Director: Louis Malle
France, 1943-1944. Julien Quentin, a young boy from a wealthy family returns to his Roman Catholic boarding school despite his protestations. This term, there are three new pupils. One, Jean Bonnet, is the same age as Julien but is immediately picked out for bullying because he’s bookish and not overly sociable. One of the priests asks Julien, a popular and respected student, to look out for Jean. Some students are curious about Jean, deciding Bonnet isn’t a Protestant name and ominously, Jean is allowed to bathe at the public baths separately from other pupils. One evening, Julien discovers Jean’s secret as he overhears Jean reciting a Jewish prayer. Julien later discovers Jean’s prayer book and candles in his belongings.
Julien and Jean are lost during a game of capture the flag and are returned by Nazi soldiers, which frightens Jean. Julien’s mother visits, taking the boys out to dinner, where they witness the humiliation of an elderly, distinguished Jewish gentleman. Joseph, the kitchen boy, is caught selling the school’s supplies on the black market, encouraged by some of the pupils, and is fired. The Gestapo are subsequently informed by Joseph that the school are hiding Jewish children and they come to take the children away, including Jean, whose real name is Jean Kippelstein, as well as Pére Jean. The pupils say goodbye as Pére Jean is marched out of the school, to which he responds in turn. A voiceover then reveals the tragic fates of the priests and the Jewish children.
Thirty years into his directorial career, which had included a brief excursion in Hollywood, Louis Malle had developed the confidence and will to make his most personal film. Based on an episode in his own childhood, when a number of Jewish children and teachers at his boarding school were rounded up by the Gestapo and subsequently deported to Auschwitz and murdered, ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ represents an opportunity for Malle to come to terms with his past and understand an incident that was probably too traumatic to comprehend fully as a child, especially given the guilt he felt for unwittingly giving away the identity of one of the Jewish children. It’s therefore the kind of film that could only have been made by a mature film maker and represents the best of Malle’s later period work and follows ‘Lacombe Lucien’ (1974) as an exploration of French history during the Second World War.
As an autobiographical film, with Julien as the director’s alter-ego, it’s certainly not a flattering interpretation of himself, perhaps in recognition of his own adolescent character. At the start, Malle shows Julien returning to boarding school against his own wishes. As much as any of the pupils, Julien is selfish and myopic, and picks on Jean who immediately stands out as someone different – not because of his background, which is unknown at this point, but because he’s intellectual, self-absorbed and bookish; all the characteristics of someone trying to keep a low profile. In contrast to the hardships experienced by the school; rationing, blackouts, air raids and lack of heating and the sacrifices made by its teachers to save Jewish children, the children, who are predominantly from wealthy backgrounds, use their supplies from home to sell on the black market, rather than use for the common good and threaten to complain to their parents that they’re not fed well enough.
Malle is honest and forthright in examining attitudes to Jews in France at the time, uncovering a surprising amount of anti-semitism, despite France obviously being at war with Nazi Germany. Some of Julien’s classmates claim that Jews and Communists are worse than the Germans, whilst Julien’s brother informs him of what a Jew is and what being a Jew means (“they’re smarter than us and they crucified Jesus”, to which Julien replies “wasn’t that the Romans?”. When a Jew uses the public baths, one fellow bather exclaims “that guy’s got a nerve”, whilst Julien’s mother claims that she has nothing against Jews personally but that Blum (the Jewish Socialist ex-Prime Minister who defied the formation of Vichy France) can hang! Joseph, the sacked kitchen boy, remains practical in his explanation for selling out the school to the Gestapo – that they’re just Jews! Exposing this prejudice might be controversial to an extent but it’s important for Malle to do so; because Julien accidentally became privy to Jean’s identity, he had his own eyes opened to the way that people can judge others, children even, for characteristics that can’t be helped. But for the rest of privileged French society, fighting anti-semitism wasn’t strictly an issue – nor was strictly repelling the Nazis (Julien’s brother who informed him of the crime of the Jews still is a vocal critic of both Nazis and their collaborators). There was a large amount of collusion and adaptation, and a worrying extent of sharing of values just to maintain their own position in society
Perhaps at its heart though, ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a touching and tender exploration of a childhood friendship. True to form, Jean and Julien start out as academic rivals; Julien resents Jean’s brilliance at piano (note how disinterested the teacher looks during Jean’s lacklustre performance but immediately perks up when Julien starts) and his distance from others, whilst Jean resents Julien’s inquisitive nature about his past and his family. However, once Julien discovers Jean’s true identity, the friendship turns from something encouraged by the priests into a genuinely sympathetic one, with Julien trying to understand why his friend would be considered such a pariah. The final scenes are especially devastating in nature, when Julien accidentally gives Julien away when the Gestapo arrive, demanding to know which of the children are Jewish (though there’s a certain amount of humour when one officer removes the pins from a map outlining the Allied fightback). Attempts by the other Jewish children to hide are quickly thwarted and their inevitable, tragic fate is explained in a narrated epilogue. Only with time could Malle film these events with a sufficient sense of detachment, avoiding sentimentality and an overuse of piety. His characters are flawed and his homeland’s own prejudices explored. It’s an incredible work of great maturity and faithful to the director’s past.