A Deafening Silence

SILENCE DE LA MER, LE (1949)

To view Le Silence de la Mer, click here.

Jean-Pierre Melville directed Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Samouraï  (1967), L’ Arme des ombres (1969) and Le Cercle rouge (1970), all acclaimed works by an acclaimed director but his first effort from 1949, Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea), stands as one of the great directing debuts in movie history. It also stands as a controversial work, along with its source material, the novel of the same name written by Jean Brullers in occupied France under the pseudonym Vercors. The controversy has to do with the idea of the “good German,” or, more specifically, the “good Nazi officer,” an idea that rankled many at the time and still causes problems today, depending on how you look at it.

In the movie, a Nazi officer played by Howard Vernon, is billeted in the house of an elderly French man and his niece in occupied France. As a form of protest, the man and his niece refuse to speak to the officer, or respond to anything he says. The man, played by Jean-Marie Robain, narrates most of the movie and informs the viewers that there were times when he wanted to speak, if only not to seem rude, but could not. No matter how congenial his guest, he would not be spoken to. 

After a while, the officer accepts this fate and even comes to enjoy it. Without anyone to counter what he says, he can speak about whatever he likes, at length, and enjoy the company of a captive audience. Before long, the officer is asking and answering questions of himself, taking on both parts of the conversation, even though we the viewers have an unheard part available to us, that of the old man narrating.

The officer speaks of culture and seems quite enlightened on several issues. He is optimistic that France and Germany together will be a great union and over time, the residents of France will come to cherish their relationship. He speaks often to the niece, played by Nicole Stéphane, a woman who clearly moves him. He wants her to understand that he is a decent fellow and, by God, Germany is a decent country, only wanting the best for everything.

SILENCE DE LA MER, LE (1949)

Until he goes to Paris and learns of the Nazi death camps, Treblinka in this case, and returns questioning himself in general and Nazi policies in particular. And that’s where things get dicey.

What upset many readers of the book and viewers of the movie was the idea itself that anyone, much less a German officer, could have made it all the way to 1942 before figuring out that the Nazis maybe didn’t have the noblest intentions in the world regarding Jews. Given that the Nuremberg Laws were signed in 1935 (and weren’t kept secret from anyone in the world) and Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, it would be remarkable for anyone going into 1942 to be ignorant of the Nazi’s beliefs but for an actual Nazi officer, even one who doesn’t like the Nazis, it would seem to be impossible.

The officer makes a point to separate out Germany from Nazism at times in his conversations with himself as if to say that he may be an officer in their military but doesn’t necessarily concur with their ideology. Okay, then that would indicate he finds their ideology disturbing which would further confuse the situation. Why then was he surprised to find out in Paris that they were evil? Didn’t he already know that?

On the other hand, supporters of the story ask how many Germans were behind Nazism, even its treatment of the Jews, until they found out about the death camps. But even that is a question that opens up others, like how many really didn’t know and, after Kristallnacht, wasn’t it kind of obvious where all of this was heading? Or at least, strongly suggested?

Jean Brullers defended his book by pointing out that it was an allegory, not a story meant to be taken literally. The old man and his niece were the resistance, fighting back, and the officer was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, trying to convince them of his humanity. His message, supposedly, was that the French needed to resist any and all German efforts to ingratiate themselves into French society. Reading it that way certainly makes sense, but it still leaves us with the the unfortunate fact that the most noble and self-sacrificing character in the movie is the Nazi officer. As a result, no matter how you look at it, it’s a questionable enterprise at best, and a gamble either way.

SILENCE DE LA MER, LE (1949)

Melville does some incredible things to make all of this work. Let’s face it, with a story that revolves around one character talking to himself in front of two silent people in the same room for its entire run time, there were some major challenges to overcome as a filmmaker. Melville makes the film as cinematic as he can, changing the original lighting and angles from which we see the officer at the beginning (camera looking up at him, lit from beneath) to the end (straight on, everyone at the same level, lit from above), to reinforce the idea that the officer has come to his senses and become a decent man.

But it is the story that is the driving force here, not cinematic technique, and the story can only takes us so far outside of its allegorical underpinnings. It’s understandable that so many at the time may have been upset by the story’s treatment of the German officer, given the ordeal set upon the world at the time, but it is perhaps an even riskier proposition for posterity. Seen today, outside its morale building intentions, younger audiences with little context to draw from, except perhaps fleeting knowledge that the Allies won and the Axis lost, might see the movie and react, “Oh, so that’s cool. There were good Nazis, too.” Which isn’t the point of the book or movie at all but they could also see it and think, “Wow, the Nazis were so awful even other Nazis hated them.” And yes, awful, or some word not yet invented that truly describes their record breaking iniquity, is the right direction to move but still an inadequate reaction. The fact is, once removed from its historical motivations, the story forever opens itself up to scrutiny over the choice of its methods. That’s to its credit. Too many movies, then and now, leave the viewer nothing to argue, nothing to counter, nothing to think. Maybe the story is too generous to one side, maybe it’s misguided or maybe it’s a brilliant cinematic discourse on dissent. It gives you those questions to ask and that, in the end, may be its ultimate achievement.

Greg Ferrara

3 Responses A Deafening Silence
Posted By Susan G : March 31, 2017 11:32 am

Le Silence de la Mer is one of my all-time favorites, despite all of the valid points you’ve brought up. There is no way around them, but I still love the movie. My other favorite Melville (though many feel it was actually Cocteau at the helm) is Les Enfants Terribles.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 1, 2017 3:11 pm

It’s a great, thought-provoking movie, the kind that don’t come along too often.

Posted By swac44 : April 1, 2017 7:31 pm

Funny, I was talking about this topic about a week ago after watching Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, in which the Nazis seem to come off better than the French collaborators, at least up until their ultimate investigation of the boys’ school where the film is set. It made me wonder if in general the French hated those who helped the Germans more than the Germans themselves.

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