By Mike Dub
“This film has no pretension of solving the problem of Franco-German relations, for they cannot be solved while the barbarous Nazi crimes, committed with the complicity of the German people, remain fresh in men’s minds.” – written introduction to Le Silence de la Mer
With such an introduction, you might expect Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1949 World War II chamber drama, Le Silence de la Mer, to be a fiery, scathing indictment of Nazis, and, more generally, an entire generation of Germans. A resistance fighter during France’s occupation, Melville would seem to have every right to take such a track, particularly only a handful of years after the war’s end.
However, Melville’s drama, based on a 1941 underground novella by Jean Bruller (under the pseudonym Vercors), aims for more than just fish in a barrel. For Melville, the horror of the Nazis and their occupation of France surely doesn’t require any moral consideration – leave the impassioned, freedom-loving, flag-waving, Nazi bashing to those Hollywoodsmen who do it best. Melville’s film instead quietly considers the naiveté of idealism and the passive resistance of a dominated people. In fact, by the end of La Silence de la Mer, we realize the true function of the pre-credits apologia – not to excoriate the German people, but to pacify Melville’s own countrymen for providing such a sympathetic portrayal of a Nazi occupier.
The character in question is Nazi officer Werner von Ebrennac, who arrives at the rural residence of an unnamed man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his adult niece (Nicole Stéphane). Though von Ebrennac enters their home as an invader, he remains extravagantly polite, always knocking on the door to the living room before entering. For their part, the couple remain completely silent in his presence, the only act of resistance they can afford.
Von Ebrennac is not your typical Nazi. He is an idealist of a different sort, a true lover of France, convinced that his army has come to create a wondrous cultural hybrid between the two countries – “like man and wife,” he explains to his unwilling hosts. While acknowledging his own apprehension toward the militant Nazi force, he sees only the brightest future for both countries. France is the country of literature, Germany a country of music. France is beauty, Germany the beast; together, they will “restore France’s greatness.” His love of France is so impassioned, even his prisoners can’t help but admire him.
Almost the entire film takes place inside the living room of their home, and the film is shot brilliantly by Henri Decaë in stark chiaroscuro, with stunning close-ups and noir -ish (or rather, poetic realist) camera angles. Despite his good intentions, von Ebrennac at times looks like a ghoul from an early Paramount horror film. Other times, it is the niece’s unforgiving glare that chills us with the thoughts that remain silent behind her eyes.
While the film never really lets us know where it is going, from the subject matter alone we can predict that there is doom at the end of the line. However, the brutality of this tragedy does not come from the physical violence of war. It comes from the wrenching disillusionment of idealism, the devastation of facing one’s own culpability in an atrocity.
Perhaps, as he says, Melville has no intention of repairing Franco-German relations with this film. In subsequent pictures he would revisit the similar thematic territory in different forms, examining characters who suffer from self-delusion and are conscripted to self-destructive idealism. In films like Bob le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, gangsters suffer from a similar kind of grandiosity of purpose, except their illusion lies in the belief of the big score rather than peace among nations. In Le Doulos and Le Samouri, Melville’s characters are compelled by grand, even antiquated, codes of duty, which eventually become their downfall. In retrospect, given the films that followed, a Nazi officer is exactly the kind of character Melville would find sympathetic and tragic.
Still, underneath the apologetic tone of that introductory statement, there also may exist a belief that a film – perhaps even a people – can be patriotic without being vitriolic, compassionate without absolving. And maybe that’s a start.