Le Silence de la Mer Artwork by Mister G

Le Silence de la Mer

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville / Script: JPM (from a novella by ‘Vercors’) / Editing: JPM & Henri Decaë / DP: Henri Decaë / Score: Edgar Bischoff

Cast: Howard Vernon / Nicole Stéphane / Jean-Marie Robain / Ami Aaroé 


Silence is Golden…


In the beginning, came the occupation of France by a belligerent Germany in June 1940; a catastrophe that triggered a crisis of identity within the French people, as they came to terms with the demobilisation of their armed forces and the new realities of life, whether under direct German rule or the collaborationist ‘Vichy’ administration led by Marshall Pétain. Yet a significant minority were prepared to take ‘direct action’ to frustrate the enemy and, if necessary, die for the principles of freedom. Based in London, this movement became the foundation of France’s ‘Government in Exile’, led by General De Gaulle and a wellspring of well-trained & equipped Resistance fighters.

Under the pseudonym of ‘Vercors’, a member of the Resistance published a novella in 1942, entitled ‘Le Silence de la Mer’, or ‘The Silence of the Sea’. Originally printed – and distributed – clandestinely, it soon received an English translation (retitled ‘Put Out the Light’) and was republished in the UK, where it was read by Jean-Pierre Melville, an aspiring film-maker whose ambition had been postponed by more pressing concerns, e.g. his membership of a ‘Free French’ brigade. Undeterred, he vowed that when the war was over, he wanted to adapt and film the book as his debut feature.

This came to pass, though not without problems. For a start, on a practical level, Melville lacked any experience and/or accreditation from the powerful French film unions, so production proceeded on a shoestring budget and at a snail’s pace. Although the shoot lasted for just twenty-seven days, these were spread over eighteen months, reflecting the ebb & flow of his finances. Other problems lay in the cost of film stock. Although a processing lab was prepared to advance Melville sufficient funds to process the film, he struggled to afford new reels, so ended-up buying unused off-cuts discarded from other productions. Whilst it enabled the film’s production to stagger forward, it forced the actors to dispense with lengthy line-reads on-camera and instead, deliver their dialogue ‘in the moment’.

Melville was helped in this unusual process, by his brilliant DP Henri Decaë, whose background lay in conventional photography but who, like Melville, wanted to move into Cinema. So, the two men learnt on the job together, forming an enduring professional bond. Unable to afford additional lights or even reflectors, Decaë used natural lighting to great effect, using deep shadows to achieve Gestalt in many scenes. The first appearance of the German officer in a harsh, frontally-lit doorway makers him look almost spectral

I should also mention the relationship forged between Melville and the author, Vercors. At first, believing that his novella wouldn’t survive an adaptation for the screen, Vercors denied Melville any permission to adapt his work. This wasn’t surprising, as the novella is dialogue-heavy, comprising a First-Person account by the ‘Uncle’, that directly quotes the household’s uninvited guest. There’s little ‘action’ as such, making the piece often appear ‘stagey’ and overly verbose. Undeterred, Melville stuck to his vision and declared to Vercors that, if a ‘jury’ of 24 ex-Resistance fighters were to see the finished film and vote against its tone or spirit, then he’d ‘burn the negative’. Needless to say, he won-over the reluctant author and even got permission to shoot in Vercors’ own house; in the very room where the book was written! Despite Melville’s lack of financial backing, this was a substantial vote of confidence; needless to say, that no negative was ever burnt…

So, then, to the picture itself. I went into this with little idea, either of its subject or the context in which it was both made and released and, at first, I was impatient with the film. Impatient with its slow, measured pace. The drawn-out longueurs as the narrator drip-fed his tale. Then the stilted, one-sided dialogue. But, slowly, it began to work its magic on me…

In a nutshell, we have a German officer billeted in the country home of the uncle and his ‘Niece’ (we aren’t told their names). Over the course of six months, the officer relaxes in their company, speaking to them of his own (cultured & enlightened) views and how he believes that France & Germany should be viewed as equals in an arranged marriage, with each side benefitting in ways both obvious & subtle from their union. He even falls a little in love with the Niece and obliquely expresses the hope there might be a marriage there, too. However, a long-anticipated spell of leave in Paris quickly dispels such illusions in Lt. Werner von Ebrennac, as time spent in the company of other officers, some of whom were once-close friends, proves Germany’s true intentions. On his return to the house, tough decisions have to be made…

That’s about it, but what I haven’t told you, is that throughout the entire picture, the Niece speaks maybe two or three words and her Uncle, maybe two or three sentences. The rest of the time, Ebrennac is talking to them and receiving NO RESPONSE! This is their resistance: they can’t deny the officer a room, but they can deny him conversation… Even later on, when Ebrennac has moved on to speak of love felt for the Niece, he’s merely vocalising his infatuation with a living mannequin, as she’s neither engaged in conversation or even looked at him directly to that point.

Her Uncle’s barely more capable in that regard. In one memorable scene, he has to visit an administration building used by the Germans and encounters Ebrennac in the office, but neither man looks directly into the eyes of the other; instead they catch sight of each other in a mirror. Only Ebrennac can break away and stare directly at the Uncle: an act that appears excruciating for both.

What narrative guidance we get from the Uncle, comes courtesy of his own voiceover: he’s the book’s narrator. Everything is viewed through his eyes. What Ebrennac says and does. How he and his Niece behave towards him: everything is filtered through what MIGHT be an unreliable narrator. After all, we only have the Uncle’s word as to the authenticity of events, do we not?! Vercors wrote the novella in just this style and apparently insisted that Melville use its structure unchanged (no wonder that a few more experienced Directors thought it un-filmable).

And what does Ebrennac talk about? Mostly, about his deep-rooted love of France and its cultural heritage. A composer before the war, he’s a cultured man, who’s able to take a long view about the situation. While he doesn’t believe Germany will lose the war (at least outwardly), he gives the impression of believing that things will return to normal once it’s won: the ‘marriage of equals’ optimism I spoke of earlier. It’s this passion for La Belle Francais, that endears Ebrennac to his hosts, despite their unbowed, unspoken hostility. It’s the dichotomy of the ‘Good German’ vs. the ‘Bad Nazi’ at work within Ebrennac’s soul; a soul that succumbs to the latter, only when its naïveté is exposed… And by then, it’s too late for Ebrennac: he now knows the truth: rather than cohabit with France, The Reich wishes to suffocate it in its sleep…

The film is a true one-off, made by a young film-maker with nothing to lose and everything to gain, yet it’s because of this spirit, that it triumphs and breaks the mould of French Cinema: no wonder that later auteurs such as Chabrol, Truffaut, et-al, would cite both this film and its Director, as a critical marker in the development, in the Fifties, of the New Wave of French cinema. As a work of narrative, the film is slight at best, but what there is, revolves around recognising the little traits we have – the ‘tells’, if you will – that give us away; witness the moment when the Niece pricks her thumb when distracted by Ebrennac’s confession of love. It’s a tiny thing that wouldn’t make the cut in the vast majority of pictures, yet here it’s a crucial marker in revealing unspoken emotions. That Ebrennac also sees it – but doesn’t react – only feeds back into the mise-en-scéne.

While we’re on the subject of actors, the piece is obviously carried by the gaunt, imposing figure of Howard Vernon as Ebrennac who, irrespective of the uniform he wears, carries his burden with a quiet, assured dignity. It’s little surprise, that he would go on to forge a career as a mainstay of European ‘schlock’ horror. The near-mute Niece was played by the film’s producer, Nicole Stéphane, whose piercing eyes, held in riveting close-up formed an indelible image in my mind for days after watching the film. Her contemplative Uncle, was played by Jean-Marie Robain, an actor who’d contribute to future projects with Melville. Their spoken contributions might be small, but Melville knew what he needed from them: and got it at his first attempt.

So while the narrative might be slight, it’s an undoubted success as a film. As I said at the outset, its pacing was only a problem up to the moment I ‘got it’; once I understood that that was the picture, I could settle back and concentrate. In a film where little ‘happens’, there’s a lot to take-in. Nuance. Inflection. Allusion.

A masterful debut, then, as it turned-out. If things appear a little ropey at-times, one has to remember the harsh restrictions under which Melville was shooting, the fact he was using a tiny crew (comprised mostly of friends working ‘at-scale’, if not free) as well as interdictions from Vercors himself. Given all that on his shoulders, I think he achieved a minor miracle…

It’s a fine thing when a soldier ignores criminal orders.

Le Silence de la Mer  Triple Word / Score: Balanced / Stark / Idiosyncratic / Eight

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