Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Film Notes: Au Revoir les Enfants

Au Revoir Les Enfants, is Louis Malle's autobiographical film about a Roman Catholic boarding school in occupied Vichy France, in the latter years of WWII. The priests who ran the school not only sought to educate young Catholic boys in the faith - but also used the school as a place to hide Jews.

What impresses Au Revoir Les Enfants on the mind so forcefully is its intermingling of the ordinary and the dreadful, into a seamless whole. Malle manages to capture something of the way in which children view their own experience as 'normal' and 'unsurprising' when classmates being rounded up by Nazis is anything but.

The film provides some intriguing insights into life under Petain's regime, a part of WWII history rarely discussed, and features some excellent child-actors.

Much of the film is about the ordinary stuff of childhood in a boarding school, rivalries, fun, bullies, games, and is simply a nicely told childhood tale. All the time however, the nagging horror of the realities of life under Nazi occupation break into the normality, emerging from the shadows to centre stage - eventually smashing the ordinaryness to pieces. The thing that struck me as particularly sorrowful, was the way in which Malle pictured the Gestapo - clearly from his memories. So many war-films unwittingly present such characters as demonic, almost non-human figures, perhaps as a way of coping with the presence of human evil by seeking to externalise it, and make it only appear in ghoulish fantasy figures. The Nazi in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds who stalks France rounding up Jewish people, is perhaps a good recent example of this. However when the Gestapo come to Malle's school in this film, the appalling fact is that they looked so damn ordinary. The man in charge of the ghastly 'ethnic-cleansing', the local agent of evil itself, looked and spoke like a bored bank-manager. This was chilling. He wasn't a creature apart from us - he was one of us. Here is the Christian doctrine of fallen-humanity writ-large.

This film is a profound, moving and delicately told story, poignantly recording the way in which Hitler's 'final-solution' impacted one group of boys in a little school in rural France. Remarkably, Malle gives the viewer a child's perspective on the events - not in a clumsy, obvious way - but through this distressing collision of the ordinary and evil.

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