The Silence of the Sea, a 1949 film by Jean Pierre Melville, may be one of the strangest war movies ever made. Faithful in tone and storyline to a short underground novel * of the same name, which was clandestinely distributed during the Nazi occupation of France in 1942, it is almost entirely shot in a single sitting room in a small rural house south of Paris. The two occupants, a late-middle aged man and his niece, a twenty-something young woman, are the involuntary hosts of a German officer.  As he, and his army, are unwelcome, they do not welcome him.  They do not speak for the entire length of the movie.

They do not speak to him.  For us there is some voice-over from the uncle, filling in with observations and reflections.  We never hear the voice of the niece even as she grows to be the object of our attention, and that of the officer, Werner Von Ebrennac (played by the Swiss-American actor, Howard Vernon, who with his Nordic good-looks spent much of his career playing Nazi officers.) Despite their silence he comes down from his bedroom every evening  to spend some time before the fire and, it seems, to be in the company of others to whom he can reveal himself and his great admiration of France — her authors and contributions to human culture.  Germany has her composers, France her authors.  It is his wish, as he tells them, that Germany will “marry” France and a great and fruitful relationship will live.

He ends each evening’s discourse with a respectful, “I wish you a good night,” to which they never respond.  In fact, not only do they never return his words, they do not track him in anyway, with their eyes, or until almost the end, the smallest gestural change of their set faces.  Though it’s odd to watch this in a movie –which are synonymous with the magnification of facial emotions–  by imagining ourselves to be one of the two listening night after night to a man who expresses his hopes for friendship and shared values while maintaining an absolutely impermeable barrier between speaker and listener, we will understand the force of will necessary, and which the author was recommending in the war-time novel.

The choice of noncooperation with the enemy is a brave one in any event though at first glance it would seem not much was being risked with a man of such romantic and non-belligerent character.  He never makes demands, threatens, shows scorn or contempt or even raises his voice.  In fact, except for the first several nights, and the last, he does not appear in uniform.  He is a handsome, cultured, softspoken “guest” who doesn’t share his fellow soldier’s relation to the French.  It turns out however, that  this is precisely the point. Getting along in such an occupation is easy.  Resistance requires strength.

For most French — Jews excluded– life in 1941 France was not one of nightly fear, daily roundups, arrest, torture or death.  Though Germans were seen, the governing forces were largely fellow Frenchmen of the Vichy regime.   For many life was close to as comfortable as it had ever been.  And this was the crux of the problem for the Resistance. Under such conditions the visceral element of resistance disappears.  Without thought and mental toughness, “getting along” with the occupier is the easiest course — and one which many took.

As  Von Ebrennac spends time with them he expresses his love for France, and ever so subtly for the niece representing her.  He becomes less viscerally an enemy. In fact there is a kind of wooing.  Yet they persist in their silence  — a clear reminder from Vercors (psueodnym for Jean Bruller ) that being wooed under occupation is an occupation first.  Before warmth can be repaid with warmth the occupation must be ended, even — and especially– when it was comfortable and nonthreatening.

Von Ebrennac eventually gets a week’s leave and goes to Paris, the city of his dreams.  He tours around, in shots of an almost deserted city, pausing before the great and iconic buildings and monuments.  In conversations with his fellow officers  he soon realizes that they hold none his exalted views of France.  Even a long-time friend, with whom he shared books and ideals in their youth, thinks it is Germany’s duty to clean up and expunge French decadence and filth.   Von Ebrennac is horrified.  Returning to collect his things at the couple’s home, he appears again in uniform to bid them farewell.  He has requested a fighting post on the Eastern Front –Russia– as he says, “in Hell.”

Bruller was still alive when Mellville began shooting the film in 1949 — without permission.  It is reported that a meeting between the two allowed him to proceed and that Vercors loved the film when it appeared.

The Silence of the Sea was one of Melville’s first movies and one of three he filmed about the war in France.  Léon Morin, Priest was released in 1961 [review] and Army of Shadows in 1969 [review].  He is best known for noirish French detective films such as Bob le Flambeur (1956) or Le cercle rouge  (1970)

Though many of the above are available in NetFlix The Silence of the Sea is not.  With some searching you  should be able to locate a streaming or rentable copy. For those who believe in noncooperation with evil, this is a necessary film to see.

* The novel is followed in great detail by the film, though it is even more constrained by place.  The film allows some shots of Ebrennac in Paris and in the conversation with his fellow officers that disabused him of his romantic Francophile wishes;  in the book these are recounted to the man and his niece by a distraught Ebrennac. And, as it is he recounting them in his own voice, the impression especially on the young woman, are powerful:

His eyes opened very wide, as if at the spectacle of some appalling murder: “They’ll do what they say!” he cried, as if we wouldn’t have believed him.  “They’ll do it systematically and doggedly.  I know how those devils stop at nothing.”

He shook his head like a dog with a bad ear.  A murmur came from between his clenched teeth, the plaintive, passionate moan of a betrayed lover.

I would say that the growing tenderness between the niece and the officer are more apparent in the book than the movie though in part that may be because a text allows one to stop, and re-read, and contemplate, while a film keeps advancing frame by frame.

I thought that he was going to close the door and go; but not at all.  He was looking at my niece.  He looked at  her, and said, or rather whispered,  “Adieu.”

He did not move; he remained quite motionless, and in his strained and motionless face were the most strained and motionless things of all, for they were bound to other eyes — too wide open, too pale — the eyes of my niece.  That lasted and lasted– how long?– lasted right up to the moment when at length the girl moved her lips.  Werner’s eyes glistened.  I heard:

“Adieu.”

The Oxford/Berg edition of The Silence of the Sea in the original Cyril Connolly translation also has useful historical and literary introductions by Lawrence Stokes and James Brown.

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