play well in the art house equivalent of the Borscht Belt.
Philippe’s father Georges Mora, born Gunter Morawski in Leipzig, received his nickname “Monsieur Mayonnaise” during WWII, but not everyone knew where the moniker came from. As a member of the French Resistance, he and Marcel Marceau helped smuggle scores of Jewish children into Switzerland from Nazi-occupied France. Realizing the fastidious Nazis hated to get their gloves soiled, Georges hit on the idea of wrapping documents in wax paper, slathering them with mayo, and sticking them in a sandwich; the ploy worked like a charm, and Georges’ handle stuck through the oncoming decades, when he proudly whisked up endless batches of mayonnaise as a defiantly tasty retort to the Final Solution.
After emigrating to Melbourne in the 1950s, the Moras became a fixture in the city’s lively culture scene, renowned for their restaurants and galleries as well as the art works of Georges’ wife Mirka. Philippe continues the family’s tradition of over-achievers, enjoying the wide-ranging pursuits of a modern-day Renaissance man as filmmaker (“Mad Dog Morgan,” “Howling III,” “Art Deco Detective,” etc.) and painter. Wanting to document the full story of both his parents before all the witnesses were gone, Philippe paired with Trevor Graham (“Make Hummus Not War”) in search of his roots, which took them from Los Angeles to Leipzig, Berlin, Melbourne, Paris, and Philadelphia.
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In many ways, “Monsieur Mayonnaise” is a love letter to Philippe’s father, with the ultimate goal being to trace anyone Georges saved during the war. Along the way, he details both parents’ stories of survival, from Mirka’s incredibly lucky release from a detention camp, to Georges’ work smuggling Jewish orphans across the border. Along the way, he tracks down Giselle Fournier, whose parents hid Mirka’s family during the war, and Henri Parents, a Philadelphia psychiatrist who was one of the children Georges rescued.
At each location, Philippe paints bold pictures in bright acrylic colors, each designed as elements of a projected graphic novel (Mora is one of those admirable figures whose excitement and wide ranging interests trail a plethora of semi-realized endeavors in multiple fields; his infectious enthusiasm makes you glad the project exists, even if only on paper). That works better than the silly film noir recreations, which could easily be excised to allow more room for food-related stops apart from the inevitable mayonnaise (which Mirka still whips up with glee) and an appreciative pause at a Parisian boulangerie. Graham doesn’t allow any reference to go unillustrated, which bogs down the documentary with too much distracting footage, but fortunately the Mora saga is strong enough to withstand the frequent deviations.