Josephine Grahl reads between the lines in Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants.
Paris, wartime, and a beautiful woman (in a fabulous hat) is saying goodbye to a boy at the station. She kisses him, leaving a lipstick print: ‘It won’t be too long… I’ll miss you every minute.’ But the boy is her son Julien and he is not going off to war, but to his Catholic boarding school: austere, traditional and part of her son’s education into the haute-bourgeoisie. Louis Malle’s 1987 film Au Revoir les Enfants is semi-autobiographical, dealing with a moment in his childhood when his sheltered upbringing came up against the horrors of the Holocaust and the German occupation of France.
Julien’s school is occupied France in microcosm, with a thriving black market, discomfort, cold, terrible food and disputes between the boys about Pétain and De Gaulle. Unbeknownst to the students or their parents, the headmaster Father Jean has agreed to shelter three Jewish boys from possible deportation. A boys’ boarding school with its casual brutalities is a tough place for three displaced children to feel welcome, despite the kindly attentions of the masters and priests, and the Jewish children, traumatised from the loss of their parents, must sink or swim. Julien has his own problems: despite his pre-adolescent bravado, he still wets the bed. As Julien makes his confession, Father Jean instructs him to be kind to Jean Bonnet, ‘since the other boys look up to you.’
This exhortation leads Julien to look again at his schoolmate, and his discovers that Jean Bonnet’s books are inscribed with the name of Jean Kippelstein. But it’s Jean’s cleverness which attracts Julien, the first academic competition he has known. The two boys are perfectly cast, Gaspard Manesses’s solemn toughness as Julien a good match for Raphaël Fejtö’s sensitive portrayal of Jean Bonnet/Kippelstein. As Julien’s respect for his classmate grows, so do his suspicions about his true identity.
When Julien’s mother turns up for visiting day – during which the affluent parents are scandalised by Father Jean’s sermon on the corrupting influence of wealth – and takes her son and his new friend out to lunch, their enjoyment is interrupted by the French police who attempt to turn an elderly Jewish customer out of the restaurant. German officers intervene to send the policemen packing, more out of irritation at having their lunch interrupted than any other motivation; but it’s a narrative misstep on Malle’s part.
Are we to believe that towards the end of the war (‘No one is for Pétain any more,’ says Julien’s mother) that German troops were simultaneously prepared to comb the countryside for fugitive Jewish children and let elderly Jewish Frenchmen enjoy their rabbit (cooked in margarine) in peace? At that same moment – well after French Jews were forced to wear the yellow star – did French Jews habitually dine in restaurants frequented by the Wehrmacht? The point that the French police forces willingly did the Gestapo’s job for them – and then some – is a good one, but the incongruities of the scene detracts from the seriousness and restraint of the rest of the story.
The complexities of Occupation are further highlighted when at their weekly visit to the public baths the schoolboys meet the German soldiers – it’s brought home how similar they are, the Germans larking and flicking each other with towels like the French boys who follow them. Later when Jean and Julien get lost during a scouting game, they are picked up by the ‘Boche’, who, far from terrorising them, wrap them in blankets and deliver them safely back to the school.
In the 1949 film Le Silence de la Mer, based on the wartime novel by Vercors, silence becomes resistance, as the niece and uncle forced to billet a German officer respond by refusing to speak to him or respond to his disquisitions about the cultural similarities between Germany and France and their shared culture (in Au Revoir Les Enfants, Jean’s musical talent is one of the things which makes Julien see him in a different light, when the music teacher, one of the few women in the film, asks him to play Bach.) Speech, or lack of it, can be a form of resistance
But it’s not speech that makes Julien question Jean’s identity, but acts: Jean’s confusion at being served pork at dinner, Father Jean quietly refusing him communion, and the moment in the middle of the night when Julien wakes to see Jean murmuring Hebrew prayers. Au Revoir les Enfants is characterised by the constant badinage which takes place while the real communication is unspoken. When the Gestapo finally come to the school searching for the Jewish boys, it’s not an act of speech, but Julien’s involuntary glance at his friend which reveals to the Gestapo the identity of the fugitive. Jean is arrested, and with his fellow Jewish students and Father Jean, deported to Auschwitz, where he dies.
Other truths are left unspoken. What is the truth about Julien’s father, some sort of industrialist, although his mother is evasive when asked about him. Is he, too, some sort of ‘collabo’? Does Julien feel a responsibility for the club-footed school kitchen boy who denounces the Jewish students to the Gestapo? The uncomfortable questions about France under Occupation mingle with other uncomfortable questions – about class, about wealth, about safety and privilege – which force Julien to confront the end of his childhood.
The re-release of Au Revoir les Enfants is in cinemas now.