Le Silence de la Mer, Blu-ray (1949/2015)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Howard Vernon, Nicole Stéphane, Jean-Marie Robain
Based on book by: Jean Bruller (Vercors)
Studio: Gaumont/Janus/ The Criterion Collection 755 [4/28/15]
Video: 1.33:1 for 4:3 1080p HD b & w
Audio: French & German PCM mono
Extras: Melville’s short 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946), New interview in English with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, Code Name Melville – a 76-min. 2008 documentary on Melville’s connections to the French Resistance, Melville Steps Out of the Shadows – a 42-min. 2010 documentary about Le Silence de la Mer, 1959 interview with Melville, Printed booklet with essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a sel. from a book on Melville
Length: 87 min.
Melville took a huge chance on the making of his first film. It is based closely on an influential underground novel written during the Nazi occupation of France and much honored by the French Resistance. He could not get permission originally from the author to make the film, so promised that he would stick close to the original novel and subjected the making of the film to a vote by a group of 24 French Resistance members. Which, if they would not approve of it, he would burn the negative and destroy the film. All but one voted to let him do it and he even ended up using the living room of the author in which to shoot most of the film. He also made the film independently – totally out of the French film industry – using bits of various film stock he could get, a non-union crew paid very little, and with the aid of a helpful film processor.
A cultured and idealistic German officer who is a composer outside of the military is billeted in the home of an older man and his grown niece. They have decided not to speak at all to the officer, and most of the dialog thus comes from the officer. He reveals great respect for France and its cultural figures, and has a vague idea of a “new dawn for Europe” – of a union between Germany and France. He seems to be talking to himself; the niece, especially, never even looks at him. The two never respond to him. (The uncle is heard in voice-over at the beginning and end of the film.) But then the officer visits Paris and learns his fellow officers intend to rule France militarily and to forever destroy its spirit. He also learns about the Treblinka mass killing camp. He returns to the house and arranges to be transferred to the front, submitting to the military machine against which he cannot rebel.
The acting of all three is perfect; though of course there’s no dialog to learn on the part of the uncle and the niece. It’s a surprising work, in that the central Nazi character (in this film made just after the war years) is not demonized, but presented more as a plea for understanding. This eerie bit of elegant minimalism led the way to later Melville films about the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation, and about gangsters – which weren’t that different in many ways. It also influenced many French New Wave filmmakers.