Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 23 July 2007
Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD
Werner Von Ebrennac is a delicate soul. A composer by trade, he delights in great music (much of it German) and great literature (much of it French). He has high ideals for the world and wants only the best for its citizens. He is also a Nazi officer.
Von Ebrennac, part of the occupying forces in France, is billeted at the house of an old man and his young niece. Defiance of this imposition on their lives would likely be grounds for execution, so they limit their protest to remaining silent. Despite all efforts of the officer to engage them in conversation, they ignore him. Month after month, morning and evening, they ignore him—yet he persists. He talks of his hopes that Germany and France can be joined into one great nation, one happy people. He talks of his love for French literature and of the coarseness of German girls. He talks of a forthcoming trip to Paris (his first) and of his friends with whom he will be reuniting. He talks a lot, in fact, but the old man and his niece continue to ignore him. The old man feels bad about this; he does not like to be rude to anyone, and the officer makes it more difficult by seeming so genuinely kind and engaging. Under any other circumstances, the two men would probably have a great deal to talk about. Yet the old man and his niece feel it is their patriotic duty, if not their moral duty, to oppose this imposition (and the Occupation) by remaining silent.
When Von Ebrennac visits his Nazi colleagues in Paris, he discovers the true nature of the the war, learns of the extermination camps, and is told that the goal in France is not to enter into a blissful union with the country and its people but to crush it and them completely and to wipe out the entirety of French culture. Horrified, he requests immediate transfer to a fighting unit, undoubtedly an indirect method of committing suicide. As he informs his reluctant hosts of his impending departure, he comes to realize, as they finally break their silence, that while they strongly oppose the forces he represents, they respect him as a fellow human being.
There is perhaps little to say about this film that has not already been said earlier and better by André Bazin, Ginette Vincendeau (whose first-class biography of Jean-Pierre Melville is excerpted in the booklet accompanying the Masters of Cinema DVD), or by Melville himself, but one of the key points made by all three in their various writings on and discussions of the film concerns the theme of resistance itself. Those acquainted with the films of Melville (specifically Army of Shadows) will also be familiar with the World War II occupation of France by German forces and the Resistance movement that opposed it. This film, Melville’s debut, tells a story of a different Resistance, the one engaged in not by heroic figures planning covert paramilitary operations, but the one conducted by everyday citizens of France. The old man and his niece, never named in the film, conduct against their imposed guest a personal campaign of chilly obliviousness, never so much as making eye contact with him. They carry on with their lives as if he does not exist; it is the only kind of resistance in which they can engage without risking their lives. The officer, on the other hand, carries out a campaign of warm, almost obsequious, engagement. He is shockingly intimate with the pair, telling them about his youth and about his hopes, desires, and dreams for the future. The pattern of interactions between the old man, his niece, and the German is not simply a facile metaphor for the capital-r Resistance or for the war itself, but is instead an exploration of how war complicates emotional relationships between those who might otherwise be very close. Mining the same thematic vein as this film is Jean Renoir’s La Grande illusion, in which men of the same class can have more in common, despite their being political enemies, than men of the same country and same fighting forces.
Fans of Melville’s later films — Le Samouräi, Army of Shadows, and Le Cercle rouge among them — may find little of the style that they associate with the director, but the film is an auspicious beginning for the great filmmaker and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Henri Decaë. It develops themes to which Melville would return again and again: the power and expressiveness of silence, the personal toll of the Resistance, and the difficulty of engaging another on a basic human level when professional or political constraints dictate an adversarial relationship. I would not venture to say that, despite Melville’s later output, this film is a great work, but it is requisite viewing for any student of the director or of post-war French cinema.