Out of the many titans of French film, I found a personal favorite in Jean-Pierre Melville. Aside from changing his name in honor of the American author who wrote about the great white whale, Melville was also a member of the French Resistance during WWII. Thus, he seems to be the perfect man to helm a film based on a novel that was secretly published during the Nazi occupation. You would think that it would be brimming with political agenda and underhanded controversy.
Instead, Melville gifts us a nuanced and sympathetic film about a German Lieutenant who is quartered in the home of a French gentleman and his young niece. In many ways, much of the story plays out as an extended monologue rattled off by Werner von Ebrennac, and it becomes the perfect narrative device for an intimate character study. He is met by silence and passive aggression from his hosts, who hate his guts and the situation they have been placed in. He represents everything they despise, and his mere presence also reminds them of the shameful fact that France has fallen.
And yet he is far from the stereotype, and Melville never allows this German Lieutenant to succumb to our preconceptions. This has to be one of the most sympathetic depictions of a German soldier ever seen captured on film. It turns out that Ebrennac is a perfect gentleman, cultured in literature (Moliere, Rascine, Cervantes, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe), and a seasoned musician. His head is full of romantic ideals about the reviving of France as it is taken under the wing of its new conqueror.
His words are always met with a quiet contempt as uncle and niece continually sit reading and knitting. It never seems to change or stop. There is never a change in temperate or a word spoken. Just the words of Ebrennac every evening after he gets back and the voice-over of the older gentlemen constantly illuminates us about the unspoken workings of his mind.
Soon, however, the Lieutenant learns the reality of the war from Treblinka to the Nazi ideology pervading the psyche of all the German military. Friends have been brainwashed, and his view of the German war is completely dashed. There is nothing left to do but apply for a transfer and resign himself to the hell that has been created. Uncle and niece reluctantly bid farewell to a man who was the exception.
This was Jean-Pierre Melville’s first feature, but I really enjoyed it as simple as it is. He seems to understand the ambiguities of war. It often is difficult to decipher who is in the right or the wrong. Germany was the odious villain and France the obvious victim. However, in this domestic drama the tables are seemingly switched in stark contrast.