Au Revoir Les Enfants 08/31/2009
This article was originally published as part The Cineastes series of essays.
Written & Directed by Louis Malle
Au Revoir Les Enfants is a personal story of immense power about a young boy’s experience in a Catholic boarding school during World War II. At the age of 11, Louis Malle attended the school, located near Fontainebleau. It is there that he would become friends with another young boy. His new friend, it would turn out, was actually Jewish and was hiding under an alias. Eventually, along with 2 other students, he would be found out, and taken by the Nazis. Roughly forty years later, Louis Malles made Au Revoir Les Enfants, recounting this traumatizing event.
The film is so open and honest, that it becomes deeply emotional. Malle is successful at making us feel his lingering pain. I imagine that making the movie must have been very difficult but also cathartic. It was a story that he clearly needed to tell. After the film initially premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, Malle sobbed and proclaimed “this is my story, now it is told”. It is because the film takes such a personal approach to how the Holocaust impacted people, that it is so effective. We become so attached to the characters in the film, that their tragedy is our tragedy. Then, to think of how many more people were hurt at that time becomes overwhelming.
Au Revoir Les Enfants does an excellent job of establishing the everyday workings of the boarding school. Children play, and fight, and play some more. The cook’s assistant deals cigarettes in exchange for food. On some lucky nights, they even get to watch films. In one masterful scene, everyone gathers to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant. In a time of war and fear, it provides everyone with a sense of escapism. The scene plays as a nice love letter to cinema. All together, in the dark, everyone watches and laughs. Julien Quentin, the main character, representing Malle, constantly reads and shares this interest with Jean Bonnet, actually Jean Kippelstein.
At first, like with most young male friendships, the two boys fight. This is really just a way of getting to know each other, and eventually they have a very special bond. One of the more interesting artistic choices of the film is the use of piano in the musical score. Jean excels in nearly every area of school. During a piano lesson, Julien struggles to play a piece properly. When Jean takes his place, he plays it effortlessly. Throughout the remainder of the film we hear Julien’s misplaced keys, which brilliantly underline some very interesting moments. Specifically, when Julian is alone in a bathtub, and thinking about the piano lesson. During the last moments of the film, the piano is heard again, but instead played as Jean did, with no mistakes.
Louis Malle simply recounts his memories, avoiding any comments on the Germans, or the politics of the war. He paints a grey area in one scene, in a restaurant that does not allow Jews. A couple French policemen enter, and begin to ask several patrons for their papers. One elderly man is Jewish, and is hastily asked to leave by the police. At a table across the room, several German soldiers are seated. One of the Germans yells at the police and ask them to leave the Jewish man alone. In another key scene, two German soldiers find Jean and Julien lost in the woods, and deliver them safely back to the school.
I admire the bravery and kindness of the Catholic priest who took Jewish children in and helped protect them. Lucien Bunuel, the name of the actual priest who Malle went to school with, would eventually lose his life for this risk. I read that many priests did the same. This is seen as one of the major reasons that helped about 75 percent of French Jews survive the holocaust. My heart swells now as it did when I watched the film.
My love for the film is very simple. I haven’t much to say about it. It belongs in the top tier of World War II films along with Grave of the Fireflies and Night & Fog. It is one of the most devastating experiences I have had with cinema. Au Revoir Les Enfants is quietly powerful and beautiful. By the third act, I find myself moved to tears. Once Louis Malle’s own voice comes in to end the film, I am overcome with empathy. He says “More than 40 years have passed, but I'll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die." A masterpiece, the film is so remarkable because of its portrayal of extinguished childhood. On that morning, the lives of some children we’re stolen, and other lives, such as Malle’s, we’re tampered with and forever changed. Goodbye children.
posted by adam cook