"Au revoir les enfants" – Childhood, Holocaust and the Cinema of Louis Malle by Vandana Kumar
A lot of films leave us moist eyed. Some go further and simply make us cry and reach out for a box of tissues. Very few make our hearts sob unnoticed, even as we continue to smile. Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical 1987 film ‘Au revoir les enfants’ or ‘Goodbye, Children’ belongs to this rare category.
Consider the premise of ‘Au revoir les enfants’ – a compassionate boarding school where the priests give shelter to a few Jews. Add to this the Gestapo snooping around to flush out the termites from society. Friendships lost forever while studying in Vichy France. This could turn out to be some depressing war film, yet made in Louis Malle’s inimitable style, the film feels far from ‘heavy’. The film tugs gently at your heart strings (apart from the ending) as you enjoy the madness and confusion childhood is.
Being an educator, stories revolving around children and childhood have always fascinated me. That is what drew me to François Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’. ‘The 400 Blows’ that led us to dark alleys of reform homes, was co-incidentally, semi-autobiographical too. In ‘Au revoir les enfants’, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a boarder in a Catholic school for the elite. Julien encounters Jean (Raphaël Fejtő) and the film captures the tentative bond that develops between them. Suspicious for a long time, proud and secretive, they gradually discover each other. Their friendship operates through subtle codes and signs. None of the other boys have a clue about this uncertain friendship developing. Julien is just a regular brat when it comes to issues at this age – whether it is acting macho or raging hormones. Yet he is cued on to the fact that Jean is hiding something. There is an indifference of his age and self-obsession that co-exists with a sensitivity to something and someone different. It is curiosity at first. The fact that Jean doesn't recite the prayers when everyone else does and the fact that he skips choir practice. Julien observes that when Jean kneels at the altar rail, the priest too, discreetly passes without giving him a communion wafer. To confirm his suspicion is Julien’s discovery of a book in Jean’s locker from which the name has not entirely been removed. The name is Kippelstein.
So, the film plays out this bond between the boys as no ordinary bond as this was no ordinary educational institute for the privileged. It was a boarding school of the World War II period and the nostalgia for a lost childhood has an extra layering because of the historical context. A childhood which apart from the teenage angst and rebellion, has memories of living through a war. The story is set in Nazi occupied France of 1943-44.
Both actors barely acted in anything substantial after this film and for both boys, this film is what they are forever identified with.
If we go into the historic specifics, we must travel back to Louis Malle’s student life at the ‘Petit Collège des Carme’, a Christian school in Avon (Seine-et-Marne). The principal of the school, Lucien Bunel, referred to as ‘Father Jacques’, accepted three persecuted Jewish students at the school under false identities and names he assigned to him. On a cold day in January 1944, after informers provided precise information about the Jewish students, the Gestapo police arrived at the school gates and arrested the three students and the most compassionate father Jacques.
There is such effortless depiction of childhood in each frame that it never feels like a forced thing deliberately to bring out the horrors of the period. That the horrors run parallel with all the joys of a normal schooling, makes the film stand out.
The film is not dotted with some heavy plots and narrative twists and turns – it is the regular events of life in the boarding and a mapping of that life. The children go through it all – closing ranks on newcomers as is a done thing in most educational institutes. There is a fair amount of ragging too. There is the pushing and nudging each other going up and down stairs – sometimes gently sometimes roughly… Jean is laughed at, and most batch mates find him inexplicably strange. Julien comes with his own weirdness. They are everyday boys and the things they do is very every day. Within this the undercurrent of fear simmers – of the hidden Jews being fished out and of the war news that the children keep getting.
Both Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ and Malle’s ‘Au revoir les enfants’ are completely devoid of condescension towards children when it comes to treating the central characters of their films. That is why we, as an audience, can effortlessly slip into our childhoods and identify with daily episodes, even if one did not study in a boarding school.
In an earlier article on Truffaut, I referred to his style of direction as the lightness of being Truffaut – whether it was dealing with resistance in ‘Le Dernier Métro’ or Antoine’s unfeeling education system in ‘The 400 Blows’. Malle’s cinema too, has that same feel. In ‘Murmur of the Heart’, the mother-son relationship is not overtly dark or intended to scandalize but it is an understanding of loneliness. All the Electra/ Oedipus complexes and childhood play out softly and sensitively in Louis Malle’s cinema.
The Christian theme of compassion runs ever so gently in the lessons that are imparted to the kids. In fact, both the compassion and the discipline run simultaneously. Children were largely given books for the holidays as reading good books was considered an important aspect of character development. Compulsory lessons on Christianity and morality were only to be expected in a Christian boarding. The scenes that show the students eating in the mess bring out the glaring differences between the haves and the have-nots enrolled there. Those who have food sent from home are clearly showing off. The authorities gently ask those with fancy goodies from home to share them with students less privileged. Children with enviable home food barter it with those who have other interesting things. It’s almost a memory of the boarding school life depicted in children’s books with war adding a dimension to it, one that cannot be ignored.
Not that this makes the children abnormally precocious or overtly kind. They remain normal and don’t get transformed into some children of God or cat’s whiskers. They use swear words liberally ("bastard", "s--t", "turd", "whores", "sonofabitch" and more) and have gigantic crushes. They label a woman as easy and crack inside jokes. It is all a part of growing up, isn’t it?
The education system in the 50s and 60s in France started to emphasis on rote learning of the classics, rigorous discipline and ‘post-World War 2’ nation building. The late 30s and early 40s in France, had far more compassionate schooling. The teachers in ‘The 400 Blows’ seem to be devoid of a sense of humor to begin with. The punishments are harsh for not managing homework. In ‘Au revoir les enfants’, Malle brings out a far more humane style of schooling. Perhaps the focus was on the World War 2 and the German atrocities and how it was all impacting the children. Despotism without contrasts with an air of freedom withing the school. The teachers for one, allowed for a little leg pulling and occasional laughter rather than pin drop silence.
Malle was lucky to have studied in a place where the authorities and Priest Jacques risked consequences for their act of kindness. No doubt Julien felt awful that his budding friendship with Bonnet was cruelly ended. The horror of seeing the police of the collaborationist government take their friends away was a very difficult moment that remained with these boys for a lifetime. But it was equally these moments of tenderness in boarding school that also remained with them.
The film also brings out the confusion the children feel in the particular social and political milieu. The principal Father Jacques’s kindness and empathy did not automatically mean that all the students in the boarding school understood the evil of the Nazi regime. There were a lot of contradictions in their actions and some ambivalence regarding the collaborationist attitude. It was to be expected as the children tried to process the world around them. Even in the grown-ups, the ‘for and anti-Jews’ stance doesn’t follow any predictable patterns.
Not all Germans are villains. Many soldiers are sympathetic. Julien’s glamorous and warm-hearted mother visits the boarding school (minus the absentee father) and the family lands up lunching at a local restaurant. Seeing no parent around during the parent weekend for Jean, they ask him to accompany them. The local militia try to heckle a Jew at one of the tables. It is ironically some German officers who intervene and try to come to his rescue.
In another significant scene of a treasure hunt activity organized by the school, Julien gets lost and somehow, he and Jean find each other, even as they have got disconnected from the rest of the teachers and students. They together encounter a boar who fortunately just breathes noisily and goes away. Trying to find their way back to the boarding school after curfew hours, Julien and Jean encounter two Germans in a car. Jean fears the worst and starts running. The Germans get hold of them and contrary to what treatment the boys anticipate, the boys are given a blanket to stay warm and safely returned to the school that had by now pressed the panic button... "You see, we Bavarians are Catholics also", they say.
Not all Germans were bad and not all the French around them were naturally opposed to Nazism were some of the things the children understood from experience. The children are always on the lookout for answers through all that they observe and through pertinent conversations with parents, friends, and teachers. Time and again the French class consciousness and their racist attitude inadvertently crops up.
The children are not just confused about who are the good and the bad guys, but more obviously, not really into History. Sample this – Julien is clueless about why the Jews are despised. "Why do we hate them?" he asks his older brother, Francois. "They're smarter than we are, and they killed Jesus". Julien replies, "But it was the Romans who killed Jesus”.
Not that Julien suddenly became more understanding. Along with a growing empathy and friendship, there was healthy jealousy too. The pretty piano teacher ‘Mlle Davenne’ is impressed with Jean at his effortless playing. Juliette’s crush on the other hand, fails him in his Piano lesson. Jean lands up getting better grades too. That is the moment when the ‘false note’ from Julien’s piano class plays. The soundtrack is almost representing the jealousy and the ambiguity regarding the newly developing friendship.
The children in the privileged boarding school did not comprehend Nazi occupation and the horrors of war in its entirety. It is in the daily life as it unfolds, that the world around the children gets understood gradually. This growing fear builds up to the poignant climax. Guilt was one aspect of the film but not the only one. The slip that leads to Julien inadvertently betraying Jean is a part of the bitter sweetness of the friendship.
No understanding of this gem from Malle would be complete without a mention of the cinematography. Here in ‘Au revoir les enfants’, the camera is perpetually at eye-level – telling us the story from the perspective of Quentin and Bonnet. It is largely not about the point of view of the authorities or the secret police or about any imposing structures like the church or the school edifice.
In Roberto Benigni’s ‘Life is Beautiful’, the horrors of the holocaust have been shown to the audience through wit and humor and by creating a make-believe world. Other film makers like Malle placed the children at the center stage of extremely horrific historical situations like war, without make belief. The impact was the same. Children bring something to the darkly disturbing times with their own energy and processing of the world and allow the director not to make it a morose experience. Children have a unique way of comprehending life and its difficulties – a knack that fades often as adult life and its responsibilities take over.
One leaves the film with the everydayness of the children handling adversity. With the matter-of-fact way the authorities pause an ongoing class during an air-raid and rush the children into special cellars created for the purpose. The children settle in, and the class continues.
Malle successfully creates nostalgia not of a rainbow and a sunshine childhood but of an imperfect real world. Malle never rushed the memories into his film. He researched a lot and tried to find out what happened to the two other Jewish boys who were in the ‘Petit Collège des Carme’ and to the priest after they were taken from the school. He made the film once he was very comfortable with all the reminiscences.
I conclude this article on such a well-loved classic by going back to the scene when the Priest says to Julien that your mother said you wanted to take holy orders. “I don’t think priesthood is meant for you...it’s not your calling…” I am so glad for that advice that Julien followed, or the world would have been bereft of the cinema of Louis Malle.
Vandana Kumar is a Delhi based internationally published poet, teacher of French, film producer, writer and cinephile.