In 1974, Louis Malle made a movie called Lacombe Lucien, which told the story of a French teenager during World War II who wants to join the Resistance but is rejected and recruited by the Milice, a French paramilitary force that helped Germans round up Jews. The film was very well received and is considered one of Malle’s best. It was partly based on the director’s personal experiences from the war. Born in 1932, Malle was eight when the Germans took Paris, so he was not as old during the occupation as the main character in Lacombe Lucien. However, Malle returned to the subject in 1987 for another film based on his experiences. This time the character was closer to his age during the war.
During the winter of 1943-1944, young student Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) returns to his Carmelite boarding school after a vacation. Julien lives a privileged life. His family is not considered a problem to the occupying authorities, they have money and Julien is pampered. He acts tough at school and tries his best to hide the fact that he wets his bed at night. One day, three new students are introduced and one of them is Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). Unpopular among the other students, this newcomer is bright and talented but doesn’t seem to want to draw much attention to himself. Julien doesn’t like him either, but soon finds out something very interesting – Bonnet is actually a Jewish boy in hiding. His real last name is Kippelstein and he’s protected by Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) at the school…
Four decades in the making
When Malle was 11 years old, his Roman Catholic school was raided by the Gestapo who rounded up three Jewish students and one teacher. They were deported to Auschwitz. The headmaster, Father Jacques, had taken them under his wing and the Germans sent him to Mauthausen as punishment for his humanitarianism; he died shortly after the liberation of the camp. This experience must have affected Malle and the other children at school profoundly and it took him four decades to get the story written and filmed. But it was worth the wait and it is easy to imagine that Malle wanted as much experience as possible as a filmmaker before taking on such a personal challenge. The movie was widely celebrated and is a delicately directed, touching portrayal of childhood and wartime France. In the latter case, Malle shows the uneasy relationship between the German soldiers who are stationed in the French countryside and the people whose land they occupy. Fear and suspicion is a natural part of life. In an interesting restaurant scene, the Milice (shades of Lacombe Lucien) appears to expel one of the regulars, an old man who happens to be Jewish. Some of the other patrons are offended by this behavior and protests, even though there are also German soldiers present. In the end, the Germans tell the Milice to leave; it is obvious that Malle hates French collaborators to the degree that he lets even a Nazi be more of a voice of reason than the Milice…
The heart of the film is the depiction of a budding friendship between Julien and Jean who share a dangerous secret. Their lives at school are nostalgically and beautifully captured by Malle, with the war a constant presence but still far away, at least until those horrifying final moments of the story. Malle doesn’t show us the actual violence, but we know what will happen and we can see in the teary eyes of Julien that he also understands. Manesse, who didn’t do much acting after this film, is a good choice to play Julien, his face an unusually effective vessel for emotion.
Au Revoir, les Enfants 1987-France. 103 min. Color. Produced, written and directed by Louis Malle. Cinematography: Renato Berta. Cast: Gaspard Manesse (Julien Quentin), Raphael Fejto (Jean Bonnet), Francine Racette (Madame Quentin), Stanislas Care de Malberg, Philippe Morier-Genoud, François Berléand.
BAFTA: Best Direction. European Film Awards: Best Screenwriter. Venice: Golden Lion.
Last word: “I knew even before I started writing the screenplay that the film would succeed or fail on the casting… I hesitated for a while between [Manesse] and another boy, but there was something about Gaspard: he was like quicksilver, he was so alive, very sharp and insolent. Arrogant and shy at the same time. When we started reading with him I could see he was on pitch… The boys very quickly became so confident, they seem to master the technical difficulties of film acting so easily, that sometimes I had to be hard on them because it was almost too easy for them.” (Malle, “Malle on Malle”)