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SILENCE OF THE SEA, THE (LE SILENCE DE LA MER)(director/writer/editor: Jean-Pierre Melville; screenwriter: based on a story by Vercors; cinematographer: Henri Decaë; cast: Howard Vernon (Werner Von Ebrennac), Nicole Stéphane (The Niece), Jean-Marie Robain (The Uncle), Ami Aaröe (Werner’s fiancée); Runtime: 95; Water Bearer Films; 1947-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Melville’s film is stimulating and perplexing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A German lieutenant, Werner Von Ebrennac (Vernon), is stationed in France during the time of the occupation and moves into the rural village cottage of an elderly, scholarly gentleman (Robain) and his niece (Nicole). They take a vow of silence toward the German intruder, sitting by their fireplace night after night when the officer returns from his duty, never saying a word to him during his entire stay. The officer never shows his animosity as he uses their silence to fill in details in his diary about what he is thinking: his love of music, his life story, the girl he almost married, his love of French culture, and his belief that this occupation will be good for both countries. He says it will be like a marriage. His political naivety (in civilian life he is a musical composer) and his underestimation of the evil government he represents, comes to light when he meets with close friends who are in Paris to negotiate the political arrangement between the two countries. It is then that he is shocked into realizing the barbaric designs his government has to reduce the world to be submissive to a dominant Germany, the aim to rip the soul out of each country it conquers. His more benevolent ideas, for the mutual countries to co-exist, are sneered at by his cultured German friends. Fed up with this, but resigned to the fact that there is nothing he could do about it, he volunteers for duty in the war zone.

The old man has left a copy of one Anatole France’s books out for him to see just as he leaves for the front, the quote reads: “That it is a soldier’s duty to disobey a criminal order given by his superiors.” The niece also yields a muffled “adieux”, that he might have heard, but does not respond to. That he leaves just at a time when they are questioning if their silence was the right thing to do, adds an argument that Melville might have been particularly interested in by showing that all parties have to get rid of their hatreds before they can communicate with each other to extract any positive results.

This film was made so close to the end of the war, that it seems to be trying desperately and as intelligently as it can to understand what went through the minds of those who participated in those infamous days of occupation and show how it is possible to begin a healing process between such sworn enemies. It captured the climate in France during the war and the humiliations the French went through in the hands of their captors.

The Nazi Holocaust and its diabolical war machine, were subjects not broached in any of the officer’s soliloquies with the couple held hostage in their own home. How would he have treated them if they were Jews, remains unanswered.

But it is through this officer that Melville symbolized the best of Germany’s intentions, offering some hope for the world to have a saner future.

What happened in that occupied house was a one-way dialogue, with silence winning and losing. Winning because there was no other way to conduct oneself with dignity when your enemy takes over your homeland, as the dignity of those who formed the Resistance Movement is undoubtedly honored by Melville for the rightful stand they took. Melville was in real-life a member of that Movement. But the silence also signals a losing, because silence means you can’t voice what is in your heart and mind and by remaining silent it can be interpreted as a tacit acceptance of defeat and an unwillingness to call out for what is right.

In the end, the German officer understood how hopeless it was to believe that his Nazi government could help mankind and by volunteering to fight for such a lost cause was committing suicide.

Melville’s film is stimulating and perplexing, open to wide speculation, yet it is simple in tone and in human spirit. It gave me chills to watch how natural it all seemed; firstly, because the protagonists were so real and the situation was so menacing; and, secondly, everything happens in such a matter of fact way, enhanced by being shot in the harsh and convincing tones of black-and-white, giving the serene cottage setting a certain disquiet with the dark sea in the background.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’s World Movie Reviews”