Movie Review Roulette #4: Au Revoir Les Enfants
“I will remember every second of that January morning until I die.”
The last shot of Au Revoir Les Enfants is a closeup of the face of its lead character, Julien Quentin, a boy of about 11 attending a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944.
But the voice delivering those lines is that of Louis Malle, the film’s director.
War films are rarely this personal.
Scratch that. A lot of war films, about both combat and civilian life, are personal. Personal is a wide-spanning word, really. From a literal perspective, Platoon drew largely from Oliver Stone’s experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War.
On a more interpretive front, it’s no surprise to anyone upon seeing Apocalypse Now that it nearly broke Francis Ford Coppola while he directed it.
No, films about life during war are rarely this vivid a snapshot of life during war, away from the battlefield. Au Revoir Les Enfants is film as autobiography. Louis Malles directed, wrote, and produced it. He recounts one winter of his childhood. It opens with notes of chilly remembrance and ends with sad whispers of long-held regret.
This not not a nostalgic film. Some films about World War II are. Hope and Glory comes to mind. They attempt to find room for warmth and celebrations of the human spirit in the context of something that is objectively horrific. Whether or not they succeed is a topic for another post.
Many other films that look at civilian life during war are about its horrors. Grave of the Fireflies and Come and See are the two best examples. Theirs are stories of suffering and the senseless death that war inflicts upon non-combatants.
But Malle, for the most part, seemed to live a comparatively privileged life during the war, and he knows it. Malle seems to have no sepia-toned glasses about his childhood, not when he was attending school in the middle of a war. He is establishing a time, a place, and people. Compared to many in Europe, Julien is safe. The war seems distant to him. He is free to get into squabbles with his classmates, to trade jams for valuable stamps on the fly, to surreptitiously read books by flashlight at night. He can live a relatively normal life. And he is free to get to know the new kid in his school, a quiet, kindly boy named Jean Bonnet.
It is obvious to us that Bonnet is Jewish, and that the priests at the school are hiding him, along with two other boys. This is not mined for melodrama. The film’s storytelling consists simply scenes from a child’s life. Every day, in class, in church, in those spare moments when he can read his books and observe his surroundings, Julien gleans information. He slowly pieces together than Jean is Jewish. He realizes this as a fact. On one hand, it’s heartening that this realization changes nothing for Julien. On the other, he doesn’t seem to grasp why it’s so crucial that Jean keep his religion secret. When Julien tells Jean what he has discovered, Jean fights him. Every day for Jean is a matter of survival. Julien doesn’t grasp this.
For Julien, his classmate’s religion is not much more than a fact. He can’t grasp the anti-Semitic sentiments of some of this classmates. Prejudice is learned, after all, never innate.
But he does not immediately become friends with Jean, either. Julien plays the part of a schoolyard tough, with a mean streak that is amusingly forced, but an accurate depiction of how some kids climb to the top of the schoolyard food chain. Their relationship is icy at first. Julien sees Jean as an annoying new kid, and Jean keeps his head down, avoiding conflict and spending time with his own friends. Julien and Jean become friends the way friends often do. They slowly find some common interests, mainly books and playing piano. They begin to spend time together. They get to know each other innately, without trying. Some friendships are almost immediate. Others are grown into.
I often praise films for getting the rhythms of life just right. Au Revoir Les Enfants at times feels like a documentary of life in a school in 1944. We infer the drama involving Jean’s religion, because we know the stakes. Julien doesn’t comprehend them. And that’s what makes the film’s ending so heartbreaking.
The ending begins on a familiar note, with the students in class getting an update on the war effort. Then a German soldier enters the classroom, followed by a Gestapo officer. The rhythm is broken.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is reminiscent of the Catholic sacrament of Confession. Catholics making a confession are expected to desire repentance, and to make a full examination of their conscience before confessing their sins. Most of Au Revoir Les Enfants plays out like that examination, a series of scenes that lack much plot connectivity but together construct a narrative. It’s a narrative full of silly, childish sins (stealing from the pantry, fighting with other students), similar to the type that Julien confesses to a priest in a scene early in the film (“I fought with my sister over break, and that is all” he says to a gently skeptical Père Jean, the priest who runs the school).
When making a confession, part of the deal is that you make an honest effort to change your ways after the fact. And there was nothing Malle could do to change what happened that January morning. All he could do was tell the story.