One thing Roman Polanksi and Louis Malle have in common is World War II. Polanski, a survivor of the Holocaust used The Pianist to express his understanding, and experience, of the Holocaust. Malle, a French child of wealthy parents, saw the holocaust in a different light. Au Revoir les Enfants, set towards the end of World War II, is located within a small, private, boy’s monastery-come-school - and is partly-based on Malle's own life. “Priests and children” are all that reside within the walls of this old, cold building. They are isolated from the violence and fighting. They are hidden from the (at this point) secret concentration camps. It is no surprise that, as the anti-Semitic agenda of Hitler’s army reaches France, monks and priests use their peaceful locale to shelter Jewish children. Louis Malle’s poignant and arresting film doesn’t attempt to tackle the broad scale and vast history of the holocaust to make his point, opting instead to lead our attention through the eyes of a child. Privileged and Catholic, his semi-liberal parents made the wise decision to ensure his (and his elder brothers) safety by sending them off to this educational establishment.
Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is an ordinary boy. He’s not particularly different to the chatty children that run around the playground today. Though kicking each other with stilts would be a little risqué in this modern day and age. He joins the rabble in bullying the new kid, Jean Bonnet (as in “Easter Bunny!” *chortle, chortle*). But his passing comments and jibes soon turn into interest as the headmaster asks him to be kind to Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö). His interest grows as, when the school is on high-alert, Jean is hidden away. In fact, a small group of boys are treated differently. At one point, Julien wakes up and witnesses Jean pray, with two small candles alongside his bed. The two boys bond together playing piano (and fancying the piano teacher). They read sordid tales of Arabian Nights and enjoy jars of homemade jam. Inevitably, the conflict closes in on the school and Jean’s true identity is revealed.
Malle’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up could be transferred to any age. The innocence that is lost when a child becomes an adult is ageless. Julien is a charming boy. Clearly he has friends, but he isn’t the gang-leader and so we can relate to him. He is curious about the world and is slowly forming his opinion as to what is right and wrong. But the time is fraught with unrest and this changes a generation. In a restaurant Julien, his family and Jean, witness two militia try to remove an older Jewish gentleman. The action of German soldiers (perhaps hoping to win the attention of the attractive mother) defending the man shape his conduct – as will the elder man’s proud silence. Additionally, it makes Julien aware of the dangers that lurk in the shadows against young Jean. Au Revoir les Enfants effortlessly depicts a climate whereby, outside the doors of the monastery, society is battling with itself. In the middle of war, the monk highlights the need to support one another, challenging the parents to use their money wisely to help those less fortunate. One Father walks out. The treatment of kitchen lackie Joseph too, will inevitably hold consequences. Julien simply soaks up these differing attitudes, and enjoys the company of his new found friend – but there is a dawning realisation that the world isn’t black and white.
Au Revoir les Enfants is an outstanding film, with a timelessness that justifies a renewed appreciation at the cinema. Marking the Holocaust Memorial Day, this is a reminder of the children who never had a chance to grow up. Those final moments, as a Gestapo officer (The inspiration for Christoph Waltz’s ‘Landa’ in Inglourious Basterds?) defines what a “proud German” is and we’re told the fate of the characters taken away, hits hard. And a brief narration sharply shifts into focus how close to our lifetime this happened. This is an important film, and without a single act of violence, manages to portray the brutality of war through the single tear of a young man.