Au Revoir Les Enfants
Many film directors have used memories from their past in films that were nevertheless mainly works of fiction: Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, Chaplin in several of his masterpieces. In Au revoir les enfants, however, Louis Malle has made a movie out of one experience he hasn’t been able either to get out of his mind or to put on the screen for more than forty years. It is the discovery of evil by a sheltered boy of eleven, in early 1944, in France, during the last months of the German occupation. The young Julien Quentin, who represents the young Louis Malle, attends a Catholic boarding school near Paris. There he discovers that an intelligent new boy in his class is a Jew who is being hidden under the name Jean Bonnet by the priests who run the school. The two boys become friends, but soon the Gestapo, tipped off by a disgruntled employee in the school’s kitchen, arrests the Jewish boy and the headmaster and takes them off to die in concentration camps.
An autobiography is convincing only when the author is perfectly honest. One has to sense that he does not falsify his past, in order to embellish it or else to make himself appear more sinful, and thus less banal, than he was. One has to be impressed by the passion and sincerity the author expresses in looking back. Malle is convincing on both counts, even though, for artistic reasons, he has made the relationship between the two boys closer than it had been in reality. There is not a false note in his film. The young Julien Quentin has, inevitably, an understanding and vision limited by both his youth and his upbringing. The movie conveys what this boy felt and saw, and also how Malle, forty years later, feels about and judges the boy. Critics who have denounced the film as “thin” don’t seem to understand that anything “thicker” would have been wrong. Moreover, the central theme isn’t thin at all—certainly not to anyone who lived in France (as I did) during the years of the Occupation. Malle’s story deals in its own way with the same phenomenon Ionesco tried to evoke in his great allegory The Rhinoceros—the brutal intrusion of evil in everyday life, among people reluctant to recognize it.
Quentin—like Malle—belongs to a well-to-do family. His father is a businessman, too busy with his factory to visit his two sons in their school. His seductive and elegantly empty-headed mother (a sharper version of the mother in Malle’s movie Le souffle au coeur, which ended in light-hearted incest) is clearly not used to having anything to do with either Jews or people from lower classes, such as Jean, the son of an accountant. Malle is merciless toward his family and himself; he shows Julien as a spoiled, childish braggart and a smart aleck with no talent for the piano, although his mother, as a good bourgeoise, insists he take lessons. What Julien knows about the poet Péguy is that he was killed in World War I and that his mother repaired chairs. Julien’s classmates are rich boys who receive packages from their parents to supplement the meager rations the school can provide during the food shortages and bitter cold of the winter of 1944.
Malle’s film thus belongs also to a familiar French genre: bourgeois self-criticism, if not self-hatred. The bourgeois of the movie—the parents who come to visit as well as their children—he shows to be selfish and indifferent to what goes on around them. What matters (outside the school) is manners, the code of bourgeois behavior. What happens in the political world doesn’t seem to bother Julien’s mother much—she observes, in passing, that “nobody is for Pétain anymore.” When Julien’s older brother, François, whose main interest is girls, says that he might join the Resistance, it is not because of any political commitment but in order to draw the attention of his mother away from her chéri Julien. However, money, the corruption it breeds and the comfortable evasions it allows, bothers the priests who run the school and whom Malle describes with respect and affection. One of the best moments of the movie is the angry sermon addressed by the priest who heads the school to the boys and their parents. He denounces l’argent (as well as the betrayal of France by its leaders) so vigorously that the warmly dressed father of one of the boys gets up and walks out. The sermon would not be out of place in the works of such Catholic writers (from the left and right) as Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy, and Georges Bernanos, or in the austere films of Robert Bresson.
Belonging to the bourgeoisie doesn’t only mean being protected against hunger (Julien has his own supply of sugar, a private allusion to Malle’s own family, which produces it), and having to be exhorted to practice charity and sharing by the priests. It also means accepting injustice, and dealing with the threat to privilege represented by the poor who resent the humiliations of class difference. The most vivid character in the film is Joseph, an adolescent with a bad leg who works in the school kitchen and observes with a mixture of envy and contempt the self-involved games of the young messieurs. As many critics have noted, Joseph is another version of Lucien, the antihero of Malle’s 1974 movie about the Occupation, Lacombe, Lucien; as with the portrait of Malle’s mother, Joseph seems a more genuine character than Lucien and Malle’s portrait of him is more telling.
The rich have ways of dealing with the poor—by making bargains of mutual corruption and forging bonds of dependency in which they ultimately have the upper hand. The boys give Joseph food and money in return for cigarettes; they need him but they treat him as a servant; he survives through the black market, and by stealing from the school. Mocked by the boys, hated by the cook, who may also have stolen but against whom there isn’t enough evidence, Joseph gets caught, and squeals. The seven boys who were his clients are put on probation, but he is fired, and has nowhere to go. The head of the school bitterly notes how unfair this treatment is, but he himself is caught in the system. Throwing the boys out would not only upset their parents, it would harm the school, which lives on the tuition fees paid by the bourgeois.
There is another threat, to complacency. It is the appearance of the potentially dangerous outsider Jean Bonnet, whose real name is Kippelstein, the foreign Jew who is the brightest boy in class and whom the good priests try to save. Most of the boys, self-involved as ever, remain indifferent to this quiet, uncommunicative, fiercely secretive, and lonely intruder, or rather they greet him with the routine hazing and brutalities that new boys are usually exposed to, despite the priests’ request that they treat him with special kindness. Only Julien is curious—perhaps because he senses a rival for intellectual supremacy, perhaps because he is more acute in recognizing a thoroughly alien presence. The two boys are hostile to each other at first. They only become close when, during a scouting expedition, each of them gets pursued by the other boys (to Julien, it feels like being hunted), and they are both lost in the woods and separated from the pack.
As premiers de la classe, they are, indeed, different from the rest, and they have something in common. They briefly enjoy playing jazz on the piano together (Jean is a gifted pianist) and reading to each other. But Julien finds out Jean’s secret, and when he tells him he has, equality between the two is broken. The equality was illusory, anyhow. Julien self-consciously remarks that he is the only one to think about death; Jean, of course, is the one who lives under a death sentence. Julien’s most painful feeling is missing his mother. Jean confesses that he feels permanent fear. Julien has nothing more serious to conceal than his bedwetting or the pocketlight with which he reads The Three Musketeers and The 1001 Nights. Jean must conceal who he is, as in the troubling scene in which he joins his classmates at the altar where they receive communion from the priest in the presence of their parents, and opens his mouth to receive a wafer—which the priest denies him.
The supreme injustice, which is the long and utterly sober climax of the film, is of course the triumph of evil—the Gestapo official in his thick belted coat, accompanied by tall German soldiers, who arrests Jean, two other Jewish boys hidden by the priests, and the director. All have been denounced by Joseph, who (like Lucien Lacombe) has chosen collaboration as the way of survival and revenge. After the Jews have been arrested, Joseph and Julien confront each other in a scene of great power—Joseph is blustering and apologetic, Julien is speechless. This is, for him, the real discovery of evil, for it comes not from outsiders—the Germans—but, so to speak, from within his own world, from another boy whom he knew.
The priests, in their quiet, determined way, actively try to save lives. But Malle suggests that one of the most frequent forms of injustice occurs when people acquiesce in evil, and fail to act against it. The cowed boys watch silently as Jean is taken out of class; they summon up a little courage when they shout goodbye to the priest as he is taken away. They have the excuse that they could do nothing in the face of superior force. The open question at the end of the film is whether they have learned anything. Far more guilty is the nun who fails to help to save another Jewish boy who is in hiding in the infirmary. In her Malle exposes the conventional morality of people who almost instinctively go along with the authorities even when a life is at stake. The outcome has haunted Malle for forty years: the non-Jewish boys survived, the Jews died in Auschwitz and the good priest in Mauthausen. Clearly, he still feels guilty, if not for the part he played, at least for the failure of so many of the French, and of the members of his class in particular, to save the victims of the Nazis.
Did Julien himself go beyond mere passivity? When the Germans invade the classroom and ask who is Kippelstein, Julien, unwittingly, turns toward Jean. But Jean is right to tell him he would have been found out anyhow; and Julien’s turn toward him comes at a moment when the Germans appear not to be looking; it is—in typically ambiguous fashion—an act of solicitude that might have contributed to disaster. When, a little later, a German soldier searches the infirmary, the nun also moves her eyes—not at all innocently—toward the boy hidden in a bed, and afterward Julien blames her for the boy’s arrest.
One of the ironies of the film—Malle himself never highlights anything—is in the fact that the poor boy who is victim of, and threat to, the bourgeois becomes the agent of the destruction of the other threat represented by the Jews (and indeed also by the school director). Another irony lies in a wonderful scene in which the priests and the boys together escape for an evening from the France of 1944 and watch an old Chaplin film, while a violinist and a pianist play to accompany the show. The film is The Immigrant—and the boys sympathize with poor Charlie’s loneliness, seasickness, and hunger. What a difference between the community gathered around the screen and the real world in which this other immigrant, little Jean, will soon go to his death.
The movie owes much of its force to its shape and its rhythm. It starts slowly, and concentrates for a long time on the life of the school, the mildly nasty intimate relations among the boarding school boys; so the contrast between the daily routines of the well-off young students and the fates of both Joseph and Jean becomes all the more stark. But most of the movie’s power comes from the purity and freshness with which Malle has been able to re-create his experience after forty years, from his refusal to preach or to go beyond what he has personally experienced. It is an understated movie, just as the arrested priest’s departing words, Au revoir les enfants, seem an understatement; another director would have had him say Adieu.
This is why it is not easy to answer the inevitable question about a film presented as a work of historical reconstruction—what does it tell us not merely about Malle’s perceptions, but about the conditions of France in those ghastly years? Those of us who lived through them usually find that our memories of the time are far more vivid than those of whatever happened to us in later years. We can only compare our experiences in order to grasp the diversity of situations that glib generalizations about the behavior of “the French,” “the Jews,” or “the Nazis” usually betray.
One generalization needs to be put to rest once and for all—the notion that the French have been reluctant to confront an often ugly past, filled with collaborators, informers, and cowards. The Communist legend of mass resistance led by the workers and peasants against a Vichyite and collaborationist bourgeoisie and the official myth that all of France rose up in resistance may have prevailed during the Fourth Republic and under De Gaulle, but they have been shattered since 1968, especially by Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, 1 and also by novels, movies, and scholarly studies that threatened for a while to replace one myth with another just as inaccurate.
The fascination with the ugly side of the years that the French now call les anneés noires is admirably analyzed in a recent book by the brilliant young historian Henry Rousso.2 He examines the many different attempts of the French to deal with their disturbing past, attempts that have gone on for so long and so intensely that, contrary to some dark predictions, the trial of Klaus Barbie failed to produce either revelations or a national trauma. Almost everything grim or depressing about the period, such as the infighting among the factions of the Resistance and the betrayal of some of its leaders—sometimes by resisters under torture—had already been exposed. The trial had the merit—which it shares with Malle’s film—of exposing a new generation of French young people to events about which they had only dim notions—as their elders did not.
The movie, furthermore, suggested to me that after forty years France may be moving beyond both the myth of a heroic, universal Resistance and the myth of an opportunistic, generalized evil. Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien—described by some critics as “demythologizing”—in my view mightily contributed to the latter, both by suggesting that the choice between resistance and collaboration might often have been purely accidental, and by romanticizing the atrocious, as when the rough simpleton Lucien is almost redeemed by his love for a beautiful Jewish girl as they escape through the equally beautiful, sun-drenched French landscape at the time of the Liberation.
Malle’s screenplay for his new film is far more subtle than the novelist Patrick Modiano’s screenplay for the earlier movie. His view of the schoolboys is harsh but not unfair. They are not angels, and the story is not one of innocence ravished, but of mindless ignorance shattered. The boys, including Julien, are not only drawn to the usual smut of puberty but behave as perfect little brutes in their games, untouched by the values extolled by the priests.
From my own brief experience in a Catholic collège during the war years, I found Malle’s description flawless. To be sure, his film is less vitriolic—and surreal—than Jean Vigo’s unforgettable Zéro de conduite. But Vigo, the son of a doomed anarchist, made a movie of anger, revolt, and fantasy—it described the school universe from the viewpoint of a wild, subversive, Rimbaud-like boy. Malle’s anger is under control, and if his approach is, indeed, more bourgeois—in allowing each character a distinct personality, he shows exquisite manners—his film does not grant the emotional release and escape that Vigo provided at the end; it is far more disturbing.
Malle is similarly convincing in dealing with Joseph. The bitter, marked, poor boy is a character out of Céline—and therefore out of a real but subversive and often ignored part of French life. He is the perfect recruit for fascist movements: a rebel not a revolutionary, contemptuous yet envious of the rich and involved with them, a spontaneous, populist anti-Semite, for whom a Jew is a miser, and a schoolboy who threatens not to keep his part of a deal, a Jew. He expresses virtually everything that had been codified in Edouard Drumont’s nineteenth-century best seller La France juive, which blamed the Jews for the destruction of old French values and customs, everything that the collaborationist movements exploited, with some success among shopkeepers and in what Marx had called the Lumpenproletariat.
Malle’s admiration for the priests is also justified. Many bishops and archbishops celebrated Pétain and failed to condemn Vichy’s abominations, but Catholic schools often sheltered Jewish children—sometimes the priests tried to convert them; sometimes, as in Malle’s collège, they respected religious difference. Many priests joined Resistance movements. There were, to be sure, some collaborationists in the clergy as well, men whose anti-Semitism, or hatred of Communism, or contempt for democracy prevailed over the precepts of the Scriptures. But these were few; and ardent Catholics—clerics and lay pratiquants—probably made up the biggest part of the Resistance, along with Communists. It took people with faith to fight against Nazi faith.3
Malle’s treatment of the Germans is ambiguous. He shows both a Bavarian Catholic soldier who is kind to the boys when they are lost in the woods and is fully aware of the unpopularity of les Boches, and the Gestapo man, an arrogant Nazi who hates Jews and despises the French. He also shows us a German officer who, in a restaurant, throws out French fascists (from the dreaded milice) who have been harassing an elderly, dignified Jewish customer—but the officer does it, as Julien’s brother nastily points out, to show off in front of the boys’ mother, who has been trying to protect her older son from the wrath of a milicien whom he had insulted mezza voce. Here the movie (a Franco-German coproduction) also matches my own experience. The Wehrmacht’s draftees and officers were certainly not all evil, especially if they were stationed in Western Europe (their behavior in the East is another story). By early 1944, they were often demoralized by news from their bombed home towns. But the men of the Gestapo and many of the SS were monsters whose satisfactions in dehumanizing and exterminating their foes remain beyond explanation.
One scene struck me as questionable, at least untypical. When the miliciens begin to bother the elderly Jew, many of the restaurant customers (including Julien’s brother) protest. Perhaps this would have happened in January 1944, when almost all the French hoped for or fought for their liberation. But—especially in an expensive establishment, where German officers were also dining—wouldn’t the heavy, guilty silence of fear have prevailed? Another historical question arises when it turns out that the young Julien and even François are singularly ignorant about Jews—François seems to know only that they don’t eat pork, “are smarter than we are,” and that they crucified Christ (Julien exclaims that he thought it was the Romans). In January 1944, after years of anti-Jewish propaganda and persecution, sheltered schoolboys could conceivably have been that ignorant but they would hardly have been typical of young Frenchmen at that time, especially if they lived in cities and went to public schools. Outside boarding schools, pupils did not have to rely on their teachers to find out what the BBC and the Nazi radio station of Paris were saying, and the fate of the Jews was too obvious for any such indifference to persist.
The missing element in Malle’s film is ideology. Among the older bourgeois in the movie, Julien’s mother is the only fully realized character (the others are silhouettes); their pampered sons, except for a few standard remarks, appear remarkably untainted by political dogmas, left or right. One of the shocking aspects of Lacombe, Lucien was that same absence. The new movie explains it, in retrospect: Malle appears not to have absorbed any clear political viewpoint during the war years, and Modiano—born after the war—certainly did not. And yet, again, in cities, and indeed wherever one was exposed to the radio, to pamphlets, to rallies, or to circles or cells of actively involved friends, it was hard to escape the clash of conflicting creeds—especially at a moment when Vichy and Nazi propaganda were, not always unsuccessfully, trying to scare the bourgeois with horror stories about the effects of a Soviet victory and of a Communist-dominated Liberation.
Ideology pushed people into collaboration, or pro-Vichy organizations, or the variety of Resistance movements—especially, it is true, in the part of France that remained unoccupied, under Vichy rule, until November 1942. (Resistance in the parts of France that were occupied from June 1940 on was always more purely patriotic than ideological.) Especially by 1944, many of the French who worked with or for the Nazis did so out of belief more than out of social resentment—or at least they had rationalized and translated their class anger into ideological belief. The youngsters described by Malle are barely patriotic, and nothing else. In my own lycée in Nice during the same period, even ten-year-olds often lined up aggressively on one or the other side of the barricades. The condition Malle describes appears surprising, although believable. Given the degree of self-involvement and remoteness from the world of struggle and death in which Malle’s classmates lived, to what extent did the tragic story of Jean shatter the plate glass protecting them? To what extent was the young Malle, with his artist’s sensibility, the only one to have been fully awakened?
I was four years older than Malle during the Occupation, and I belonged not to the privileged but to the vast, incoherent group of potential victims—my privilege was to have been spared. I have spent much of my adult life studying this period. Two things about Malle’s movie I am not likely to forget.
One is its sense of color. The story takes place in winter, and the colors are cold; but they are clear and sharp, and the sun seems to shine much of the time, although the school is in the northern half of France. I was throughout the Occupation in the south, in the warm and sunny south, and yet almost all my memories, indeed my dreams, of the period are in dark, muddy, oppressive colors—the only sunny day I remember from Nice is the day everyone rushed to the market because a huge shipment of rotting peaches, whose awful smell pervaded the city, had suddenly gone on sale.
Another, beautiful, image: Julien, lost in the forest, sees a wild boar. He is fascinated and frightened; the boar is unexpected, untame and threatening, like a natural form of evil, an omen of the human evil still to come. When I was doing research in the French archives, I came across a report from the préfet of Belfort to the Minister of the Interior. One part of each rapport de préfet was devoted to Franco-German cooperation. In this one, that section was divided in two. One dealt with cooperation in hunting down wild boars; the other, with cooperation in hunting down resisters.
See my Decline or Renewal? France Since the Thirties (Viking, 1974), Chapter 3.↩
Le syndrome de Vichy (Paris: Ed. du Seuil, 1987).↩
See Stanley Hoffmann, "Who Said No?" The New York Review (November 9, 1978), pp. 14–18.↩