Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

In early 1942, a novel was secretly published and distributed throughout Nazi-occupied Paris. It's author, a man who went by the codename Vercors, risked his life to bring these pages into the public eye. It was entitled Le Silence de la Mer, which translates to The Silence of the Sea. It told a simple story comprised of only three principle characters: an old man and his niece who are forced to share their home with an occupying German officer. They use the only tactic that they have at their disposal to resist against the officer: silence. They do not speak a word to him. This simple tale quickly became the blueprint for mental resistance against the German occupiers. After the war, the author Vercors revealed himself to be Jean Bruller, one of the co-founders of Les Éditions de Minuit which served as an underground publishing house during the occupation until the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. Since distribution of their texts was illegal, copies of their books had to be passed from person to person. In this way, novels like Le Silence de la Mer became unspoken classics amongst the French. So, with the end of the German occupation, it was obvious that these stories would be adapted into movies. But who should direct them, and how? Surely they are not meant for overblown Hollywood melodrama with the old man and his niece clinging onto each other with teary eyes as they sacrifice themselves for the Resistance. For a story of such quiet power, a filmmaker of the same caliber would be required. Thankfully, in 1949, Jean-Pierre Melville directed his own adaptation of Le Silence de la Mer, and the result was a film that would perfectly capture the spirit of the novel and the secret universe that produced it.

Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, he adopted the name Melville as a tribute to his favorite American author, Herman Melville, author of the famous Moby Dick. His films, like his own name, were highly influenced by American cinema and culture. While critics applaud his early films like Le Silence de la Mer, Les Enfants Terribles (1950), and Léon Morin, prêtre (1961), he would gain international renown for his gangster and crime movies. But instead of mimicking the American crime films that he loved, he would invent his own cinematic language and style. Instead of sets, he was one of the first French directors to film on location. Instead of breakneck epics punctuated by intense gun fights, his crime films were slow-paced and focused on the nuances of criminal life. In Le Samouraï (1967) we are introduced to the main character, a professional hit-man named Jef Costello, laying down on a bed smoking a cigarette. Slowly, he gets up, walks to the door, and then pauses to make sure that his coat is immaculate and his hat is positioned perfectly on his head. We follow him as he goes about Paris constructing every aspect of his alibi. Then, when he finally makes his hit, it is not with a stylistic flourish, but with the precision of a surgeon. “What do you want,” the victim asks him. “To kill you,” he replies. A couple of quick shots with a silencer, and the deed is done.

Where other directors would embellish, Melville simply observes. I remember reading one review that likened Melville's directing as a series of meticulously constructed still shots. Perhaps so, but I always saw Melville as a director who obsessed over behavior. Let Varda and Akerman obsess over mise-en-scène, Melville is more concerned with his characters and what makes them tick. Perhaps this is what made him such a perfect fit for Le Silence de la Mer, because after you strip it of all pretensions and implications, it is a story of three characters fighting a battle of mind and willpower, not of body and bullets.

While the story focuses on the plight of the old man and his niece, Melville goes into greater detail in describing the German officer, Werner Von Ebrennac. He is a man of lofty ideals who holds a genuine interest in French and German cooperation. He does not look down on his benefactors. Instead, one of the first things he says to them is, “I'm very sorry, I...It was necessary, of course. I would have avoided it, if I'd been able. My orderly will do everything he can not to disrupt you.” Regarding their silence, he replies, “I have a deep respect for people who love their country.” Immediately we realize that this officer is not like the other Germans that the old man and his niece have had to deal with. He speaks perfect French, with a slight accent of course, whereas the soldiers who inspected their house before he arrived could hardly speak it. “They spoke to me in what they thought was French. I didn't understand a word,” the old man narrates. No, officer Von Ebrennac has obviously invested great time and energy in learning and mastering the French language. At least much more time than his fellow occupiers ever did.

The majority of the movie from this point on consists of officer Von Ebrennac coming into their study, warming himself by the fire, and talking. As they sit in silence Von Ebrennac talks about himself. It turns out that when he isn't wearing an officer's clothing, he is a composer. He adores German music. But he has one other passion: great literature. In particular French literature. During one evening, he stares at their library and remarks, “Balzac, Baudelaire, Corneille, Descartes, Fénelon, Gautier, Hugo. What a line-up! And I've only got to 'H'. Not as far as Molière, Racine, Rabelais, Pascal, Stendhal, Voltaire, Montaigne...and all the others. With the English, you immediately think of Shakespeare. With the Italians, Dante. With Spain, Cervantes...and with us, immediately Goethe...but if someone says France, who immediately springs to mind? Molière? Racine? Hugo? They're like a crowd at a theatre entrance. You don't know who to let in first.” Indeed, Von Ebrennac is a cultured man with cultured tastes. He sees France and Germany as two parts of a single whole, literature and music. My guess is that he also sees France as Europe's soul and Germany as Europe's strength. But whatever the reason, he spends night after night confessing his love of France and hinting that they should not hate Germany for what it is doing.

But why does he talk to them? Is it an attempt to break the ice? Does he want to justify his being there? My opinion is that he finally has an audience who will listen to what he has to say. For his thoughts are unbecoming of a Nazi officer of the Third Reich. These confessions are cathartic; they give him a chance to praise the country that he loves. But do not misunderstand, he does not apologize for his country's actions. “I don't regret this war. No, I think some great good will come of it...Out of great love for France. Great things will come of it for both Germany and France. I think as my father did that the sun will shine again on Europe.” Instead, Von Ebrennac sees the war as a means to an end: a greater, stronger Europe. Of course, the old man and his niece do not believe him, so night after night his confessions are met with devastating silence.

Of course, Von Ebrennac eventually learns the truth when he visits Paris. There, he learns about the true nature of the German occupation. His friends cheerfully tell him that they intend to destroy France, eliminate its culture, and rule over it as part of the Thousand Year Empire. He is devastated by the truth. He returns to the house where he informs the old man and his niece that he has requested a transfer to a fighting unit on the Eastern front. Knowing now that the Eastern front was doomed to fail and that the Soviets didn't usually take prisoners, we know that he is doomed to die. As he is about to leave the next day, he finds a book by the door with a paper inside bearing the words, “It is a fine thing when a soldier disobeys criminal orders.” He turns and sees the old man standing in a doorway, hands behind his back, staring at him. As Von Ebrennac gets ready to leave, a curious look engulfs his face. What is it? Understanding? Fury? Contempt? Who knows? He leaves for the Eastern front and the old man goes back to his old routine with his niece. Their resistance finished, their victory won, I like to imagine what they believed they had accomplished. Did they feel triumphant or were they sorry that this man that had confessed his soul to them was doomed to die? It is up for us to come to our own conclusions. Just as copies of the book were passed around in secret in the streets of Paris, so will the film Le Silence de la Mer be handed from film-goer to film-goer over the years. For those who worship Melville's crime films, it will remain an enigma. For those who study early French film, it will be a curiosity.

But to those who lived through the Nazi occupation of France, it lives as a testament of a bygone era. Consider, for example, Melville's relationship with Bruller. When Melville started filming Le Silence de la Mer, he did not have the legal rights. But Melville met with Bruller and told him that if he didn't like the film, he would burn the negative. All that needs to be said is that the film still remains to this day.



  1. Have you ever seen "The Lives of Others"? It was a German film from just a couple of years ago... not very similar to this movie, but close enough to remind me of it. Some comparable themes. Highly recommended, anyway.

  2. No, but I have heard of it. I haven't been able to find a copy of it. But I do hope to watch it someday.

  3. Army of Shadows by the same director left with a somewhat unsatiated feeling and a curiosity to learn a bit more about it, so I stopped reading your essay at three paragraphs. Let me see if I can manage to see this one.

  4. Oh. Well, I hope you do finally see it and tell me what you think.

  5. Thanks for your detailed review and recommending this movie.

  6. Well, I'm at least glad that you liked the review.

  7. Thank you for this great review.

    I'm a big Melville fan, and I found the poetic nature of this film similar to his treatment of much more busy and active source material, "Les enfants terribles." Also interesting his his use of the Arc d'Triomphe in both this film and "Army of Shadows."

  8. Thank YOU for the great comment!

    I actually considered writing about "Les Enfants Terribles" here on my blog. I still may one day...

    It's good to hear from you, Diandra!

    I hope you like the rest of the site and comment more!

  9. Thanks so much for the detailed review. I haven't been able to find the film yet but will continue looking.'

    Meanwhile, I'm heading to London and hoping to see the book as the play at the Donmar Studio.

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