There is a moment in one’s life especially in the growing up times as a child, and their spontaneous words or actions take a diverse turn that could cost lives, and war winds the terrible effect, ignorance, bigotry and loss of innocence. Yes, ‘Au revoir les enfants’ is one such true story directed by the famous French men Louis Malle, who based this story on his own painful child memories.
The tittle in English means Goodbye. ‘Au Revoir les Enfants’ is a small-scale version of the French experience under Nazi occupation set at a Catholic boy’s boarding school. There is an immense and emotional honesty as a storyteller from Louis Malle. The movie tells the story of a young 12 year old boy named Julien. The movie is set in the winter of 1943-44, Julien Quentin, a student at a Carmelite boarding school in occupied France, returns to school from vacation. Julien is a boy who likes to be tough with the other students in the school, and at home is still a mama’s most pampered boy wets his bed. Saddened to be returning to the monotony of boarding school, Julien’s classes seem uneventful until Pere Jean, the headmaster, introduces three new pupils. One of them, Jean Bonnet, is the same age as Julien. Like the other students, Julien at first scorns Bonnet, a socially awkward boy with a talent for arithmetic and playing the piano.
One night, Julien wakes up and discovers that Bonnet is wearing a kippah (platter-shaped cap, worn by Jews) and is praying in Hebrew. After digging through his new friend’s locker, Julien learns the truth. His new friend’s name is not Bonnet, but Jean Kippelstein. Pere Jean, the teacher a very compassionate priest of the old school, agree to grant a secret asylum to hunted Jews. There comes a game of treasure hunt, where Julien and Jean bond and a close friendship develops between them.
When Julien’s mother visits on Parents’ Day, Julien asks his mother if Bonnet, whose parents could not come, could accompany them to lunch at a gourmet restaurant. As they sit around the table, the talk turns to Julien’s father, a factory owner. When Julien’s brother asks if he is still for Marshal Pétain, Madame Quentin responds, “No one is anymore.” However, the Milice arrive and attempt to expel a Jewish diner. When Julien’s brother calls them, “Collabos,” the Milice commander is enraged and tells Madam Quentin, “We serve France, madam. He insulted us.” However, when a Wehrmacht officer coldly orders them to leave, the Milice officers grudgingly obey. Julien’s mother comments that the Jewish diner appears to be a very distinguished gentleman. She insists that she has nothing against Jews, but would not object if the socialist politician Léon Blum were hanged. (Refer to the character Leon Blum is 1930’s a leftist activist and anti-Nazi campaigner)
Shortly thereafter, Joseph, the school’s assistant cook, is exposed for selling the school’s food supplies on the black market. He accuses several students as accomplices, including Julien and his brother, François. Although Pere Jean is visibly distressed by the injustice, he fires Joseph but does not expel the students for fear of offending their wealthy and influential parents.
On a cold morning in January 1944, the Gestapo raids the school. As his classroom is being searched, Julien unintentionally gives away Bonnet by looking in his direction. As the other two Jewish boys are hunted down, Julien encounters the person who denounced them, Joseph the kitchen hand. Trying to justify his betrayal in the face of Julien’s mute disbelief, Joseph tells him, “Don’t act so pious. There’s a war on, kid.” As the students are lined up in the school courtyard, a Gestapo officer denounces the illegal nature of Pere Jean’s actions. He further accuses all French people of being pathetic and undisciplined. Meanwhile, Pere Jean and the three Jewish students are led away by the officers. Heartbroken, the children call out, “Au revoir, mon père!” Père Jean responds, “Au revoir, les enfants! À bientôt!”
The film ends with an older Julien providing a voiceover epilogue- “Bonnet, Negus and Dupre died at Auschwitz; Father Jean at Mauthausen. The school reopened its doors in October. More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”
Watching ‘Au Revoir les Enfants’, you can find the artistic effort and Malle’s work was so different- The opening exchange between Julien and his mother in the railway station underscore the link between the attractive mother and son, a sexual awakening from the boy in his insistence on staying, and a playfulness on the part of the mother in responding to what she knows is the product of hormones and of nature taking its course.
Malle builds the narrative in such a way that Juliens’ situation is that of the viewer, as his eyes are slowly opened to what is going on around him, we are equally informed. This adds a layer and the space of building suspense is exceptional and Malle’s ability to separate complex political and personal themes throughout the story. The casual racism of the playground is never far from the surface, “you’re a real Jew'” is a response and retort to a trading game amongst the boys. “They’re smarter than us and crucified Jesus” is the answer Julien gets from his older brother, François, when he asks “what’s a Jew”? The public baths have a sign ‘No Jews Allowed’ and the local collaborator who works at the school tells Julien ‘Jews and Communists are worse than Germans’. Earlier in the film indicate German soldier appear at the school seeking a priest for confession, and Jean and Julien were both saved from an overnight sojourn in the woods by a pair of Nazi’s who returned the scared schoolboys safely, “We Bavarians are Catholics too”, said by one of the German soldiers. This is the context to which Julien embrace his friendship with a boy he now knows is Jewish
The movie shows a close complicity at some instance of Catholic France with the Nazi’s anti-Semitic agenda in more than couple of circumstances, which in itself is ironic to the fact with the Catholic priest trying to help these boys. As a kindness Jean is taken to a restaurant during Julien’s mothers visit, and the Vichy militias arrive to harass an elderly Jewish man. “Are we still for Petain”? François asks, “No one is these days”, replies the vaguely bored mother, as if she’s changing fashions with the seasons. The fuss with the old Jewish diner, “Send all the Jews to Moscow” shouts one diner, causes François to berate the ‘collaborators’, who then turn their gaze onto his table, which includes Jean, the furore is quashed by a Nazi officer, in equal part disgusted by the spineless, collaborating militia but also out to impress the stylish Madam Quentin. “Are we Jews”? Jean asks his embarrassed mother, who goes on to proclaim that she has nothing against the Jews, “although they can hang that Léon Blum”.
Louis Malle gives a tender, nostalgic recollection of those spells, touching the past, infusing the relationships with real warmth. The things that unite Jean and Julien are greater than the things that separate them. Julien, as is Jean, is a boy on the cusp of adulthood, having to accommodate some terrifying realities into his daily life, betrayal and collusion are all around him, as well as the ever present threat of forms of humiliation and violence, physical from the occupiers, and mental from his own peers. The boys struggle with puberty, reading aloud erotic passages from ‘The Arabian Nights’, a subtle allusion to the beauty the Arab cultures have to offer to a young Jewish or Catholic person. Malle scores the piece with mostly haunting and ascetic classical pieces, but a marvelous moment occurs when Jean and Julien are together at the piano when everyone else is in an air raid shelter, and the pair prefer the duet, but on an astounding unity, The laughter is beautiful and real as the pair consolidate their friendship in a welter of white and black notes.
Malle displays the end of the film in a very overwhelming and appalling style. Sometimes this reminds me of Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’, the famous freeze frame, as Julien confronts a life forever changed by this event. This film is hauntingly beautiful and tender. ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ has been a worthy hit all over the world, and the next to last of Malle’s French film made three films before his death in 1996. His popular films were ‘Ascenseur pour l’échafaud’ (1958),’ Lacombe Lucien’ (1974), ‘Atlantic City’ (1980), ‘My Dinner with Andre’ (1981), and ‘Au revoir, les enfants’ (1987) being one and possibly his greatest cinematic achievement.
Earlier in his career, he had best of accolades with ‘Le Monde du silence’, which won the Palme d’Or and Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1956. He was also nominated multiple times for Academy Awards later in his career. ‘Au revoir les enfants’ won the Golden Lion award at the 1987 Venice Film Festival. At the 1988 César Awards, it won in seven categories, including Best Director, Best Film and Best Writing. It was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay at the 60th Academy Awards. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1988 Golden Globe Awards.
Louis Malle in his interview had said that he wanted to make this film a long time ago, but could not find the strength. The film is not a direct parallel to the real events, but perhaps more a parallel to Malle’s memories and guilt about the incidence. The end result on film is a stunningly beautiful and incredibly touching portrait of friendship, grim childhood memories, guilt, frustration and anger and it must have worked wonders for Malle as an exorcism of his past.
- Written, Produced & Directed by Louis Malle
- Casting: Gaspard Manesse; Raphael Fejtö; Philippe Morier-Genoud & Francine Racette
- Music by Schubert Saint-Saëns
- Cinematography by Renato Berta
- Editing by Emmanuelle Castro
- Distributed by Orion Classics (USA)
- Release dates: 29 August 1987 (premiere at Venice Film Festival, Italy)
- Running time:104 minutes
- Country: France & West Germany
- Language: French & German