Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film about the German occupation of France is a vivid, yet subtle dramatization of passive resistance in a time of political rot.
For me, one scene in particular stands out.
Julien Quentin, a loosely fictionalized Malle, is a student at a Catholic boarding-school, where Père Jean, the headmaster, is hiding three Jewish boys from the Nazis. When his mother, an attractive, stylish, upper-class woman, invites Julian and and his old brother François out to a chic restaurant for dinner, they bring along Jean Bonnet, Julian’s best friend. Bonnet, who’s one of the best students at the school, a gifted mathematician and music student, is also one of the three Jewish boys Père Jean is hiding from the Gestapo. Julian knows that Bonnet’s real name is Jean Kippelstein. François and Madame Quentin, both polite, respectable, civilized anti-Semites, do not. Since both of them think Bonnet is a Protestant, they freely express their opinions about Jews. Jews are okay, for example, if they’re from the right-class, and have the right-education, but not if they’re socialists. Then they should be sent to Moscow, or, in the case of the ex-President Léon Blum, hanged.
For Jean Kippelstein, it’s no big deal. He’s used to it. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about what he’s hearing. For Julien Quentin, on the other hand, while it’s not the first time he’s come into contact with bigotry, it’s the first time he’s conscious of bigotry as bigotry. At the table next to the Quentins is a group of German army officers. One of them, a tall Prussian, obviously a “gentleman,” has noticed Madame Quentin. They’re from the same class. He probably speaks enough French to have understood her “moderate” right-wing views about Jews, and about socialism. He seems determined to impress the attractive woman under his country’s military occupation, to prove to her that not all Germans are barbarians. At yet another table, there is an elderly man, also very obviously a “gentleman,” and, to judge by the deference the waiters pay him, a regular customer who tips well.
“Was everything all right Mr. Meyer?”
“Thank you. The rabbit was tolerable.”
When the camera pans back over to Madam Quentin and the three boys, Madame Quentin orders fish, only to be told that fish hasn’t been available for months. Mr. Meyer isn’t eating rabbit because he thinks it’s a delicacy, but because it’s the only thing on the menu. The ruling classes of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have cut off their nose to spite their face. Even the best restaurants in Paris have to make do with what the kitchen staff can scrounge up in the woods. Only Julian and Jean Bonnet really notice. François, and all of the adults, whether German or French, are too preoccupied with maintaining at least a pantomime of “civilized” life, which, in their case, means keeping class distinctions exactly the way they were before the war, to notice the absurdity of their lives. “There will be no communist revolution after this world war is over,” their behavior seems to say.
Just then, two thuggish looking men in black berets, not Germans, but French, fascist collaborators, enter the restaurant and start asking the customers for their papers. When they discover that “Mr. Meyer” is Jewish, they single him out for special harassment. I suppose the idea that a Jew would be out and about in Paris in January of 1944 is a bit of poetic license on Louis Malle’s part, but dramatically it works. Madame Quentin, who only shortly before had expressed anti-Semitic views, is horrified that Mr. Meyer has to undergo so much humiliation at the hands of a pair of low-class Vichy thugs. The tall German officer, noticing that a “lady” is in so much distress, gets up and approaches the two French collaborators. “Get out,” he says, towering over them. They leave. He looks over at Madame Quentin. She nods, and he goes back to his table.
“Do you see?” Madame Quentin says to the three boys. “Some of them are decent.”
In other words, it’s not anti-Semitism that bothers Madame Quentin. It’s the wrong kind of anti-Semitism. This thinking is by no means confined to the French. In the United States, she would be a polite, suburban, middle-class WASP who “doesn’t like to talk about politics or religion.” Nor is deference for hierarchy and class confined to apolitical, casual bigots. Père Jean, the headmaster at Quentin’s school, a fictionalized version of Père Jacques, a member of the French Resistance who was sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp for hiding Jews, is no apolitical bigot. On the contrary, if Père Jacques wasn’t a hero, nobody is.
“The Gestapo discovered Father Jacques’ activities and seized the friar and the three Jewish students on January 15, 1944. Weil, his mother, and sister were arrested at their home that same day. On February 3, 1944, German authorities deported the boys and the Weil family to Auschwitz, where they perished.
Père Jacques was imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps, eventually arriving at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. There he found ways of raising the morale of his despairing compatriots. When all the priests at Gusen were moved to the Dachau concentration camp – reputedly less severe than Mauthausen – Jacques veiled his priestly identity and was the only priest for 20,000 prisoners at Gusen. He learned enough Polish to minister to the Polish prisoners, who called him Père Zak. Though he grew progressively weaker, he remained one of the Resistance leaders still active in the camp, gaining the respect of all its inmates.
He and the other inmates of the camps were liberated by American troops at Mauthausen in early May 1945. Suffering from tuberculosis and weighing only 75 pounds, he died in a hospital in Linz in Upper Austria, several weeks later.”
The societal rot that caused the French upper-class to sell their country out to the Nazis — “Better Adolf Hitler than Léon Blum” – is present, even in the heroic Père Jean. When Joseph, a bitter, resentful, lower-class boy who works in the school kitchen, is caught stealing supplies to sell on the black market, Père Jean quickly fires him and throws him out into the street. By contrast, he doesn’t expel any of the upper-class boys who traded with Joseph, who were equally guilty. “You’d be in serious trouble if I didn’t know who your mother was,” he tells Julien. While I’m not sure how much of this is true, and how much of it is poetic license by Louis Malle, it works dramatically. Respect for hierarchy and class can poison even the most radical organization. There’s a reason Occupy Wall Street tried to govern by consensus, why they prevented even a Civil Rights hero like John Lewis from cutting the speaker’s line at the General Assembly in Atlanta.
Père Jean’s elitism signs Jean Kippelstein’s death warrant, and his own. With nowhere else to go, Joseph goes to the only people who will have him, the Germans. He has become one of those low-class Vichy collaberators who hassled Mr. Meyer at the restaurant. The next day, a Gestapo officer named Dr. Muller shows up with a group of soldiers, hunting for Jews. Mulller is no cartoon villain. On the contrary, he’s another “gentleman” just like the German officer in the restaurant. He has no desire to oppress French people, he argues. Quite the contrary, he just wants to help the French with their “Jewish problem,” protect them from foreigners who have taken advantage of their lack of discipline. Just to show what a nice guy he is, he orders his men to release a group of children who have come to the school to take communion, even as he’s sending Père Jean, Kippelstein, and three other boys to their death. Julian Quentin, who had accidentally betrayed his friend Jean with a fearful glance, can only watch on in mute horror. It would be the decisive moment in his, and in Louis Malle’s life.
“Bonnet, Negus and Dupre died at Auschwitz; Father Jean at Mauthausen. The school reopened its doors in October. More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”