Le silence de la mer [1949]

6/10 | 27.Apr.12
Le silence de la mer

DIRECTOR: Jean-Pierre Melville | WRITERS: Jean-Pierre Melville, Vercors | CAST: Howard Vernon, Nicole Stéphane, Jean-Marie Robain, Ami Aaröe, Georges Patrix | France

I feel like a curmudgeon because I wasn’t bowled over by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer, especially given Melville’s personal history as a Jew in the French Resistance and this movie’s breaking ground as one of the first major feature films to deal with the Holocaust directly, but I just wasn’t. There’s a didacticism to the movie I found offputting, and the screenplay is schematic and formulaic. I was reminded of after-school specials and made-for-TV message movies, with a French uncle and his grown niece who are Good People vs the Germans who are all vicious, barbaric Nazis — but not too vicious or barbaric — and though the cultured Nazi officer who has commandeered a room in their house is besotted with Molière and Hugo and Bach (because only Germans can write music worth a damn), he’s still a German so their refusal to acknowledge his presence is somehow noble and praiseworthy. But it’s more than clichés and stereotypes: there’s a whitewashing of essentially current events that dumbfounded me. I found it impossible — absolutely impossible — to believe that a lieutenant in the German occupation army in France in 1941 would not have known that there were signs in shops declaring that Jews were not welcome. Not only that, I can’t believe that a French audience in 1949 would have been expected not to remember what it was like in France just eight years before. I really, really want to like Melville’s movies more than I do. Melville’s taut direction and Howard Vernon’s creepy performance as the Nazi who just wants to be liked raise this film a little above mere competence.

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