When Jean-Pierre Melville released his first movie, he was 32 years old, a veteran of the French Resistance, and had never had any formal training in film-making. Le Silence de la mer, however, displays the supreme confidence of an artist who knows he has found a story only he can tell. Jean Bruller’s iconic short novel, which was written during German occupation of France, and dedicated to Saint-Pol-Roux, “the murdered poet,” could not have been adapted to film by a graduate of NYU or the Lodz Film School. Too much cinematic technique would have spoiled it. Only a French patriot and a member of the resistance, more importantly, only a man who loved French literature, someone who understood narrative and internal monologue, could have brought the story to life. Nobody fit that description better than Jean-Pierre Melville.
Jean Pierre Melville — He was Jewish. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach. — displays almost no personal animosity towards the Germans. Patriotism, for Melville, is not jingoism. While he certainly wants to see France liberated from the Nazi occupation, he has no desire to see France, or the United States, crush Germany. What’s genuinely striking, in fact, about Le Silence de la mer, is the way Jean Bruller, who wrote under the name Vercors, and Melville almost seem to predict the European Union. Try to imagine a war between France and Germany — or either country and the United Kingdom — today. There’s a reason America liberals, American jingoism notwithstanding, look to Western Europe as a better, more civilized, more prosperous version of the United States. The idea of a united, democratic Europe, which would inevitably be dominated by the French and the Germans, worked, at least for a time. But it’s not a French resistance fighter who articulates the higher ideal of a united Europe. It’s the German occupier.
It’s 1941.Werner von Ebrennac, a Wermacht Lieutenant, is quartered in the house of an elderly Frenchman and his 20-something niece. This is the very definition of repression. The Quartering Act of 1774, after all, was one of the main causes of the American Revolution. But the old Frenchman and his niece are not the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord. They’re too weak to fight the Germans openly. The Battle of France is over, and the resistance is still tiny. They could, of course, murder von Ebrennac in his sleep, and they’d be well-within their rights to do so. But, as we see as the film progresses, von Ebrennac doesn’t really deserve to be murdered. So the old man and his niece opt for a different strategy, passive resistance.
They refuse to speak to von Ebrennac, not a word, not a “hello” or a “good morning,” not a “good night,” not even a “go fuck yourself you fucking Krauthead.” They simply pretend he doesn’t exist. You might point out that compared to what people in eastern Europe were going through at the hands of the Germans, the French had it easy. I’ve heard John Merriman, for example, the Yale professor of French history, poke fun at the idea of “passive resistance” in the form of a French bourgeoisie who pats himself on the back for being rude to a German at the Paris opera house. But Vercors and Melville are artists, not historians. Melville was well aware that, as a Jew and a member of the resistance, had he been captured by the Gestapo, he would have been tortured for weeks before being sent to Auschwitz. What Vercors and Melville are interested in are the effects of a military occupation on an occupied people and on their occupier. What does it do to your soul to realize that your occupier is not a monster at all, but a sympathetic human being? What does it do to the soul of the occupier, who’s an educated and cultured, if deluded and propagandized man, that the people he rules over obey him not out of love or respect, but only through fear, that while he may win their compliance, he will never win their “hearts and minds.”
For a sadist, the fear is part of the appeal. Vercors had no illusions about how most of the German officer corps in 1941 was made up of men who enjoyed the exercise of power for its own sake. The novel Le Silence de la mer is, after all, dedicated to Saint-Pol-Roux, “the murdered poet.” Saint-Pol-Roux, who was 79 in 1941 and his daughter are the model for the uncle, played by Jean-Marie Robain, and the niece, played by Nicole Stéphane, a member of the Rothschild family and a future companion of Susan Sontag. What happened to Saint-Pol-Roux is too horrible for words. Every Frenchman reading the novel, and its dedication, would have been well aware of Saint-Pol-Roux’s fate.
“During the night of 22 to 23 June 1940,” Wikipedia tells us, “a drunken German soldier invaded the manor, killed the family’s faithful governess, raped Saint-Pol-Roux’s daughter Divine, and seriously injured her in the leg with a revolver bullet. Saint-Pol-Roux miraculously escaped death in the incident, but was later taken to hospital in Brest on October 14, where he died of a broken heart when he heard that the manor had burned down with his unpublished manuscripts inside.”
But von Ebrennac is no sadist, and no drunken brute. He doesn’t want fear. He doesn’t want simple compliance. In fact, his sense of inferiority to the old man and his daughter gets at the heart of the kind of inferiority complex the German people once had towards the French and English, that kind of psychological inadequacy that would move a nation to declare itself “the master race.” He doesn’t even want their “hearts and minds” or sex with the niece, with whom he falls in love. He wants a “marriage” of Germany and France, a commingling of two nations, the masculine Germans, and the feminine, cultured French, he feel make up for each other’s shortcomings.
For Vercors, a member of the resistance, to explore the idea that a Nazi officer could express a noble, uplifting outlook on life was an act of disciplined creativity. It would have been far too easy just to paint the Germans as drunken brutes and tell the horrible story of the attack on Saint-Pol-Roux and the loss of his unpublished manuscripts. That would have been propaganda, not art. Melville’s masterstroke is in his casting of Howard Vernon, a homely man with a striking resemblance to Eddie Constantine, the star of Godard’s Alphaville. Vernon, who was mainly cast in roles as gangsters or villains –- supposedly his Swiss accent was considered vulgar and common in France –- plays von Ebrennac as a man trapped in a body he hates. His stiff, tentative movements, his mask-like face, his haunted, otherworldly expression dramatize the tragedy of the occupier. Melville doesn’t hate von Ebrennac. He feels sorry for him.
Melville and Vercors don’t hate the German people, but they’re angry at the German people. How could a people with such a grand culture, one capable of giving the world Beethoven and Goethe, follow Hitler into madness and barbarism? The old man and his niece, in effect, by their silence, save von Ebrennac’s soul. France saves Germany. The more they ignore him, the more von Ebrennac digs down into himself for some flash of inspiration, some poetic words, anything that will get the niece’s attention. But the more he tries, the more we see what a deluded, propagandized man he really is. He admires French literature, unaware of how the German government eventually intends to impose a strict regime of censorship on the French people designed to destroy their culture. He tells them the story of Beauty and the Beast, the beast being Germany and beauty the French. He believes that by subjugating the French, Germany, like the beast, will eventually reveal itself to be a handsome prince. He reads them passages from Macbeth, admitting that Germany, like Macbeth, seized power illegitimately and only rules through fear, mistakenly thinking that if a tyrant admits that he’s a tyrant to the people he tyrannizes over he’ll stop being a tyrant. Try to imagine a cop arresting you and whining about how tough it is to be a cop.
Von Ebrennac finally “gets it” when he goes on a trip to Paris and gets to know his fellow German officers. They tell him about Treblinka and the death camps. They brag about how the current occupation is a mild one designed to flatter the French people. France, as the other great nation in western Europe, will eventually have to be destroyed to make way for the 1000 Year Reich. He meets an old friend, who, unlike the old Frenchman and his niece, has in fact been conquered by the Nazis, not only in body, but in his very soul. To his horror, von Ebrennac realizes that Nazism will destroy everything noble about German culture. That it took him until 1941 to realize it may perhaps put him in a bad light, but how many Americans in the 1960s ever realized what their country was doing to Vietnam, and what occupying Vietnam was doing to their country. High level German army officers actually tried to assassinate Hitler. What high level American army officer ever tried to assassinate Richard Nixon?
But von Ebrennac, like any liberal, never goes far enough. He confesses to the old man and his niece that he now realizes how evil the German government is, but instead of joining the French Resistance or flying off to London, he volunteers to fight on the Russian front. Doesn’t he know that, in Russia, he’ll commit war crimes 1000 times worse than any he would commit in France? Does he know that he stands a better chance of dying at Stalingrad than he would in the French Resistance, or as a double agent? Perhaps he does, and, perhaps, he’s suicidal. More likely, von Ebrennac’s decision to go to Russia, and probably die, is Melville’s way of telling us that he never quite gets out from under Nazi propaganda. He’s still a German nationalist willing to “obey orders,” made pointedly obvious by a quote the old man highlights in a volume of Anatole France.
“It’s a noble thing for a soldier to obey an illegal order.”
Or perhaps it’s Melville’s own conservative politics that make it impossible for him to imagine a better alternative for von Ebrennac than going off to the Eastern front to fight communism. Indeed, inside the command post von Ebrennac is assigned to there is a poster. “Le Socialisme contre le Bolchevisme.” Was Jean-Pierre Melville a Gaulist after all?
The idea of “socialism against Bolshevism” isn’t exactly a Nazi idea. It’s the Cold War liberalism of Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, and Western European social democracy. Cahiers de Cinema, in 1968, would bury Melville’s much greater film, Army of Shadows. By the late 1960s, de Gaulle, and Melville, were considered dinosaurs of the old French center-right. Cahier de Cinema would eventually recognize that Army of Shadows is by far and away, a more politically progressive film. But it would take them until the 1990s to do it. Perhaps Melville ultimately paid for his decision to send von Ebrennac to join Hitler’s army of conquest in the Soviet Union, and for his anti-communism. It so, it’s a testament to a stunning debut film by a man who was only 32, and who had never been to film school. Le Silence de la Mer, indeed, will haunt you for years after you see it for the first time.