Retrospective: Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

This is an old French film from a very well regarded director, Louis Malle. Like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, it’s a film about his experience during the latter half of the Second World War, in this case about his time livng in a Catholic Boarding School which protects a Jewish child from the Nazis.

It goes without saying that it is well shot and directed but what makes it such a noteworthy film is that it’s based on the director’s personal experience which gives it the sort of closeness to the subject matter that most movies could only dream, seen from the child’s perspective. The interplay between religion and the common humanity is the central and rather moving part of the movie.

Julien Quentin is a weak and weedy child who wets the bed and Louis Malle isn’t a particularly good student, going through the motions until the surprise arrival of three new students. One of them is the same age, who quickly shows a talent for the piano and mathematics, beginning a friendship with Julien who is slowly revealed to be Jewish. The movie could easily have just turned into a boarding school drama but instead it shows the life as rich and complicated, showing the  consequences of oppression and the small indignities of being conqured. The headmaster comes across as a good, moral man whose benevolence is the core of the movie. This a Second World War movie where you do not see many Nazis. You see very little war, showing the perspective of the passive resistance whilst being undermined by those too young, stupid, venal, or unpleasant trying to destroy them, a perspective which is very rarely seen.

By setting this film in a catholic boarding school under the headmaster’s benevolent rule, the film provides a very positive impression of religious belief and the importance of understanding and protecting those with differing faiths. Innocence is the second essential part of this movie as the headmaster has created an environment where children maintain their innocence, where they are protected from the ravages of the outside world, showing that protection as an altruistic act.

I find this film extremely melancholic and difficult to watch but I find it well worth the effort due to the reward of seeing truly great cinema. In this respect I have to pass my review to the vastly more capable hands of the now deceased Roger Ebert who so eloquently describes one of the most moving scenes in the movie: “Which of us cannot remember a moment when we did or said precisely the wrong thing, irretrievably, irreparably? The instant the action was completed or the words were spoken we burned with shame and regret, but what we had done never could be repaired.” Yes, but it is not clear that Julien is entirely responsible for Jean’s capture. “They would have caught me, anyway,” he tells Julien, giving him his treasured books.

Review by Harry Riedl


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