La Silence de la Mer

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With 1949’s La Silence de la Mer Jean-Pierre Melville got his shortish career off to the sort of start you might expect from a director who would go on to turn out one classic after another – Bob le Flambeur, Le Samouraï, Army of Shadows and A Cop to name but four. It is a classic in its own right and yet a strangely overlooked film, possibly because it doesn’t quite fit the Melville template. His films are generally centred on men’s men who abide by a strict code of honour and suffer when they break it.

But dig not too far in and La Silence de la Mer also seems to be about codes of honour. It was Melville’s first feature and was made for little money. Melville’s response to the lack of funds was to set the film almost entirely in one room, with very limited location shooting on the streets of Paris in the later part of the film. It also appears to have been shot silent, with the sound dubbed on afterwards.

This was not so hard to do, because, to all intents and purposes, only one person speaks on screen. It all takes place in a house in occupied France where, one day, a German officer comes to stay. He’s been billeted with the the two French people living there. “The Uncle” (Jean-Marie Robain) and “the Niece” (Nicole Stéphane) respond to the arrival of the enemy, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), by refusing to talk to him. They disengage entirely, in fact, not meeting his gaze, not lifting a finger to make him comfortable or feed him.

In the deadpan voiceover that runs right through the film, the Uncle explains the thinking behind this. They want to cold-shoulder the German, obviously. But from the Uncle’s point of view there’s another reason – this way he can avoid giving offence, which, to a middle-class gent of his standing, is one of the principles he lives by.

For his part the German responds in a way his unwilling French hosts might not have expected, monologuing away night after night after arriving back “home”, chattering away to his audience of two as if they had an interest in what he has to say. And as he goes on, this Nazi officer reveals more about himself. First and foremost his understanding of the position they’ve taken. They love their country, as he loves this. As time goes by and winter turns to spring, Von Ebrennac also comes out as a bit of a Francophile, a lover of Hugo and Rabelais and Voltaire and Molière. He’s also a cultured gent, and was a composer before the war.

Still later, after a week’s leave in Paris, where he’s learned of the existence of the death camps and of the Nazis’ intention to steamroller French culture off the face of the planet, the appalled Von Ebrennac goes still further in his soliloquies to the Uncle and Niece. They remain unforthcoming.

And yet, against expectation, the uncle and the niece start to yield internally to the German’s polite chit-chat and middlebrow philosophising without letting on that Von Ebrennac’s guerrilla courtesy is getting to them. Melville’s gaze holds hard on the Uncle, pipe constantly in his mouth like a pacifier. And on the niece, her nervous fingers as she knits, the refusals to acknowledge the German’s scrutiny when he stares at her. He’s noticed she’s pretty. At one point he blahs on about the story of the Beauty and the Beast, painting Germany as the Beast and France as the Beauty, but he’s also talking at some level about him and her.

Werner von Ebrennac in his uniform
The Frankenfactor: Von Ebrennac

To an extent this is another version of Renoir’s La Grande Illusion – enemies who share a class affiliation (upper class there, middle class here) and to some extent a common European culture. But Melville also wants to say something about a character who wasn’t very common in 1949 – the Good German. Clearly Melville was a bit worried about how this might be received and gets his defence in early with a disclaimer at the top of the film, referring to the “barbarous” crimes of the Nazis and insisting that this film has no intention of “solving Franco-German relations”.

This is also the feature debut of the ace cinematographer Henry Decaë, who uses beautiful framing and careful light and shade to add drama to a fairly static movie and also to say things with images that cannot be said verbally.

When von Ebrennac first arrives at the house Decaë treats him as if he were Frankenstein’s monster, lighting and shooting him from below. And while the German prattles away delivering his nightly bulletins from his own cultural hinterland, a chair stands empty on one side of the room. Von Ebrennac would never go so far as to sit down, that would break the illusion of just chatting en route to his room, but Decaë wants us to know it’s there – it gets special lighting attention.

It’s tour-de-force stuff by Vernon (a Swiss actor whose real name was Mario Lippert) who had a long career playing ghouls and Nazis but is given a licence to be nuanced here. His character develops; this film is his story. Robain and Stéphane are barely more than a reproach incarnate.

I wondered if the 2014 film Suite Française might be influenced by this movie, since it was about a decent cultured German in a similar circumstance, but it looks like it isn’t. Suite Française was based on a book written in 1942 by Irene Nemirovsky. But the manuscript was only discovered in a suitcase in 2004. So that puts that question to bed.

Look out for the Criterion version (linked to below) if you are going to watch this unusual film. A great introduction to Melville, it has a superb picture quality which does justice to Decaë’s dark shooting style.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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