While Jean-Pierre Melville is best remembered for razor-sharp, existential crime films, he found his feet elsewhere. Before Bob le flambeur, the gangster film so good it made Kubrick swear off further forays into the genre. Even before his chequered adaptation of Cocteau’s Les enfants terrible1 where he had to fight off the original author’s attempts to commandeer the production. Before all that, Melville was introduced to the world with Le Silence de la Mer.
The film’s source is a novel of the same name that was covertly published in Nazi-occupied France. Its author, Jean Bruller, operated under the pseudonym Vercors. It’s only appropriate then, that a fellow monikered Resistance member, Jean-Pierre Melville2, should bring it to the screen. Not that this easy streamlining of historical events suggests a similarly straightforward genesis for this film. Melville’s importance to the Nouvelle Vague largely stems from his handling of this film3. With anarchic thoughts of challenging the ‘cinéma de papa,’ where better for young Truffaut to look than to the man who started adapting and filming his first feature before securing the rights to the source material? Furthermore, Melville didn’t have union membership and proceeded to make the entire film outside of the accepted channels of production. Challenged by Vercors about the filmed adaptation, Melville promised that if the author didn’t like the finished version the negatives would be destroyed. Vercors must have come around to Melville’s way of thinking – much of the film ended up being shot in his own home.
Vercors knew quality when he saw it. Whatever the draw of Melville’s later work, and it boasts many stellar qualities, his debut exudes a magnetic atmosphere and a delightfully robust execution. The rough edges only serve to further entice the viewer into the powerful tale. The story concerns an elderly French gentleman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane4) who are forced by the reigning Nazi command to let out a room in their home to a high-ranking German officer, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon). To display their resistance the two refuse to speak to their uninvited tenant. Seemingly unfazed, understanding and even admiring their actions, von Ebrennac indulges in a series of lengthy monologues during which he expresses his deep admiration for French history and society and his belief that unification with Germany will lead both nations to glorious cultural re-birth. His high ideals are later shattered when a trip to Paris and to the high-command reveals the Nazis’ schemes to subjugate and destroy all that he holds dear about France. Distraught, the officer forgoes his stately position and signs up to be deployed to the Eastern front and, thus, to almost certain death.
There are a number of striking elements aside from the film’s unorthodox production. Firstly, we have an unfolding narrative that takes place almost entirely in a single room with a minimal cast of characters, lending much of the proceeding narrative the feeling of a chamber play – a style that was not particularly in favour at the time of production5. Secondly, to complicate matters dramatically and structurally, two-thirds of the principle cast remain almost entirely silent for the duration of events. To overcome the first obstacle Melville’s camera assumes many unusual perspectives to build drama and fully encompass the events as they unfold in this limited space. The second element is tackled through extensive use of voice-over. Robain’s character never interacts with von Ebrennac but is allowed an internal record of his impressions of the young German and their unusual relationship.
Holding to the perimeters of the room, the camera finds vantage points in the rafters, low on the floor, and even within the fireplace. As Robain and Stéphane sit, the camera adopts their position and glares upwards at the towering shape of Vernon. The low-angle lighting accents the angles of his face and finds a magnificent counterpoint in the soft-lit features of Stéphane – a countenance that surely ranks alongside Maria Falconetti’s in the annals of cinema. While never imposing, the high-key lighting and exaggerated viewpoints silently build an immense sense of drama within that small room. It’s worth noting the visuals come courtesy of Henrie Decaë, gaining his first credit as a cinematographer. He’d go on to work repeatedly with Melville and would also become one of the darlings of the Nouvelle Vague, filming, among others, Les quatre cents coups aka The 400 Blows and Ascenseur pour l’échafaud aka Elevator to the Gallows.
Elsewhere, Melville adopts other trickery inspired by the recent arrival of another auspicious debut to his native France, Citizen Kane. Though originally released in 1941, Welles’ debut found its release in Europe delayed thanks to the war and subsequent subjugation of various territories. Despite its late arrival it still impressed the beleaguered French. While the extreme tilt of the camera certainly nods to Welles and Toland, it’s the utilisation of composite shots to achieve a deep-focus-like effect that seals the homage. Though assembled outside of the studio system and on a minimal budget, Melville still manages a glossy veneer. At no point, despite the director’s inexperience, does the film suggest we’re watching an early ‘independent’.
Opening with a brief text introduction, the film asserts it cannot hope to mend the damage done during the war. Instead, through this unusual stand-off, the story creates a hypnotic narrative that offers Germany a human voice set aside from the overbearing principles of war. Von Ebrennac is no fool. He is a composer, steeped in higher learning, who dropped everything to join the war effort. His mind brings him back to his own father, a veteran of the First World War that ravaged both his country and pride. This new war shall restore things, redress the balance and re-assert Germany’s position. The nation comes not as a conqueror but as a powerful cohort through which the different but equally beautiful histories of France and Germany shall find full extolment. France is a nation of poets and writers, Germany a nation of musicians and philosophers. Together their artistry will be unmatched, united under the powerful vision of Hitler.
It is only with his trip to the nation’s capital, to the beloved Paris he read so much about in his youth, that von Ebrennac catches wind of the Reich’s true intentions. In a sense it’s an awkward development, belying the tale’s obviously Franco-centric construction. Furthermore, the passages that find the various Nazi officers casually discussing their plans to annihilate France through carefully constructed torment can’t help but seem a little flimsy and expository. Nonetheless there’s a definite impact as von Ebrennac realises his former college-mates, once dreamers and aesthetes like him, now discuss the nation’s grand character only within the context of the necessary eradication of all such grand narratives. France shall be reduced to rubble and it will be assimilated into the Reich, not as a partner but as a slave, as raw material to fuel further aggression and enslavement.
Finally seeing the truth, perhaps something he knew all along as hinted by his recollection of a particularly sadistic German maiden he once knew6, von Ebrennac returns to his post utterly disillusioned. Seemingly for the first time he notices a poster on the train station wall detailing those who have been shot in retaliation for Resistance actions. He now understands the true nature of the institution to which he is entirely bound. His eloquent monologues about unity and resurrection are replaced with frustration, realising now that his own rhetoric was laced with calumnious platitudes.
Only at this point can the two French occupants consider breaking their silence. Their rebellion is hardly suited to this new creature they find before them. The power of the unfolding narrative is that, ironically, through their forced cooperation with the enemy, they have found a kindred spirit. However, the pride that unites them must also deny them any closer connection. The Eastern Front beckons as von Ebrennac finds himself in the untenable situation where he can only live or die for the same murderous masters. The latter will offer him quicker relief and perhaps grander honour. Milton proclaimed that it would be better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Von Ebrennac is afforded no such luxury. The best he might do is die on the front-lines an honest soldier rather than sit silently behind his desk, tacitly upholding his master’s ideology. His pride as a German prevents him from defecting just as his hosts’ pride allows them to recognise a kindred spirit.
The final dialectic of Le Silence de la Mer then is an observation on the intellectual violence of war. Keeping away from the battlefield – Melville’s film offers us only the briefest of glimpses at the actual machines of war – the destruction on display here is emotional. Von Ebrennac is a pivotal figure, a young man of high ideals who is perverted by larger mechanisms. He has convinced himself of the righteousness, indeed the glory, of his actions, but he is soon confronted by their cruel actuality. By participating, all that he holds dear is sullied and the silent figures in that small room sit as an unyielding conscience. In a film driven almost exclusively by words rather than actions, the unfolding play manifests as a strangely evocative discourse on the impact of war on the human spirit. Though other interlocutors are present, it is von Ebrennac that is the centre of the discourse. Through the silence of his peers his own words will eventually undo him. The best of intentions can’t hope to defeat the base realities of combat. France is battered and bruised from the fight but let’s not forget that Germany was defeated too.
Le Silence de la Mer does not seek to redeem Germany’s honour, a near impossible feat a mere four years after the full revelation of Hitler’s designs, but it does offer a different perspective from the bulk of war films. Reminiscent of Renoir’s masterful La grande illusion, Melville’s film does not dabble so much in class commentary but sombrely reminds us that the greatest tragedy of war is that humanity can only kill its own.
1 Many simply classify it as a Cocteau film. To be fair, in remaining true to the original text and having Cocteau on hand for advice, the finished product fits more easily into the elder artist’s canon than that of the junior Melville. Truffaut famously proclaimed, “Thus Cocteau’s greatest novel has become Melville’s greatest film.”
2 His original surname was Grumbach. Melville, of Jewish extraction, served with the French Resistance and chose the name as an ode to the American author, Herman Melville.
3 His influence to the next generation stems from various structural conceits: he often shot on location when most films were still studio bound, he sometimes used hand-held cameras to achieve greater dynamism, and his incredibly sharp editing achieved effects as similarly jarring as the jump-cuts Godard would famously use in his debut feature, À bout de soufflé aka Breathless – a debut that would feature Melville in a brief cameo.
4 She would play two roles for Melville, here and in his next film, Les enfants terrible. She would also play an important role as a film producer in later years.
5 Silent cinema boasted some magnificent chamber plays such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael. The form would come back into popularity again in the 1960s with Ingmar Bergman leading the charge.
6 That passage, almost comical as the young woman takes “revenge” against a wasp, does not seem to suggest that Germany is quintessentially a bloodthirsty nation but rather that the ideals it embodies in its national character, in its music and philosophy, is a dangerous one when mobilised militarily. Of course the same could be said of any country. When war comes, ideals only become discussed in compromised terms – in militaristic terms.