Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Louis Malle | Au revoir les enfants

the silence of complicity
by Douglas Messerli

Louis Malle (writer and director) Au revoir les enfants / 1987

I’ve now seen Louis Malle’s moving portrait of World War II lost childhood innocence three or four times, and I believe I comprehended the film the very first time I saw it, probably soon after its premier in 1987. But seeing it again the other day, in the context of the Trump administration’s continued attacks on immigrant life, it seemed suddenly to be a very different film, its lovely tribute to Chaplin’s early film The Immigrant framing it in a way I had not previously perceived.

      There has always been something facile about the film, a kind of late-life mea culpa for a childhood friendship that may or may not have resulted in a betrayal a childhood friend to the Nazis. If nothing else, the mamma’s- boy, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse)—a stand-in for the director at age 11 himself—seems a nastily intelligent child, attempting to bluff his way through the sometimes brutal difficulties of living through the tough student world of a Carmelite boarding school in occupied France, that itself—despite its best intentions—plays out some of the very militaristic and anti-Semitic attitudes of the society at large. 
      How could they not, given the Pétain rule and the even worse Nazi control of Paris and other major cities? The fact is that this particular Carmelite school took in, willingly, several Jewish children, under different names, and valiantly attempted to protect them, ending in their leader’s, Father Père Jean’s, arrest and eventual death in the Mauthausen camp.

      This was also a school supported by some of the wealthiest of French families, and accordingly, their spoiled children did not represent, perhaps, the best environment for the very  intelligent Jewish children hidden among them. As in any provincial and well-endowed school, the best of the students were seen as “ass-kissers” or simply dismissed for their very intelligence.
      The Malle figure, Quentin, previously the golden boy of this school, now has a new challenger, and is both frightened and excited by the brilliant newcomer. At first, he, along with the others of his classroom acquaintances, tries everything they can to make the newcomer, Jean Bonnet (actually Jean Kippelstein, played by actor Raphaël Fejtö), an outsider. As a born figure on the outside of French society, Bonnet/Kippelstein knows perfectly well how to deal with it, even though, at his young age, he is clearly and almost unbearably lonely and isolated. But his searing intelligence and his insistence of being one of the group, prevails, eventually convincing the equally questioning Quentin to form a bond with him and to begin questioning what is going on in world around this somewhat isolated societal viewpoint, which makes this film something special.
      Malle helps us understand the gradual education of Quentin through both of the boys’ sharing of literary texts and, then, through a remarkable scene wherein Quentin’s wealthy  mother, his elder brother, and his new friend, attempt to share in a meal at a nearby posh restaurant during family day, in which the local French collaborators enter, try to oust a gentle, long-time customer who is Jewish; a reaction from Jean Quentin’s elder brother might almost have meant the wealthy French family’s expulsion, except for the intervention of the actual Nazis in attendance, who have been quite attracted to the Jean’s beautiful mother, and oust the local Nazi supporters, saving the day, if not the Jewish customer’s continued visits to the place.
      These lessons are not lost on the young Jean, who gradually begins to perceive that he does not now believe he seems to have been taught to; and even he questions his only family’s relationships to the Jewish faith. It is a poignant moment, when he questions his mother if one about their Alsatian aunts, a conversation which is quickly hushed up; but the facts are immediately perceived by the quieter Bonnet, who clearly realizes what is happening in his world. Yes, he is an outsider, but he exists in a tangled prejudicial society that has stood for French culture for centuries, even as many in the society refuse to embrace those connections. Bonnet’s quietude says everything, as the young Jean Quentin suddenly begins to perceive.

      But even a growingly perceptive child, quite obviously, cannot control the destiny of such a totally destructive society—or even the growing perceptions of that society’s adults—particularly when that society is controlled by a dictatorial government (please take note, and I should make note of the increasing anti-Semitic actions in our own daily news)—and the inevitable betrayal is quickly revealed, as the Gestapo, clued in by a disgruntled kitchen worker—fired for his involvement in black market sales of the school’s kitchen food (while the children nearly starve)—results in a terrible attack on their schoolrooms as well, where even a glance toward a friend reveals the horrible truth. Bonnet, accidently, glances the way of his now loving friend, ends in his arrestment, despite the fact that so many others in this actually “blessed” Catholic institution have attempted to save individuals from the concentration camps.  All died, most of them at Auschwitz, and one can only imagine the endless guilt of the innocent young children, particularly of the director himself. 
      I don’t know whether or not the events of the film are entirely honest, but in Malle’s version, the Bonnet/Kippelstein figure does forgive his young colleague by simply admitting that they would eventually have discovered him, no matter what. It doesn’t quite feel comfortable—might the Nazis truly have uncovered everything without the innocent childhood glances? Perhaps Bonnet is correct, no matter what they might have done, he’d, along with all the others, would have eventually been tracked down, just as he had been in their scout games, where he was caught, tied up, and eventually escaped. 
      Yet others, miraculously were not. The gentle wave of goodbye (the Au Revior of the title) is, alas, simply not enough. The totally innocent Bonnet was sent to death simply because of his birth by religion, and, finally, the young Jean Quentin had to come to terms with that. This is a film that does not say “goodbye to a childhood friend,” but goodbye to childhood itself.
       In the end, you surely can’t blame the children, but you must blame their parents for not properly protecting those children with the truth.

Los Angeles, February 21, 2017

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