La Silence de la Mer (1947)
which means "The Silence of the Sea"
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring: Howard Vernon (Werner Von Ebrennac), Nicole Stťphane (The Niece), Jean-Marie Robain (The Uncle), Ami AarŲe (Werner's fiancee), Georges Patrix (L'ordonnance), Denis Sadier (L'ami).
an old man and his beautiful niece have to house a Nazi officer during the German Occupation
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
On a city street a man drops off a small satchel in front of another man. The receiver opens it up and takes out a book called La Silence de La Mer (The Silence of the Sea). The dedication is in memory of the murdered poet, Saint-Pol-Roux.
This film does not claim to provide a solution to the relations between France and Germany which will remain problematic while the barbaric Nazi crimes carried out with the collusion of the German people stay in our minds.
1941. A man tries to remember everything that has happened in the past six months. He speaks of a man and a rebellion that he did not have the courage to continue against his masterís orders. In the end he left like all the others.
A German soldier looks into a window of a fine house. Later the soldier comes back with another soldier. The fellow hands the home owner a piece of paper, the owner looks it over and shows the two men the unoccupied rooms in the house.
The next morning an army car drove up the driveway. Two boxes are dropped off. A few hours later three soldiers on horseback appear. The horses are left there. A couple of days later the soldiers took their horses and left. They returned with them in the evening sleeping on the straw they had put down. On the third morning the army car returned. A soldier gets out a heavy suitcase, knocks on the door and is let in. He asks the ownerís pretty niece to provide him with two sheets.
In the evening there is a knock at the door. A German officer enters. He says his name is Werner von Ebrennac. The host says nothing, so the officer says his orderly will do everything he can not to disrupt the household. There is a long awkward silence. The niece walks upstairs to the room and the officer follows. The host notices the man has a limp. The niece comes back down not saying a word. Her uncle says thank goodness, at least the man seems decent.
At breakfast the next morning the officer comes down and says some pleasant words and then leaves. In the evening he knocks on the door and lets himself in. He says maybe he should come through the kitchen so as not to disturb them. His two hosts say nothing. The officer says good night and goes upstairs to his room.
For a month the same scenario took place everyday. But one evening things changed suddenly. The officers looks in the window but does not go into the house. Much later he is heard walking around upstairs. Dressed in civilian clothes, he comes down to tell his hosts that his room is very cold. He sits by the fire to warm himself. He talks about the differences between his country and France. He says in France it is all intellect, thought, subtle and poetic. The officer says he always loved France. His father loved France. He liked Briand. He believed in the Weimar Republic and in Briand, but Briand was defeated. His father said that France was still being run by its cruel upper classes with men like de Wendels, Henri Bordeaux and the old Marshal. Dad told him never to go to France unless he goes in a soldierís uniform. He promised his father not to go because he was dying. He himself is a music composer and finds it strange to wear a soldierís uniform. But he doesnít regret the war. He thinks something good will come out of it, something good for both France and Germany. He bids his audience good night and leaves.
Uncle says to his niece that perhaps itís inhumane to refuse to speak to the man. She says nothing and he feels himself blushing.
From that day on the officer followed the same routine. He would present a monologue on his country, music or France. Sometimes he would stare at different things in the room. Then he would bow, bid them good night and go upstairs.
One evening he mentions that the two countries wonít fight anymore, but instead will marry. And it will be the most beautiful wedding in the world. On another evening he says that they must find a way to overcome the silence of France. On another night he compares France to the Beauty and Germany to the Beast in the fairytale. In the end it is the beast who is transformed. And the offspring of their union are the most beautiful in the world.
One evening the officer-composer sits and plays the organ in the living room. He speaks of German music and Germany saying that Germany has a certain inhuman characteristic, not on the same scale as man. He himself wants to compose music on a human scale. And he wants to be accepted by France, but not as a conqueror. He says he needs to live in France for a long time.
Every night he comes to speak of his love and growing admiration for France. The uncle starts to admire the way he never gave up, never got discouraged and never tried to break his hostsí intractable silence. The officer says fate brought him to Chartres. He served in the tank corps and would direct their fire at times. He had a girlfriend in Germany. She had a tough, almost cruel aspect to her and he is glad that she had other suitors. Now he says he is terrified of German girls. German politicians are like that too. But France will teach them to be truly great and pure-hearted.
Reading Shakespeare, the officer speaks of Macbeth as a man he pities because those he commands move only in command, nothing in love. He then tells his hosts that he shall be away for two weeks. He is very excited about going to Paris for the first time. He says itís a big day for him. He speaks of the coming union of their two countries, a union which he will witness in Paris.
In Paris the officer visits all the famous sites. He came home after two weeks but his hosts did not see him. They knew he was there, but the officer stayed away from them for more than a week. They could hear him up in his room but he would not come down. Uncle begins to become a little concerned over the absence of the man.
One day the uncle has to go to German headquarters on some small matter. There he sees the German officer. The officer sees uncle in the mirror. It looks like he wants to say something to him, but decides he canít or perhaps shouldnít say anything. He bows slightly to uncle and goes back to his office.
At home uncle says nothing about the matter to his niece. She keeps looking up at him as if to read some news from his expressions, but uncle keeps a straight-face. The niece decides to go to bed early and in her face uncle senses a feeling in her of reproach and sadness.
Three days later the officer knocks on the door harder than usual as if he had made a decision from which there was not turning back. But the door does not open right away. The niece says that the officer is leaving. Uncle has to tell the man behind the door to enter. The officer appears in his uniform this time. He says he has something serious to tell them. He says everything he has told them they must forget. The niece for the first time really looks at him. The officer almost seems blinded by the glare in her eyes. He hesitates.
The officer pulls himself together and decides to tell them about something that happened when he was in Paris. He learns from another officer and the documents he has about the mass executions via the gas chambers. The documents say that there is a throughput of 500 people a day at Treblinka. But improvements will increased the number to 2,000 people a day. "Treblinka, 21 March, 1941.." The other officer does not want to talk about Treblinka saying it is not for the faint-hearted. And, anyway, Treblinka is finished because there is no one left for them to execute.
The officer starts looking at Paris in a different way. He sees all the occupation forces and the closed shops. The other German officers find the composer to be very naive and they even laugh at him. Doesnít he realize that they have been duping the French as to what is really going on? The other officers speak of crushing France and its national spirit. They will make France crawl on its belly, although they will do it with a smile. No French literature will be allowed.
Back in the village, the officer sees the names of a dozen Frenchmen killed for the death of one German soldier. The officer is truly stunned and walks around as if in a daze.
He tells uncle and niece that there is no hope. The German canít stand the thought of all French literature being lost because of the occupation. And, he says, one of the officers was a very close friend of his. The friend was sensitive and romantic. But with the coming of the war he has changed. In fact, he was the angriest of them all, combing anger and laughter.
So, the officer tells his hosts, he has asked to join a fighting company. He will leave tomorrow and return to battle and towards hell. He says good night and goodbye. The niece looks straight at the officer. She says: "Goodbye."
The next morning brings a beautiful day. The officer prepares to leave. There is a knock on his door. Itís his orderly saying: "Heil Hitler!" It looks as though he was hoping for it to be someone else. Perhaps the niece?
We learn that the officerís rank is lieutenant. He leaves with his orderly. Uncle and niece have breakfast as usual but in silence. Uncle as narrator comments that it feels very cold to him.
A good movie. At first it seemed very wordy, especially since the German officer could only speak a monologue because his hosts, uncle and niece, refused to speak to him. And the German was just not in touch with reality. Here he is one of the occupiers and he talks glowingly about how the union of France and Germany will produce something great. He also appears to be emotionally a dunce. It seems that such an educated man would realize that he is speaking with people of an occupied country, who don't want to be occupied and certainly don't want to listen to some drivel about the glory of the union of their country with a barbaric one. He is painted as a sensitive man, but seems very insensitive to the feelings of others. Or maybe he is engaging in some sort of crazy wishful thinking. And what person could stand to go into a room for six months and speak to people who refuse to reply? It seems a bit unbelievable to me.
The movie gets better toward the end. Visiting Paris the officer finally learns the full thrust of the brutality of the barbaric Nazis. He learns about the concentration camp Treblinka. And his fellow officers show him that they are very much a part of Nazi brutality. They criticize him and even laugh at him for being so unbelievably naive. They basically say they will destroy France and the French spirit. This wakes the soldier-musician-compose up. But if a person is so disturbed by the plans of Nazi Germany, why the hell would he sign up for combat to spread the brutality of Germany to other countries? Does he want to be killed to pay some kind of emotional penance? Far better to stay put, fail to do a good job and provide aid and comfort to the "enemy". And yet, I still liked the movie. It brings up interesting questions of why so many people can go along with such human depravity as serving the fascist beast of Nazi Germany?
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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