Written and Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring Howard Vernon, Nicole Stéphane, and Jean-Marie Robain
France, 88 min – 1949
“I have great respect for those who love their country.”
Based on the 1942 novel by Vercors, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) draws an intriguing picture of German-French relations during The Occupation. It follows six months in the repetitive life of an uncle, his niece, and Werner von Ebrennac, the Nazi soldier boarding with them. Forced to endure the presence of the enemy, the uncle and niece take a vow of silence. They continue living their lives, as if Werner isn’t there. Slowly, their view of Werner changes. He becomes more human in their eyes, but the question is whether such a view can last.
Much has been made of the symbolism of silence in this film. It stands for the mental strength and endurance of the French people in the face of occupation. Werner comes to speak with the uncle and niece every evening, detailing his love of France and his idealistic vision of a happy marriage between Germany and France (a nationalistic substitute for his infatuation with the niece). The uncle and niece do not waiver and Werner ultimately respects this courage. If silence is the method at which the uncle and niece (and thus, France) can mentally rebel against the Germans in this film, sight is what helps complicate this plan.
The first time the uncle and his niece are introduced to Werner, he is a manifestation of their hatred for the Nazis. Wearing his uniform, he emerges from the darkness Dracula-like. This changes as the film goes on. Werner comes to talk to them wearing his regular clothes and the uncle and his niece begin to see Werner as a human being and not a monster. At the same time, when the uncle and his niece stumble upon Werner outside the confines of their home, he wears his uniform. Since Werner must play the part of soldier in these moments, it confuses the uncle and his niece and their perception of Werner.
Werner slowly becomes two men in the eyes of the uncle and his niece. He is both the soldier and the musician dragged to war by his mistaken idealism. Seeing him inside the home and at work complicates their plan of silence towards him. It forces them to reevaluate their vow. For Werner, the symbolism of seeing and hearing what the Germans really want to do to France during his trip to Paris forces him to do the opposite. He throws himself into the soldier’s lifestyle, feeling determined to forget his time in France.
In that way, Le Silence de la Mer is not only about the mental courage of the French people, but also about how perception and reality differ. The uncle and his niece see and hear a different side to the Nazis, as does Werner. This makes for a very interesting timely discussion of Nazis-French relations, even if the pace of the film is slow. The characters do not need lengthy political discussions to express the emotion of the film, and to understand its messages.