Ranking: #21/ 111

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville (France)  

Genre: War Drama

Le Silence de la Mer is a brilliant debut feature film by Jean-Pierre Melville, made shortly after he was demobilised from the French Resistance at the end of World War 2. The film positively crackles, sparkles and sizzles with a controlled intensity and an expressive vividness that could only have come from the camera of a director whose head and heart were still buzzing with fresh perceptions, unresolved emotions and traumatic memories from the war.

The film creates a microcosm for the whole occupation of France by Germany through the simple story of a German officer, Lieutenant Werner von Ebrennac, who is billeted to stay at the middle-class home of a retired man and his unmarried niece. The French hosts take a vow of silence not to speak to the unwelcome intruder. This sullen silence becomes a heavy, almost insidious, presence in the household, challenging the German to justify why he’s there in their home and, by implication, why his country is occupying France. The silence is so palpable, as they totally ignore him, that it becomes like a character, or perhaps even a ghost. Their silence is a subtle form of passive resistance.  Cleverly, Melville uses voice-over narration to let us hear the voice of the silent uncle.

The film is based on a novella by French journalist and illustrator, Jean Bruller. When Germany invaded France, a cultured German officer was billeted to Bruller and his wife in their home outside Paris. A fascinating aspect of Melville’s recreation of this true story is that it was mostly shot inside Bruller’s own home to add a unique layer of authenticity.

It will forever be an irony of film history that what Melville originally conceived of as an “anti-cinematic” film, in that nothing much on the surface happens in a household engulfed by silence, turned into a timeless work of cinematic art. Instead of action and dialogue, there is the mute aloofness of the hosts’ passive resistance and Von Ebrennac’s intriguing monologues, as he tries to break the silence that’s suffocating him. Just as Sidney Lumet transcended the confines of shooting virtually the entirety of Twelve Angry Men in one small jury room, so Melville counterbalances these “anti-cinematic” characteristics of Le Silence de la Mer by subtly conveying what is happening inside the minds of his characters.

Using incisive psychological realism, he has created a moving, humanised, nuanced portrait of the experience of war-time oppression, as it affects both the oppressor and the oppressed. Von Ebrennac is fleshed out as a man with a soul through flashbacks and through discussions with his fellow officers which reveal that his idealistic view of Nazism is naïve, given that the overall sentiment of these fascist invaders is that they want to crush the spirit of the French through cultural and military domination. The German officer emerges as a complex, cultured but compromised individual, just as caught up as his hosts are in historical forces over which they have no control. His torn loyalties, inner turmoil and moral despair are subtly and touchingly conveyed.  There is tremendous pathos in the end, after his dream of an alliance between France and Germany has been shattered and he arranges, in an almost suicidal gesture, to be transferred from Paris to the Eastern front. When he announces this to his hosts, saying he’s leaving in the morning, he bids them “adieu” and the niece finally breaks her silence, in a resounding gesture of mutual human respect between “enemies”, as she says “adieu” in return.

What memorable acting from Howard Vernon as Werner von Ebrennac, Nicole Stéphane as the niece and Jean-Marie Robain as the uncle!

The theme of this moody, thoughtful movie, enacted so effectively by the three main characters, is estrangement – the alienation of the civilised from the amoral forces of war. In that sense, it’s overwhelmingly an anti-war film. In Le Silence de la Mer, Melville’s treatment of war is as uncompromising as it is subtle and original.

The way an “anti-cinematic” film, then, evolved into a new style of cinema, rooted in a sparse form of realism, in which camera angles and lighting can convey meaning instead of dialogue, influenced not just the French New Wave but Robert Bresson himself, whose Dairy of a Country Priest, for example, is seen by many as Melvillian.