Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Nearly every mention of Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema inevitably alludes to his crime films, and for good reason. Of his 13 features, nine fall under this general heading, and for the most part, they are his best and most admired. Amongst the rest of his filmography, slightly varying and further distinguishing his career, are his occasional forays into the war film—or, more precisely, the wartime film, for typical battleground scenarios are negligible. This is the case with Léon Morin, Priest (1961), with The Army of Shadows (1969), his extraordinary ode to the French resistance, of which he was a member, and this is the case with his debut, Le silence de la mer. (His 1950 feature, Les Enfants Terribles, defies generic categorization.)
“The war years were the best years of my life.” Such comments from Melville often got a rise out of those around him, especially when he wasn’t allowed time for explanation. It was during this period, as he would clarify, that he found remarkable admiration in the virtue of those who fought, on the front lines and behind the scenes with the underground. These men and women had a job to do, and they were determined to do it and do it well. Like a monk, Melville would contend that the life of a soldier is similarly identified by a brotherhood, by an admirable camaraderie that is central to an order as it strives toward a common goal. Such characterization, of course, aptly applies to the gangster as well, and thus one can see why Melville so effortlessly fluctuated between the two genres (The Army of Shadows is probably the best example of the merger of the two, particularly with these descriptions in mind). Le silence de la mer, however, doesn’t quite meet these broad qualifications, at least not explicitly. Though very much a testament to the perseverance of the oppressed French people during World War II, their pride and resilience, it’s a more insulated and individualized work, with a very narrow spatial focus and just three primary players. It’s a unique wartime film that doesn’t necessarily depict any common generic trait aside from its background war milieu.
The 1941 novel of the same name, which was clandestinely written and published during the Nazi occupation of Paris by Vercors (real name Jean-Marcel de Brullers) was in its very existence a powerful force of French resistance. In turn, Le silence de la mer, the movie, is a daring experiment in restrained plotting and minimal characterization. Melville was partially drawn to the text in the first place because of the “anti-cinematic aspect of the narrative,” which he then hoped to adapt into an “anti-cinematic film.” In some ways, Le silence de la mer, as a motion picture, works best as an expression of a philosophical idea or as the origin of a larger work. Standing alone, certain aspects occasionally fall short of total development, as if the film could have benefited from another half-hour or so (it’s just 88 minutes as is), but the provocative implications that it nonetheless poses make for fascinating and thoughtful viewing.
There isn’t much to Le silence de la mer’s story in terms of active external conflict, but the basic scenario is one that leads to great tension. The home of an unnamed uncle and his niece (Jean-Marie Robain and Nicole Stéphane) is designated the temporary residence of German Lieutenant Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon). As the whole arrangement was decided without their consent, the two are obviously displeased. They undergo a silent protest, neither uttering a word in the presence of the German. But this proves to be no hostile takeover, and the uncle even admits via voiceover that von Ebrennac seems to be a reasonable officer (no doubt the bar was set comparatively low). On this point, one critique with the film is that there is far too much explanatory voiceover, frequently describing that which we can easily see. Presumably, this was retained in deference to the heralded source, but for a movie, where we don’t need a constant narrative to relay what is apparent, it occasionally becomes redundant.
For his part, von Ebrennac is cordial as he exchanges initial pleasantries, complimenting the house and asking his reluctant hosts each morning if they slept well the night before. Still the uncle and niece never speak; they barely acknowledge the officer’s existence. It’s a phenomenal demonstration of their will and the strength of their convictions. This goes on for months, and despite the presumed latent hostility, von Ebrennac nevertheless becomes an unspoken part of their lives. Though they are quiet, he speaks unrestrained. His revealing ramblings divulge his beliefs and interests. He is, much to their surprise, a devoted Francophile, professing his deep love and respect for French literature in particular (Germany, he says, still claims the great musicians). Yet despite his personable nature, doubts remain. He is, after all, a Nazi.
Von Ebrennac is not at all disheartened by the silence. His one-sided interaction with the uncle and niece becomes an oddly contented routine. In time, and not at all sardonically, the uncle actually refers to von Ebrennac as their “guest.” And at one point, he feels his conviction waver as he wonders if it’s inhumane to not speak to the officer. But no sooner does he contemplate this shifting moral stance than he admits the private thought made him feel like blushing. Still, he has no problem admiring the dogged persistence of von Ebrennac. “He never gave up and never tried to tear us from our silence with violent language,” says the uncle. “On the contrary, when sometimes he let silence invade the room, filling it from corner to corner like a heavy, suffocating gas, he seemed the most comfortable of the three of us.” Of course, however decent this man may seem, and no matter the apparent lack of ill will toward the French family, his mere presence keeps the obstacles of the war constantly in the forefront, even if the more dramatic results of the fighting are relegated beyond the walls of the house. What complicates this even further is that von Ebrennac naively and confidently states a desire for the prosperous marriage between France and Germany. He believes in French freedom and in the maintenance of—or at least restoration of—its national integrity
Away for a while in Paris, von Ebrennac views the icons of French military history, appreciating their storied greatness and the monuments erected in their honor. Nothing is quite the same after this trip. Upon his return, the uncle and niece hear the German and sense his presence, but they don’t see him for several days. He has been coming and going via a back entrance. The uncle grows apprehensive. Having previously entered the rooms of the house without any invitation, von Ebrennac suddenly knocks one evening. They wait. He doesn’t automatically enter. He waits for the welcome, the first words spoken by the uncle to the lieutenant: “Come in, sir.”
In the claustrophobic confines of this French house, Melville creates a brooding tension between the begrudging threesome; after being in these narrow interiors, it’s a genuine relief when scenes shift outdoors. So much time is spent with the camera fixing its gaze upon the uncle and the niece as they hesitantly watch over Von Ebrennac, it would seem about two-thirds of the picture is the depiction of the aforementioned routine with the uncle commenting on the same. This drags the film somewhat, the point made clear quite soon. Subsequently, time could have been allotted for the expansion of other sequences. For example, at the end of the film, as von Ebrennac comes to realize the futility of his naive belief for peace; or as the niece, who has harbored the most intense resentment toward the German, allows a minor acceptance and even a hint of attraction: these are interesting character developments that, though effective in their suggestion, are nevertheless cut short of potential complexity.
It’s not constant (at least not as constant as it perhaps could have been), but under the influence of Welles and Wyler, Melville does give the film visual variation within this restricted, largely one room setting, punctuating certain sequences with light and shadow embellishment, oftentimes employing a backlighting effect to create vivid character profiles, especially of the niece. Close-ups reveal subtle shifts in reactive expression, as evolving nonverbal communication is made physically perceptible. Crucial here is Henri Decaë, making his debut as cinematographer. Aside from continual work with Melville as their careers progressed, Decaë also manned the camera on such New Wave classics as Elevator to the Gallows, Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins (all 1958) and The 400 Blows (1959).
Though Le silence de la mer is a lesser-known Melville title, Criterion has gone all out with supplementary materials to compliment the film. The production of Le silence de la mer, which is filled with stealthy, low-budget filmmaking and its fair share of real life drama, is thoroughly covered. A printed interview with Melville provides his own chronicle of the film’s making, and the documentary, Melville Steps Out of the Shadows, likewise goes into detail about how the movie came to be. Code Name Melville, an in-depth 76-minute documentary about the director and his relationship with the cinema and World War II (and how the two inevitably coalesced), is the most informative feature on the disc, packing in so much—newspaper clippings, speakers, and other documentation—that the subtitles can’t always keep up. There is also an interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, a very short 1959 interview with Melville, and an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Rounding out the disc is a peculiar 18-minute short Melville directed in 1946, his first film. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown is exactly what its title says: a brief look at roughly a day’s worth of average activity for Beby the clown. The most prolonged moment of focus is as Beby gets ready for bed. Apparently as he does every night, he shuffles through boxes of photos, pictures of his past, his idols and friends. His is, it seems, a solitary existence. Though married (his wife sleeps in another room, he gets their dog), he is a loner. But that’s part of the life. And in this, it becomes clear what possibly drew Melville to the topic, for most of his films—war and crime—are about similarly lonely figures living remote lives of habit.
Despite the seeming incongruity of its subject matter, this odd, sad, and slightly haunting short does a good deal to point toward Melville’s features to follow. Visually this is only partly so, with little time or space for what one would think of as classically Melvillian imagery. The exception to this is the striking shot of an unidentified man checking his watch, mysteriously enveloped in shadow—as if an enigmatic resistance fighter or a malicious gangster. A cinematic sign of things to come either way.