#755 Le Silence de la Mer
1949 // France // Jean-Pierre Melville
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Resist Against All Odds
The name of Jean-Pierre Melville has been strongly alluded to the “cool” style heist/gangster film in my mind that I almost forget his three-time ventures into war film. Indeed, excluding his first short film, Melville’s debut feature Le Silence de la Mer is a film of, about and by the French Resistance in WWII, a kind of personal echo to his own involvement during that period of turmoil. Including Léon Morin, Priest (1961) and Army of Shadows (1969), Melville’s war films are essential and fundamental outputs for a man that fears no obstacles and takes filmmaking as his ardent evocation. Le Silence de la Mer opens like a thriller or heist film as a man approaches another man and dropping a briefcase silently and secretly. Inside the briefcase, beneath a folded shirt and bundles of newspaper, the man finds the book Le Silence de la Mer with the author’s name Vercors clearly visible. By opening the book, the film credits roll and we are now engaged in the literary adaptation of the “Bible for the Resistance.”
Melville firstly read the book in English version as Put Out the Light in 1943 and immediately determined that book would be the source of his first film. But Vercors refused to give out the rights to his book as he considered it as part of the French national heritage. Faithfully following the “resistance” mind, Melville “resisted” all obstacles and eventually shot the film clandestinely, completely outside the production system in France. With no adaptation right, no union card, no right to “coupons” for lower-priced film stock, the low budget situation ultimately rendered the film tremendously effective. The story is narrated with the voiceover of the uncle (Jean-Marie Robain), who retells the story of a German officer billeted in his house and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) for six months. The German officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) is a Francophile, a cultured and highly mannered musician who dreams of “marrying” France and Germany as a unity. The French hosts’ resistance is by maintaining silence, disregarding the presence of von Ebrennac like he’s a ghost.
Apparently, Robert Bresson is influenced by Melville’s use of first-person narrative and offscreen sound in Le Silence de la Mer. Bresson further refined them austerely in Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and A Man Escaped (1956) in which the latter shares a similar theme of “Resistance” in breaking imprisonment. Herein, it’s the constraint in growing sympathy and resisting a passion of love to the ‘good’ German. Naive and idealistic his viewpoints are, von Ebrennac, like Erich von Stroheim’s Captain von Rauffenstein in La Grande Illusion (1937), is a respectable person happened to be in the wrong side. He reads French literature, he plays “inhuman” Bach music, he recites the texts of Macbeth, and he renders the story of Beauty and the Beast so to express his desire for the niece.
In the majority of the film, the three characters share the claustrophobic room (a library, the authentic set in Vercors’s house where he ad his wife billeted a German officer in reality). The camera frequently shot the standing von Ebrennac at low angle as he’s towering the seated French hosts, addressing the relationship of “occupier and occupants”: no matter how “good” the German officer is, he belongs to the occupying force whereas the French are imprisoned and immobilized in their own soil. German’s brutality is firstly perceptible when von Ebrennac’s fiancé pulling legs off a mosquito in a flashback, and later subtly revealed in the mentioning of Treblinka by the SS officer. The film ends with von Ebrennac volunteering to be transferred to the front as a suicidal act after realizing the Nazi’s horrendous ideology, before he leaves he finds the newspaper open at the words “it is a noble thing for a soldier to disobey a criminal order,” purposefully left by the uncle. Albeit the German officer’s “good” nature, it’s his and his compatriots’ submission to the Nazi that one should account for in war.
It’s the ultimate act of silence that confers the characters the position of Resistance against the occupying force, which could be a challenge thematically to exhibit in film. As Melville put it, the narrative is anti-cinematic as action and movement are minimum. The one-way conversation, the “monologue” of von Ebrennac in front of the fireplace every night which always ends him saying “I bid you goodnight,” is balanced by the voiceover of the inner thought of the uncle. Thus, aside from the two flashback scenes of von Ebrennac visiting Paris, the film is unquestionably on the French’s side. The indoor scenes are shot in “expressionistic” lighting, at times the entire frame is in darkness, or characters’ faces are in complete shadow against a back light with only their profiles discernible. An orchestral score is played throughout to evoke a classic mood which only stops when von Ebrennac plays Bach on the harmonium; uneven footsteps are heard as von Ebrennac approaches or paces with his limping leg, clock ticking is hearable to accentuate the passing of time in occupation.
For a debut feature, Melville together with the director of photography Henri Decaë (the first photography of his too) had already displayed their confidence and determination in filmmaking. Melville, as he was refused of the rights of the book, promised to Vercors that once the film is finished, it would be submitted to a jury of Resistants selected and assembled by Vercors and promised, “should one single member of the jury be opposed to the film being shown, I pledged to burn the negative myself.” For I have just witnessed the birth of a master in the spirit of Resistance, and the rest is history.