Saturday, August 8, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS"

AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS (1987)


Director/Screenplay: Louis Malle



With each viewing of Louis Malle’s most personal film, “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” (“Goodbye, Children”) I find myself more moved by it. Based on his own personal experience at a Catholic school in France in 1944, Louis Malle's last French language film is probably one of the last films people mention when they think of a Holocaust film, but they should bring it up more often. Malle's not a director known for being, bold in his film choices. Actually, he's more quiet, a minimalist in structure, more willing to just show events play out as naturally as possible. I've written Canon entries on "Atlantic City", and "My Dinner with Andre", the latter literally taking place, entirely in a restaurant and was just a conversation between two characters. "Au Revoir...", which translates to "Goodbye, Children", is a small tale, about how he accidentally turned in his best friend to the Nazis, for being Jewish. 

A new student Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), has arrived at the school after Christmas. As pertaining with schoolyard tradition he is quickly made into a target for ridicule by the other students, including Julien (Gaspard Manesse). In French movies, it never fails to see schoolyard kids all seem to be particularly mean and cruel to each other, which befuddles me compared to my memories of elementary school, where I always tried to resist getting anywhere near trouble, but even so, Julien, who also participates in ridiculing Jean ends up becoming fast friends with him. We know immediately that Jean is a Jewish kid who the priests are hiding in the Catholic school to protect him from the Nazis, but Julien doesn’t know this at first. He doesn’t even really know for sure what a Jew is. When one student tells him that they killed Jesus, Julien quickly points out that the Romans killed Jesus. But, slowly but surely, he begins to suspect clues, like how the priest skips Jean’s wafer during mass, or how Jean seems to be a superior pianist compared to Julien who continually misses notes to the detriment of his piano teacher (Irene Jacob, from “Red,” and “The Double Life of Veronique”). He than finds a book in Jean’s locker which has the name “Kippelstein,” written in it. He may not completely know why, but intuitively, he realizes that it’s crucial to protect his friend’s identity. The only real scene of racism that Julien witnesses is in a French restaurant where a longtime customer, an old man, is attacked by French fascists, and ironically, it’s the German officers at another table that tells the French to leave and let the old man finish eating his dinner. Another incident involves German officers finding both Jean and Julien stuck in the woods late at night, and they give them food and blankets before taking them back to the school. I don’t think he wants to show that the Nazis were in fact human beings who simply followed a blind philosophy and got caught up in a bigger net somehow, ‘cause they still come off as frightening, but Malle gives some of the officers these certain human traits that were probably more common than anybody, including the Germans would probably like to admit to. Finally however, their’s a raid on the school, and in one second and one false move, literally, Julien makes a mistake. It’s so small, we aren’t even sure if he even realizes just what he had done.

When I first saw the movie in a French Film class, many of the students in the class, myself included didn’t quite realize the gravity of it all, despite Louis Malle’s own words at the end informing us that three students who were hiding died in concentration camps, and the priest was arrested and tortured and died weeks after the war. It took me until the bus ride back to think it through a bit more. Now on subsequent viewings, I find myself brought to tears, not because I had similar experiences, and not because of what happens in the film, but rather, it’s the gut-wrenching guilt and pain one suffers after making a mistake and having to live with it. Sure, he didn't, couldn't realize completely what he was doing back then, but that just makes it more tragic. 
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