This was Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film and it’s a far cry from the other Melville movie I’ve seen, his penultimate Le Cercle Rouge. Where that was a film that oozed cool out of every frame, Le Silence de la Mer‘s primary feeling is seething rage. It’s funny, there’s not a moment of conflict here. Not a shot taken, not a single injury on screen. The only hint of violence we get is the German Lieutenant’s limp. Only a few words are spoken in anger, and they come at the end of the film. But still, it’s full of rage, of the anger of the occupied and the disillusioned. Melville constructs an enthralling tale of resistance out of silence, monologues, and narration. To these three aural modes of discourse Melville adds beautiful images to round out the package. It’s a wonderful little movie that demonstrates the power of resistance even when that resistance is as passive as can be.
The story of the movie is its most simple element. An old man and his adult niece house an injured Nazi officer, Werner Von Ebrennac, in their quaint French house during the occupation in WWII. Von Ebrennac seems as genial as a Nazi can be. He compliments them for their hospitality, praises French literature for being full of amazing authors and maybe falls for the niece (neither she nor her uncle is given a name, perhaps as a way to have them stand in for all French citizens while Von Ebrennac stands out as a unique Nazi in some ways). The uncle and niece’s response is silence during the Nazi’s nightly visits to their fireside gathering. So Melville gives us variations on a theme, the routine never changes but the content varies. We can sense Von Ebrennac’s frustration with the French as he exhorts them to welcome him and the rest of the Nazis to suckle at their country’s nourishing bosom (a real request in the film) in order to turn the Nazis into even better people. Rather than the outraged response you or I might give to that, the uncle and niece remain stoic, trying to act as if there’s not a person they hate living in their house and an army occupying their country. The only hints of what’s going on in their heads come from the pairing of the uncle’s narration and the visuals that accompany them. His narration often drowns out the Nazi’s endless talking as the uncle describes exactly how he resists Von Ebrennac’s narratives and even feels some kind of admiration for his choice to not demand that the French family engage in his conversation. He also notes his niece’s changing reactions to the Nazi in her house. He points out her shaking hands at her needlework and the camera cuts to a close-up of them. The same happens when he notices Von Ebrennac’s ability to see only her profile, a condition matched by the audience’s perspective, though the profiles are opposites of each other.
In one of the most uncomfortable of these one-sided “exchanges,” the Nazi talks about one of his favorite fables, Beauty and the Beast. He gives a pretty fair accounting of the story but extends it further than I’ve ever heard as he imagines the children of the restored knight and the beautiful woman who share the best of both their parents qualities. It’s clear he’s coming on to the niece character with this bit of storytelling and, given how weird the Beauty and the Beast fable is even without the implications of his extended ending, the scene takes on a sense of menace that had been absent. Not only does the story reveal his intentions to hold the niece “hostage” in her own house until she falls for him and they make the perfect children from their mix of his Germanness and her Frenchness but Melville also underlines the domineering nature of the story by having the Nazi walk behind the niece, a place he hasn’t been before. The movie is full of examples like this one where the visuals match and enhance the words being spoken. It makes the relatively mundane events taking place into the emotionally charged film I wrote of in the first paragraph of this review.
The ending of the film continues this marriage of storytelling and visuals as Von Ebrennac’s naïve illusions about the nature of his country’s invasion and the intentions it has for the French people are shattered by his fellow Nazi officers. In a powerful bit of moviemaking, Melville zooms in on a portrait of Hitler as another Nazi officer tells Von Ebrennac about what was happening at the concentration camps until the famous face fills the screen just as the other Nazi details how many people could be killed in a day. This scene occurs during a trip Von Ebrennac takes into Paris on leave and the next version of the fireside scene is the last in the film. In it, both speaker and listeners break out of the pattern that has continued for the majority of the movie. When the structure of the film has been so consistent throughout its length the disruption of that structure is monumental. Here we learn about the niece’s feelings toward the Nazi and we understand his final decision in light of all that he has learned. Melville has set up a good Nazi, or at least a Nazi who doesn’t fully grasp what his views mean for everybody else and then torn the veil from his eyes. The film is based on a short story written during the occupation and published clandestinely so perhaps the full credit cannot go to Melville for inventing such a remarkably simple story that accomplishes a lot with a little, but he does get the credit for the visuals, which serve the story and the characters at every turn while also telling a story of their own. It’s a movie about talking and not-talking, about seeing and not-seeing, and about occupation and resistance. It’s movie about anger and rage with almost no yelling or violence and it’s a movie about nations that takes place primarily in a living room. It’s a fantastic movie.