Grading Historical Movies: Louis Malle’s “Au revoir les enfants” (1987)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The ninth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical 1987 film Au revoir les enfants.

Overall grade from 45 students:  A

 

Review One

By C.J. Carney

Grade:  A+

Au Revoir les Enfants reveals how French collaboration with the Nazis contributed to the pointless deaths of Jewish civilians in occupied France. Yet the messages in the film contribute to a more significant truth. The main message of the film is about prejudice; however, it’s also about finding friendship in dark places, the destruction of childhood, pointless death, guilt, and how one unthinking action can change a life forever. These messages illustrate a timeless truth in the film, which is that society needs to overcome prejudice and hate in order to thrive.

Au Revoir les Enfants is an autobiographical film based on the childhood events of its director, Louis Malle. As an 11-year old kid, he attended a Carmelite Roman Catholic boarding school where he witnessed three Jewish students and a priest being rounded up by the Gestapo and later deported to Auschwitz. The story follows Julien Quentin, Louis Malle’s proxy character, and a Jewish boy named Jean Kippelstein, who is under the alias Jean Bonnet, as they attend a Roman Catholic boarding school during the war and secrets about Jean’s past are revealed.

At the start of the new semester Jean Bonnet and two other Jewish boys are enrolled at the school, under new identities to keep them hidden from the Nazis. Julien is initially hostile toward Bonnet as he is just smart as him and is jealous of his ability to play the piano. Julien comes to the realization later in the film that Bonnet is Jewish when he is praying in Hebrew and wearing a Kippah while the rest of the children are asleep. After Julien realizes that Bonnet is Jewish the hostility between the two fades. They end up becoming close friends as they study together, play piano together, and bond over their love for literature. This conveys the message that true friendship can be found despite living in a dark reality and being different. Malle illustrates that difference shouldn’t matter, and that despite different economic and religious backgrounds two people can still become friends. This reflects the truth about how prejudice and hate need to end because they just cause suffering, which can be seen at the end of film as the friendship between Julien and Jean is taken away.

All these events occur amidst the horrors of World War II that Julien doesn’t really realize until the ending of the film. Joseph, the former kitchen helper, informs the Gestapo of the children hidden at the school after he is fired. This part of the film is the most significant highlight of the historical truth of French collaborators being responsible for the deportations and deaths of many Jewish civilians. As the Gestapo searches Julien’s class for Jean Kippelstein, Julien, unthinking, glances at his friend and later watches him be taken away. This goes to show how one unthinking moment can change a life forever and result in guilt for the rest of one’s life. Jean Bonnet ends up dying a pointless death just because of who he was, not for a crime like Joseph committed. As a result, Julien’s childhood ends forever with the interference adult world. The film illustrates a painful memory in which Julien discovers the horrifying reality that hate and evil do exist in the world. This discovery results in the loss of childhood and eternal trauma, not only for the character of Julien but for Louis Malle.

Au Revoir les Enfants is a heartbreaking narrative, which documents a very painful memory in the life of child. The sense of knowing that the ending is very bleak for Bonnet is utilized from his first appearance up to the wave goodbye at the end of the film. The rocky relationship that emerges into a friendship makes the reality of the world at the time even more real and the ending all the more heartbreaking. It also made it very easy to connect to Julien emotionally as the audience is placed in his shoes. Au Revoir les Enfants is a film that people can learn a lot from, not just about a historical truth, as there are definite lessons portrayed that can be applied in today’s society. The truth about society needing to overcome prejudice and hate is perhaps the most significant lesson of the entire film.

Review Two

By Paige Ross

Grade:  A

Au Revoir les Enfants, set in the winter of 1943-44 in Nazi-occupied France follows the story of Julien Quentin, a young student at a Carmelite boarding school, and his unlikely friendship with Jean Kippelstein, a Jewish student taking refuge at the school under a false surname. The film portrays the climate of occupied France subtly by utilizing interpersonal relationships and human connections to supersede the stereotypical notions and narratives of French life under the Nazis. Julien’s tentative and cautious friendship with Jean illustrates the fear on both sides to try to understand the other and the powerful ability of humanity to overcome fear and prejudice. The raw “truth” presented in Au Revoir les Enfants is that of people and their inherent natures, and perhaps even, the inherent goodness of people. The film is riddled with instances of people’s goodness and charity: Father Jean taking in the three Jewish students at immense personal risk in order to try to save their lives, Julien learning to accept and understand Jean, despite the fact that their lives have been radically different, the Quentin family taking Jean to dinner, and the attempt by some of those in the school to hide one of the Jewish students from the German soldiers, to name just four instances.

In addition to providing subtle truths about the nature of Nazi-occupied France, Au Revoir les Enfants illustrates the conflicts pertaining to class, religion, and the inherent innocence/naivety of children caught up in the issues of World War II. Against a backdrop of washed out colors and muted tones of grey and blue, the film depicts the sheltered and posh life of the wealthy students at the boarding school, as well as the place of God and religion in the context of war, fear, death, and the bleak unknown. Religion is an omnipresent force in Au Revoir les Enfants, and religious statues and symbols are present in a majority of the film’s shots. This element of the film speaks to French Catholicism and the role of God and virtues in everyday life. Lastly, the story presents the innocence of children and their inherent inability to understand hatred and prejudice. One of the most engaging verbal exchanges occurs early in the film between Julien and his older brother Francois wherein Julien cannot comprehend why such a vehement dislike of Jewish people exists (especially among his wealthy classmates). Julien asks his brother, “What have people got against them [Jews]?” To which Francois replies that they are smarter and crucified Jesus. On its base level, Au Revoir les Enfants is a story of friendship and understanding, a narrative about stepping into another’s shoes and walking around in them for a while. It is a story about the humanness of all people, and power of acceptance.

Review Three

By Adam Ring

Grade:  A+

The time period Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants was set in provides context for the entire mood of what is shown: this was an era filled with prejudice, anti-Semitism, and intense hatred. Director Louis Malle shows that not even young children are immune to these effects and does this by casting a set of young boys at a boarding school which doubles as an asylum for Jews. The movie masterfully invites the audience to ponder questions related to morality, faith loyalty, and blame. Through the eyes of initially naïve and innocent children, Malle shows them going about their everyday life until new boys arrive in the school, and then everything begins to change.

The first part of this film is rather uneventful: the audience is introduced to Julien Quentin, a young French Catholic boy from a rich family, who is returning to boarding school after winter break. Quentin is largely all talk, no action, and acts tough around the other boys. When “Bonnet” arrives, Quentin takes a peculiar interest in him, and the audience begins to see the signs of a little boy trying to figure out a puzzle that doesn’t quite add up.

While Bonnet never directly expresses fear in being caught, his demeanor reveals him as a quiet boy with much to hide. Quentin obviously knows something is up, and plays detective, slowly coming closer to the truth. Why does any of this matter? Mainly because it shows children trying to make sense of the unknown. This form of childhood innocence reflects an overall sense of French ignorance into just how stressful life was like being a Jew during this time. As shown in the scene at the fancy restaurant, French milice officers have no problem trying to remove a Jewish man from dining there…simply because he is Jewish. This raises so many red flags it is not even funny—France’s own military was actively involved in rounding up Jewish people. This invites the following question: were some of the French just as complicit in Jewish genocide as the Germans? Arguably so.

Meanwhile, Père Jean gives an incredible Homily to the students and parents during a Mass; he directly acknowledges this is a time of incredible hatred, and wealth and fear are causing French Catholics (supposedly holy and pious people) to murder and betray each other. It doesn’t take much to read into this to see Father Jean is referring to people of his own country treating Jews with disgust and contempt. Wealth and corruption are rampant: in the scene at the restaurant, Quentin’s mother comments that the Jewish man being harassed was “very proper”—which emphasizes his class before his personhood. In another scene, Père Jean refuses to expel the boys caught stealing food in fear of offending their wealthy parents. Finally, during the Homily, one man is apparently so offended at being called out that he makes a statement and leaves the Church.

The single saddest and lowest moment in the entire film comes when Joseph, the fired assistant-cook, betrays children, and alerts the Gestapo that the boarding school is housing three Jewish boys. Scenes like these reflect some of the lowest points in humanity: a grown man is willing to destroy the lives of children because he is bitter over getting fired. The fear, paranoia, hatred, and hypocrisy displayed here is overwhelming, and calls into question the role France had in the destruction of Jews.

The world often likes to think that Germans, and in particular, the Nazis, were the ones solely responsible for the mass Jewish genocide. While they definitely shoulder most of the blame, the fact remains that many other groups were not as innocent as many would imagine. Frenchmen were willing to betray their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters just to save their own skin, and this film did an excellent job pushing this message across. It features authentic characters, a realistic and meaningful plot, and manages to raise some serious questions about who is to blame in the mission to eradicate Jewish people from the face of the Earth.

Review Four

By Jill Titelbaum

Grade:  A

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a quasi coming-of-age story that beautifully illustrates the indifference and inequality during WWII in France. The director, Louis Malle, uses a child’s perspective and timing to achieve this. The story is shown from the perspective of preteen Julien Quentin. Julien hails from a wealthy French family and he and his older brother, Francois, attend a Catholic boarding school in rural France. The headmaster, Father Jean, smuggles in three Jewish boys and gives them fake identities. One of the Jews, Jean Bonnet, is placed in Julien’s class. The audience joins Julien as he explores the world around him and makes a new friend. His childlike curiosity serves to progress the plot.

 

Throughout the movie, Julien observes inequality, however he struggles to understand it. There are numerous close-up shots of Julien that show his inquisitive eyes. He also asks many questions. In one instance, he doesn’t understand why Jews are discriminated against so he asks his brother, “Francois, what’s a yid?.” He is not completely satisfied with Francois’ response and he studies Jean for more answers. In doing so, he realizes they’re more alike than not. In another scene, Joseph the poor kitchen assistant is caught stealing. Despite several students’ involvement, only Joseph is punished. Father Jean explicitly says they would’ve been expelled if it weren’t for their wealthy parents. Joseph calls out the injustice, but he is still fired.

 

Inequality goes hand in hand with indifference. Indifference is exposed through careful timing in the movie. Many scenes transition into scenes which emphasize the previous one. For instance, on Parent’s Day, Father Jean gives a harsh sermon condemning indifference and selfish privilege. The next scene is Julien, his family, and Jean dining in a fancy restaurant. At the restaurant, a Jewish patron, Mr. Meyer, is confronted by French police. The other patrons don’t protest until there is a commotion. A German officer finally sends the police out. The wealthy diners only acted when their peaceful meals were interrupted. They didn’t intervene to stop Jewish discrimination, suggesting that the wealthy strove only to maintain the status quo and were indifferent to people in need.

 

The closing scene powerfully utilizes both techniques. When the boys are lined up outside, the Gestapo asserts, “You must help us rid France of foreigners and Jews.” Just then the three Jewish students and Father Jean are lead out through the courtyard. Julien and Jean make eye contact and Julien gives a somber wave. The closing narration drives home the trauma of that experience: “Bonnet, Negus and Dupre died at Auschwitz; Father Jean at Mauthausen. […] More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”

 

Overall, Julien tries to make sense of his world. As a result, he witnesses the indifference and inequality which culminate with forsaken Joseph ratting out the Jews to the Gestapo. They are ultimately imprisoned and killed Au Revoir Les Enfants illustrates one of the many tragic consequences of indifference and inequality during WWII.

Review Five

By Bryce Hendrickson

Grade:  A

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a sobering reminder to French citizens of their complicity in the Holocaust. It functions both as a loose chronicle of Louis Malle’s childhood in occupied France, and an important vehicle for Malle’s conclusions about France and World War II. As we follow the protagonist, a young student named Julien at the academy, we feel some of the guilt, and confusion Malle feels about his own time under occupation. His fond memories of boarding school life are intertwined with the complications of race and class relations in France. After having 40 years of further perspective, Malle is able to choose certain memories and vignettes, some probably more factually truthful than others, to highlight certain aspects of French culture and emotions regarding the Vichy system and German occupation. Regardless of how genuine each of these memories are, they still communicate important emotional and metaphorical truths.

Through the eyes of a child we see the best and worst of French culture at the time.  Father Jean and other workers at the monastery risk their lives to protect three Jewish boys from persecution by the Nazis as well as their French collaborator. Meanwhile the other French adults actively hunt out French Jews or are completely apathetic to the fate of their Jewish citizens. Malle uses Father Jean to preach his message to the French people he feels didn’t do enough during the war. He accuses them of allowing wealth and power to blind them to the suffering and fear imposed on such a large group of their fellow men. Father Jean does this both through his sermon to the wealthy families of the students and through his reaction to the kitchen employee Joseph’s black market operation. Jean identifies that the war is a symptom of wealthy peoples’ lust for power and fear of speaking out against a system that has made them rich and comfortable. The film postulates that man has created a game of wealth and power for himself. That those in power will stay silent in order to maintain that power, and those who have no power will betray their fellow man the first chance they get if they are in a desperate enough situation.

These two polarized positions are exemplified by Julien’s mother, the Parisian socialite and Joseph, the poor kitchen worker at the monastery. Julien’s mother seems to be opposed to the war and the mistreatment of the Jews at least when they look like “fine enough gentlemen,” but she is unwilling to speak up against this kind of destruction even though she has the power and wealth to affect change. Joseph on the other hand has nothing. He is forced into a situation where he can either work outside the system in order to survive stealing from those who try to help him, or collaborate with the evil system to exploiting the heroes of the story just to stay alive. When we create divides in our society between the haves and have nots we allow evil to persist because people are either too afraid to give up their status to speak up, or they are so desperate to change status that they will betray their fellow man.

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