Le silence de la mer (1949)

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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.

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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.

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8 thoughts on “Le silence de la mer (1949)”

  1. Nice review! I’ve only seen five or six Melville films, and while this is probably my least favorite, I both like it and find it fascinating. I’ll definitely revisit this one soon.

    1. Really looking forward to seeing more Melville, this was an interesting one with great acting. Enjoyed reading up on how the source book was worked into the movie too. Thanks for reading!

  2. I remember first watching this film at a little cine-club in London twenty plus years ago, we used to watch films and then discuss them informally over refreshments. It was noticeable after this film that the discussion was a little muted, it really is a film for me that the viewer walks away from deep in thought. It is interesting that Melville a hero of the French resistance himself chose to adapt a novel about passive resistance for his first film. Later of course he would make ‘Army of Shadows’ about a very different form of resistance. For me ‘Le Silence de la Mer’ is one of those films that takes up room in my brain for a few days every time I watch it. Really think that Melville has an impressive body of work, didn’t make many films but there are really are some fine ones. May have to look at that biography myself in the new year

    1. Agree about it “taking space” in your brain, it was certainly on my mind for the next few days trying to think of all the ways the imagery and silences were used– the scarf, the farewell and so on, really powerful. There is so much more to look into, like the way the book was adapted and then events that came after the publication, worked into the movie. The acting was so good too.

      I’ve been wanting to see Le Samourai for a long time, but now I’ll be watching a lot more Melville. Thank you for this tip, you were one of 3 people who told me to watch this and glad I did.

  3. This one I’ll have to see. Sounds interesting. Also interested to see how Vernon does as I only know him from super low grade Jess Franco films of the sixties and seventies.

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