Au Revoir Les Enfants: reflections on an exquisite film

Walking from Whitechapel Station to the Children’s Museum in Bethnal Green I passed blocks of flats and thought “These must have been built after the area was bombed flat during the war.” This morning in the second volume of the Cazalet Chronicles set in the autumn on 1940 I read an account of a family tennis match in Sussex interrupted by hundreds of German bombers flying overhead. The war in which my father fought is still close, and Louis Malle’s exquisite film Au Revoir Les Enfants evoked it powerfully.

The film made in 1987 is based on Malle’s experience as a child in occupied France. In the film Julien, a sensitive but vain boy, attends a Catholic boarding school in rural France. It’s freezing. The boys, who wear black cloaks and berets, sleep in one large room with the beds inches apart. Early in the term three new boys come to the school. We quickly recognise that they are Jewish, but the other boys don’t know. Julien befriends Bonnet, one of the Jews, and slowly realises that there’s something different about him–not least in that he doesn’t take mass. Eventually Julien finds in a book of Bonnet’s that his real name is Kippelstein.

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Julien, who is perhaps 10, doesn’t know what a Jew is. He asks his older brother, who says simply that they don’t eat pork. The film is beautifully shot with few camera angles (as Jess explained to me) and long, slow shots. The gaze of the actors says more than the words. We know it’s the war because of the privations, but we don’t glimpse Nazis until well into the film. Then the first Nazis we encounter pick up Julien and Bonnet after they have been lost in a forest. Bonnet tries to run, but they catch him quickly. We think that this is him being taken, but no, the Nazis are friendly and drive the boys back to the school.

In another scene in a restaurant, where Julien lunches with his glamorous Parisian mother, his brother, and Bonnet, two militia (Collaborators) enter and humiliate an elderly man, a Jew. But then a group of Nazi officers who are having a jolly, drunken lunch humiliate the militia, making clear who was on top in occupied France.

Tension and fear build, and Bonnet tells Julien that he is afraid “all the time.” Eventually the inevitable happens, and a Gestapo officer enters the classroom. He’s been informed that there are three Jews in the school, but he doesn’t know who they are. Julien gives Bonnet away by glancing back at him. That glance is the fulcrum of the film. We know that Julien didn’t intend to give him away, but we know too that the glance and memory will haunt Julien (Malle) for his lifetime. We are told in writing at the end of the film that the three boys died in Auschwitz and the headmaster/priest who hid the boys died in another camp.

One of the themes of the film is how ordinary life–boys learning, playing, fighting, smoking behind the pig sheds, looking at pictures of scantily dressed women, finding the sexy bits in The Arabian Nights–continues while the drama as the war unfolds around them. In the Cazelet Chronicles two teenage girls are bored by their life in the country but speculate on what will happen when the Germans invade. They think that they will be raped, but they don’t know what rape means–and nobody will tell them. Indeed, they don’t understand even the rudiments of sex, which, viewed from 2017, seems an abuse.

As I watched the film it occurred to me that the Bonnet looked rather as I looked when I was his age–sharing thick, dark curly hair and an inquiring look. Plus like him I was the clever boy, although, unlike him, I couldn’t play the piano beautifully and sadly. Just last week a friend of 20 years was surprised to discover that I wasn’t Jewish.

In the discussion afterwards an expert on French films told us that Malle’s film was ground breaking and one of the most important in French film. It was his first film on returning to France from Hollywood, and the French were delighted that he’d returned after being so successful in the US. His film was one of the first to feature the French role in the Holocaust.

Reflecting French feelings about the war, the first films after the war celebrated the heroism of the Resistance. It wasn’t until the 70s that films appeared about the Collaborators, and Lacombe Lucien, a Malle film I saw at university, told the story of a French youth who joined the Gestapo. Only in the 80s did the French make films about the Holocaust. Since then there have been many more films about the war, and the French are still coming to terms with what is known as the Dark Years, Les Années Sombre. Indeed, although nobody mentioned her in the discussion many must have thought of Marie Le Pen. I thought of Trump, wrongly I hope.

An expert on the Holocaust explained how many children were hidden across Europe and how many survived as a result. Some 75% of Jews in France survived, which is a higher rate than in most occupied countries. But Vichy France treated “French Jews” and “foreign Jews” differently with a French minister even advocating that the Nazis take the children of “foreign Jews” as well as the adults when the Nazis initially hadn’t thought of doing so.

As we drove home, Jess reflected that we in Britain would have had the same problem of Resistance and Collaborators had the Germans occupied Britain.

But my main memory of the evening will be of a beautiful, poignant, and sometimes funny film. This morning I read in the Cazalet Chronicles: “I wonder why films as touching and funny and charming as that are always French?” Amen.

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