Le Silence de la Mer (1949)

“At the crossroads, you hear ‘take this route’ .”

The French film La Silence de la Mer is set in occupied France in 1941. It’s the story of a German officer–Werner Von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) who is billeted with an elderly Frenchman and his quiet, plain niece. The Frenchman (Jean Marie Robain) and his niece maintain a wall of silence towards their unwelcome guest. They also feel strongly that the presence of the German officer shouldn’t inhibit or alter their lifestyle in any fashion. The German quickly catches on to the fact that his reluctant hosts resent his presence, and while he respects their position and their home, he also spends evenings revealing his private thoughts and motivations to his silent audience of two.

This is ultimately a very simple film made complex by its three main characters. Von Ebrennac is a cultured, intelligent man–a composer, and he respects and admires France’s culture. He imagines that WWII will conclude in a glorious “marriage” between Germany and France. Von Ebrennac, in spite of the reason for his presence gradually becomes less dehumanized to his hosts, and the uncle and his niece both anticipate and enjoy the time he spends with them each evening. They want to despise him–but from the moment Von Ebrennac enters their home–and the uncle notices that the German has an injured leg– hating the enemy is not very easy. But ultimately, Von Ebrennac is a German soldier, and the film doesn’t compromise at all with the choices the characters make.

I was drawn to this film because it was made just 2 years after the end of WWII, and I really wanted to see how the film-maker handled the presentation of the Occupation. This black and white film has no special effects–nonetheless, it doesn’t seem “dated” at all, and this is due to the very strong characters that hold the story together. Nearly all of the dialogue is from Von Ebrennac, and the story is narrated by the uncle. This really is an excellent film and well worth watching if you can find a copy of it. From director Jean-Pierre Melville.

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