An Appreciation – Au Revoir Les Enfants
There comes a point in time when—tragically—the innocence and naïveté of youth moves aside and makes way for the harsh realities of the world. One can’t pinpoint exactly when this happens, as it is different for everyone. But when it does, it changes a person in a way that makes them more aware of things. The simplicity and purity of wanting to have fun with friends eventually stands face to face with the unkindness of real world issues, forcing one to accept the inevitability of adulthood. Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) is the powerfully moving WWII story of two friends whose innocence is taken away because of the actions of evil men. Set in a French Catholic boarding school, the film presents a world not unlike many we’ve seen before. But within this place lay hidden secrets that, when exposed, put a number of people in very real danger. And the most incredible thing about this: it really happened.
This film was the life-long goal of director Louis Malle. The filmmaker, who made a name for himself as being a part of the French New Wave movement, was haunted by the events that took place as he was a child attending le Petit-College d’Avon, a Catholic boarding school for upper-middle class boys outside of Fountainebleau. In 1944, Nazi soldiers entered the school and captured a number of Jewish students who were hiding there, along with the priest headmaster. Malle witnessed this event firsthand, and for the rest of his life carried it inside of himself. In a way, he felt compelled to make this movie, to deal with the tragedy head on. I can only imagine how the making of this movie affected him; to return to that school, walk those hallways and classrooms, to film on the actual places he once roamed as a child must have been incredibly moving, but very difficult as well. This school, which was once a place of education, religion, and friendship, was also a place of terrible acts by terrible men, and as I watched the film, I wondered just how much endurance Malle had to find within himself to make it.
Malle is represented by the character Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse). When the film opens, we see him at a train station, saying good-bye to his mother, Mme Quentin (Francine Racette), before returning to school. Julien comes from a wealthy but broken family. His mother loves him and his brother Francois (Stanislas Carre de Malberg), but his father is always absent, always “at work.” Julien is like many young boys—mischievous and playful. He runs a small-time black market system within the school, trading items as little as a jar of jam to the other boys. But this isn’t to say that Julien is bad kid, because he is not. He loves to read literature and is thoughtful and intelligent, even when busy roughhousing with the other kids. The school that he attends is made up of boys who are all a lot like him; they joke around, tease and make fun of each other, hide magazines with naughty pictures under their pillows and wrestle one another in a good-natured way. There’s something to say in the way all the kids are here; none of them really seem to be acting, almost as if Malle asked them to be themselves as he quietly turned the camera on to capture it all.
Into this world comes new student Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). Jean is a quiet, almost detached sort of a person, and early on is subject to some hostility from the other boys, as they make silly remarks about his name. Even Julien treats Jean with caution, warning him to stay out of his way. I was surprised by the accuracy with which Malle presented this aspect of the movie; I know I was a kid who both gave and received this treatment constantly. Notice when the boys tussle with each other, they do so almost with a smile on their faces. In an early scene we see two other kids walking on stilts, trying to knock each other down, but it’s never done in a malicious way. This all seems to be done to measure each other out, to see if one is able to keep up with the others and ultimately win their respect. Slowly but surely, Jean does so with Julien. I feel he does this subtly, in the way he shows his intelligence in the classroom, or his common interest in reading books, or the way he is able to play the piano exceptionally well. Perhaps Julien sees a little bit of himself in Jean, a friend who shares the same kind of qualities.
But almost immediately, curious things about Jean become noticeable to him. Julien sees Jean passing on certain foods during meal times, and he doesn’t participate in choir practice or reciting prayers. When communion is handed out during mass, the priest skips giving the bread to Jean and goes to the next person. He claims to have come from Marseilles, but doesn’t have an accent. The headmaster requests that Julien treat Jean with kindness, a request that Julien finds strange. Then, one night, Julien awakens to see Jean having his own candlelit vigil, reciting a prayer that is unknown to him. It’s revealed that Jean, along with a few others students, are actually of Jewish decent (Jean’s real last name is Kippelstein), and they’ve been brought to the school by the headmaster in an attempt to escape Nazi persecution. This is where things take a turn for both the film and for Julien himself. It’s interesting to think how simple and true a young kid’s perception of the world is. They ask honest questions that should have easy answers, but harsh realities don’t provide them. After learning that Jean is Jewish, Julien asks his brother “Why do we hate them?” to which his brother replies, “They’re smarter than we are, and they killed Jesus.” “But it was the Romans who killed Jesus,” Julien ponders.