Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Based on the short story by: Jean Bruller (a.k.a. Vercors)
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Howard Vernon, Nicole Stéphane, Jean-Marie Robain
Producers: Jean-Pierre Melville & Marcel Cartier
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I’m ashamed to say I’d only seen one Melville film before this and that was Bob le Flambeur which I thought was decent, but I didn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. From my lack of knowledge of his work and his fame as a director of super-cool new wave gangster films, I wasn’t sure what to expect from his World War II drama Le Silence de la Mer. What I got not only took me by surprise but blew me away.
Le Silence de la Mer (translated ‘the silence of the sea’) is based on a short story by Jean Bruller under the pseudonym Vercors, which was written and distributed in secret in German-occupied Paris. It was a key work of the French Resistance and was highly regarded by the country. Melville at the time wasn’t so highly regarded, at least not in the film industry. He had been sent into military service in 1937 so hadn’t completed formal film school training. Instead he actually became part of the Resistance during the war, during which time he got hold of an English translation of Le Silence de la Mer. He was eager to bring this powerful tale to the screen, but was faced with many walls. For one he had no training or union membership to assemble a professional crew or work through the studios and on top of this Bruller himself refused to let him adapt his story. Melville wouldn’t take no for an answer though and in 1947 went ahead to shoot the film anyway, promising Bruller that he would only release the film if a panel of former Resistance members would give it the OK. All but one of these proud Frenchmen agreed to the release of the film and it went on to become a massive success in the country (due in large to the popularity of the book) and helped launch Meville’s career, acting as a much more powerful calling card than a degree or a union membership.
Essentially a chamber piece (but with a few diversions here and there), Le Silence de la Mer tells the seemingly simple tale of an ageing Frenchman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) who live together in a rural cottage during the German occupation in the Second World War. Their life is rudely interrupted when they are forced to house German officer Werner (Howard Vernon) whilst he goes about his business in town. The couple, in protest to their ‘visitor’, refuse to acknowledge his presence, remaining silent whenever he joins them in the sitting room. Undeterred by this, Werner uses these quiet evenings to let forth his views on music, literature and politics to his hosts. Through these monologues we grow to see that Werner is in fact an incredibly polite and cultured gentleman albeit a deluded one. His romantic view of the occupation is that this ‘wedding’ of cultures will bring the best out of the two countries, merging the poeticism of France with the precise and productive drive of Germany. He cites the vast literary history of the former and the countless famous composers from his homeland as demonstrating the qualities of the two nations.
The uncle begins to feel for these soliloquies and longs to end his silent protest out of kindness and politeness, but persists (his thoughts form the narrative for the film). However, whilst visiting Paris, Werner begins to realise that his German cohorts don’t quite share the same ideals and his loving blending of nations is actually more of a bulldozing. This awful truth causes turmoil in the officer’s mind and he is faced with a decision – to revolt or to give in for the ‘greater good’ of his country.
The very definition of quietly powerful, the film is pretty much just made up of Werner talking to himself as the French resistors sit in agonising silence, mixed with the swirling thoughts of the uncle as he longs to break his solemn vow. It’s a testament to the direction, cinematography and performances that the film turns out so beautiful, so engaging and so emotionally powerful by the end. Only a handful of flashbacks jar, but intentionally so as we see the realities of Germany’s intentions.
Melville hired an inexperienced director of photography, Henri Decaë, to shoot the film, but the results are staggering. By not sticking to the general ‘rules’ of cinematography in those days, Decaë makes extraordinary use of quite abstract framing and gorgeously minimal yet occasionally contrast-heavy lighting. Some of the imagery such as the introduction of Werner, over-lit from a low angle like some sort of evil spirit, his later framing through the raging flames of the fireplace and the one and only head-on close up of the niece in the film’s key climax will haunt me forever.
The use of sound and music is powerful too with an initially over the top score introducing the German officer subsiding to a subtle and poignant underscore as we grow to like him. Most noticeable though is the persistent ticking of the living room clock throughout the prolonged silences, ratcheting up the tension to unbearable levels.
As Andre Bazin is said to have put it, Le Silence de la Mer manages to be ‘literary and cinematic’ in that it has the insight and psychological depth due to it’s dialogue and narrative heavy content, yet remains fiercely cinematic through its bold use of striking camera and sound techniques. The only criticism I would level at it which prevents me from awarding a full five star ‘perfect’ status is that the narration felt a little clunky and dated at times. It had a tendency to over-explain things that the excellent performances were already making clear. I felt as though the film would have benefitted from revelling in the silence a little more.
This is a minor quibble in what is clearly a major work though. It’s a subtly building film that takes a simple structure and idea to create bold and devastating results by it’s climax. On top of this is the great respect that must be held for the film in humanising a Nazi officer so close to the end of the war and in making bold new steps towards the rebellious nature of the French New Wave when considering it’s production. A milestone and a masterpiece.
Le Silence de la Mer is released on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD on 23rd January as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. I reviewed the DVD version and the picture quality was fantastic for a film of it’s age, with nice crisp blacks and strong detail. There were some signs of wear at the beginning with noticeable lines down the screen but these went very quickly and never returned. The sound was clear too, doing justice to the subtle but powerful sound design and score. Features-wise on the DVD there is only a 23 minute talk on the film from Ginette Vincendeau, professor of French cinema at King’s College London, but this is very interesting and sheds light on the genesis and influence of the film. The Blu-Ray also has a 41 minute new French-made documentary about Melville’s film, Melville out of the Shadows, which I’ve heard is excellent. Added to this you get the usual interview and essay packed booklet which is as good as any documentary (better than most in fact).