After my post on Bob Le Flambeur (1956), a few people recommended I also see this movie by Jean-Pierre Melville. It’s set in Nazi-occupied France during WW2, and centers on the six months that a Nazi officer stays in one of the village’s commandeered cottages. Lt. Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) is shunned by his “host” family, an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane). Their way of protesting is to give Werner the silent treatment and refuse to acknowledge his existence. Like someone chattering to fill an awkward lull in conversation, Werner comes to their sitting room every evening and talks. First he compliments their dignified patriotism, and over time reveals he’s a highly educated composer and great admirer of French culture, with a romantic, if not deluded, view of the invasion as a glorious marriage between Germany and France.
Werner keeps talking over the months, while the old man smokes his pipe and the niece knits and embroiders a nice scarf. At first they tolerate him, begin to feel bad about treating him this way, and then they grow to like their lodger and miss him when he’s away. Werner shares his distaste for what he calls an innate German cruelty, recites his favourite fairy tale, Beauty and Beast, and reads lines from Macbeth about the possibility of people loving each other even if brought together by force. This is his way of courting and proposing to the niece, who reveals with the slightest of glances and movements (like a telling slip of her sewing needle) that the attraction is mutual. One day she begins playing the organ for the first time since the defeat, expressing the emotion she can’t contain in a language Werner would appreciate, as a composer proud of Germany’s musical heritage.
Sadly, Werner’s fantasies of happy marriage to niece and nation are dashed when he makes a trip to Paris, where he discovers the horrific truth about the concentration camps and the rape of French culture and identity. He returns to the village devastated and ashamed to show his face to his hosts, and gets himself assigned to the front lines, making that suicide mission his form of protest.
It’s a powerful film where so much is obviously unspoken, as the form of resistance, as a result of romantic hesitation or by wartime necessity, to avoid the appearance of sympathizing with the enemy. But so much is communicated by an item, gesture, sound or image. A walk on a gorgeous snowy day turns into the briefest encounter between the officer and the niece, and another walk becomes an obstacle course when villagers refuse to move out of his way. The night Werner first enters their home he looks like a monster, harshly lit at the doorway and shot from a low angle, staring at them menacingly while their clock loudly ticks away. That clock is prominent during the silences and especially at the end when Werner is again the enemy. Same with his uniform: the night he first visits them in civilian clothes, he opens up and speaks “from the heart,” and doesn’t wear it in their presence again until the end when his humanity, soul and hope are gone. By that point he won’t even enter their sitting room without permission, which marks the first time the uncle speaks to him (we do hear the uncle all through the film via voice-over narration). The niece will speak too, ending her expressive silence with one final, barely audible, heartbreaking word of farewell.
Le silence de la mer was based on the book by illustrator and journalist Jean Bruller and photographed by Henri Decaë.