Today: February 21, 2024

Le Silence de la Mer

In 1949, France was a broken and humiliated country.

In 1949, France was a broken and humiliated country. Its political
and middle classes having mostly opted to throw their lot in with Hitler’s
Germany, post-War France needed not just heroes but a creation myth. The myth
they decided upon was that of universal resistance to German occupation and so
the nation’s wartime compromises were swept under the rug where they would
slowly fester until the student uprisings and general strikes of the
1960s. Back in 1949, Jean-Pierre Melville was not the
legendary figure we know today, his film noir classics Bob le Flambeur (1955) and Le
Samourai
(1967) were still a long way off and Melville had neither a union
card or industry backing to make his first film. However, what he did have was
a background as a bona fide resistance fighter and this seems to have been
enough to ensure the active cooperation of the legendary resistance writer Vercors, who wrote the novel upon which
this film is based.

Le Silence de la Mer opens with a pair of German soldiers turning
up at a Frenchman’s door in order to requisition one of his spare rooms. For
days on end, the soldiers come and go without saying a word. Eventually, the
reason for this requisition is revealed when a German officer (Howard Vernon) introduces himself as
their new lodger. Horrified by the presence of an invader in their homes but
unwilling to stick their necks out by denying him access, the owner of the
house (Jean-Marie Robain) and his
niece (Nicole Stephane) react to the
officer’s presence by refusing to either speak or acknowledge his presence. For
months on end, the stony silence continues and yet the officer remains both
polite and present. Eventually, he begins to open up to his hosts and holds
forth with astonishing grace on his love of French culture and how he hopes
that German’s occupation of France might benefit both countries by renewing
French greatness and tempering German savagery. Such is the officer’s eloquence
that his hosts very nearly crack but, because they do not, the officer takes
himself off to Paris in order to enjoy the benefits of the city and have a
proper conversation. Unfortunately, the conversations he has with his fellow
Germans reveal that they do not share his love of French culture. Indeed, they
brag about the ‘output’ they have achieved at Treblinka. Depressed and
horrified, the officer puts in for a transfer to the Eastern front where he
hopes to pay the price for participating in the invasion of France.

Despite being Melville’s first
film, Le Silence de la Mer is
devastatingly beautiful. The composition, cinematography and use of sound all
work together to create the impression of an intensely silent house filled by
the sound of one man’s love for the culture he is helping to destroy. While
Melville would later become known for the moody minimalism of his gangster
films, this film’s eerie use of light and texture is intensely stylised in a
manner that is reminiscent of Jean
Cocteau
’s La Belle et La Bete
(1948). In fact, Cocteau and Melville would collaborate quite extensively on
Melville’s second film Les Enfants
Terribles
(1950).

Aside from its technical
brilliance, Le Silence de la Mer
also offers a fascinating snapshot of a French intellectual class that was
still trying to come to terms with the implications of widespread collaboration.
Indeed, between the officer’s status as a ‘Good German’ and his lengthy
speeches on the greatness of French culture, it is easy to read this film as an
ode to the majesty of France (the film is based on a novel written by a member
of the resistance) but look beyond the foreground and you find a morally
ambiguous world full of silently complicity French people, bars closed to Jews
and a Nazi delivering what was effectively the Petainist line that France would
become greater through collaboration. While Le Silence de la Mer may lack the slow-burning outrage of
Melville’s more famous indictment of French collaboration L’Armee des Ombres (1969) this is still a heroically ambiguous film
from a time when France was desperate to escape all suggestion of moral
ambiguity.

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