Words are not how the characters of Jean-Pierre Melville primarily communicate. Instead, they make their statements through distinct gestures: donning white gloves, lighting up a cigarette, and, of course, drawing guns from trenchcoat pockets. Best known for his taut, labyrinthine policiers in the ’60s, through his films Melville crafted a distinctly bleak moral universe, one where, to use the words of Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Le doulos, the director’s best noir, everyone “ends up a bum or full of lead.”
Silence is a common element in Melville’s cinema as well. Le samouraï, perhaps his most famous policier, features a protagonist who speaks rarely, and when he does it’s in tight-lipped, curt sentences. The stretches of silence in Melville’s gangster pictures, however, are often punctuated with tense chases or gunfights; after all, in the world of film noir, someone has to get shot. This feature also plays out in what many consider to be his masterpiece, the 1969 French Resistance tale L’ Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows), which upon its re-release in 2006 was deemed by many critics to be the best film of its year. (The film had long been unseen after it was suppressed in France in 1969, when many in France felt that it was sympathetic to the then-unpopular Charles de Gaulle.)
Army of Shadows shows the extreme tactics that Resistance fighters had to resort to in the name of preserving the secrecy of their network. The story opens with a man called Gerbier (the stone-faced Lino Ventura) strangling a fellow Resistance member after finding out he had betrayed him. The manner in which Gerbier and his comrades operate in hiding in the Shadows of the movie’s title is not unlike the maneuvers made by the fedora-sporting criminals in Melville’s crime pictures like Le doulos and Le deuxième souffle.
Although the austere nature of La silence de la mer, Melville’s directorial debut, is in line with the minimalism seen in his later work, it’s distinct in that silence is the primary mode of power negotiation. There are no guns fired here. No informants are strangled in dark rooms. The characters do not sport the gangster’s uniform (trench coat and fedora) so essential to the Melville aesthetic. In contrast to characters like Le samouraï‘s Jef Costello (Alain Delon), who is silent because he wants to be, two of the key figures in La silence de la mer, simply identified in the script as the Uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and the Niece (Nicole Stéphane), are silent because they must be.
La silence de la mer was adapted by Melville from the novella of the same name, written by the journalist and clandestine wartime publisher Jean Bruller, who published the book under the pseudonym Vercors. The story, taken from Vercor’s own experience, centers on the aforementioned Uncle and Niece who, during the German occupation of France in World War II, are quartered by a German officer. While they do not resist his dictates, they both agree to not speak a word to an officer, thereby offering him a place to stay but refusing hospitality. The officer, named Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), recognizes what they are doing not long into his stay.
Curiously, von Ebrennac does not attempt to coerce them into speaking with him, in the way one might expect a Nazi to do. Instead, he joins the family by their fireside every evening, and gives lengthy monologues about his life, spanning his childhood to his infatuation with French culture. Every night, a little battle is staged in the Uncle’s house: von Ebrennac speaks eloquently about his life, while the Uncle and the Niece sit quietly, remaining about their business, listening but not acknowledging the officer. This arrangement goes on night after night, always concluding with the same line from the officer: “I bid you good night.”
There’s a tension in this ongoing war of silence mounted by the Uncle and the Niece. On the one hand, their refusal to engage with him as they would with another human being is a poetic act of defiance, perhaps the most meaningful act they could perform, given the rigid impositions placed upon them by the occupying Germans. However, by the end of La silence de la mer, the daily routine of von Ebrennac speaking to them at length without reply becomes normal, such that the initial power of resistance is put into question. Just as their allowing of the officer in their home does not mean they are truly accepting him, his presence does not ultimately function as an act of dominance.
This in part is owed to von Ebrennac’s genuine love of French culture. Despite being part of the murderous Nazi regime, he actually wishes to have French and German culture reunited, such that the best parts of each magnify each other. This comes from the real life basis of the story in Vercors’ own life; upon discovering that the officer he was forced to accommodate kept a bust of Pascal in his room rather than a portrait of Hitler, Vercors knew he was dealing with a different kind of person. At first, von Ebrennac doesn’t realize just how different he is, but one fateful visit to Paris changes his entire perspective.
Upon arriving in the City of Lights, he discovers that none of his fellow German officers share his appreciation for French culture. They, in fact, intent to destroy not just French morale, but also the society that they have occupied. Whereas von Ebrennac believes he can have German dominance with French culture, his counterparts only see the former. Upon returning to the home of the Uncle and the Niece, the silence of the two takes on another dimension: no longer a mere act of resistance, it’s also foreshadowing for what will come should the Nazis successfully take over.
When von Ebrennac returns to the Uncle’s house, his demeanor changes significantly. No longer is he the awkward houseguest, free to speak at the cost of never receiving a reply. He becomes instead the betrayed soldier, someone fighting for a cause far bigger — and far more evil — than he ever realized. Not long after his return from Paris, he volunteers himself to be a soldier on the frontlines: an act of suicide in the guise of loyalty to his country. Rather than rebel against Hitler, he actively seeks to punish himself for the wrong he has been complicit in.
These realizations are resounding and powerful as staged in La silence de la mer. Only von Ebrennac speaks at any length, but much is said in the silent, defiant posture of the Uncle and the Niece, enough that simple household exchanges carry the gravity of wartime skirmishes. As von Ebrennac, Vernon delivers a stunning performance, one that begins in terror and ends in utter defeat. Many of Melville’s shots enhance the officer’s image as an agent of Nazi evil; in particular, those shots where von Ebrennac is depicted against a pitch black background, his severe facial features exuding a totalitarian strength, form a stark contrast to his mood when he returns from Paris. By the end of the film, what power he thought he had is undermined by the power he actually has: the power to end an entire culture. Although von Ebrennac thought he could conquer and preserve culture, in the end he has to choose one. Ultimately, he chooses a hidden third option, his only escape: death.
Melville’s austere filmmaking style is enhanced by his fidelity to Vercors’ novel. La silence de la mer opens with a shot of a man leaving a briefcase for another man to pick up; upon opening it, the other man finds the novella buried beneath a layer of clothing. When the film concludes, the final shot shows the last page of the novella. Melville even shot the movie in Vercors’ actual home. This loyalty to the original narrative is no doubt tied to Melville’s recognition of the importance of the French Resistance, which he himself was a part of. As he put it in an interview with Rui Nogueira, included in the Criterion Collection’s astounding reissue of the film, Vercors’ La silence de la mer “virtually served as a bible during the war.”
In Resistance tales like Melville’s Army of Shadows, it often feels as if the inhumanity of the Nazis forces the worst out of Resistance fighters, as when those fighters have to brutally kill traitors out of strict loyalty codes. La silence de la mer, though, is a reminder that at the core of Resistance there was a hope, one that remained intact even during the toughest of times.
When von Ebrennac says goodbye to the Uncle and the Niece for the last time, there is a long, tense delay, after which the Niece faintly whispers, “Adieu.” In this way, La silence de la mer is a microcosmic depiction of a war beginning and ending: an invasion occurs, the occupied peoples resist, and in the end, when the evil is finally gone, there’s still hope on the part of the resisting parties that things will get better. The Uncle and the Niece both know the evil that von Ebrennac has wrought, but they also know that he’s caught up in machinations much bigger than he knows. While he does not deserve their words, he’s deserving enough of the most bittersweet of recognitions: “Goodbye”.
In rounding out this excellent film, long unseen by many in the United States, Criterion has amassed an excellent set of bonus features. Ginette Vincendeau, author of the premiere English-language text on Melville, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, gives an interview about the significance of the film to Melville’s career. A documentary about Melville’s French resistance pictures (La silence de la mer, Leon Morin, Pretre (1961), and Army of Shadows) helps frame the first of those three in light of his overall career arc. For Melville completists, Criterion also included Melville’s first short film, 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946).
All in all, Criterion’s issue of La silence de la mer is a long-overdue presentation of an important artwork of the French resistance, and a stellar recognition of the brilliance of Melville, undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers.