In Review: Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

by Chris Milton on 27/01/2015


Rising levels of anti-semitism and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz means that the re-release this week of one of the finest films about the Holocaust, Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, is more than timely.

The film is set in a Catholic boys’ boarding school in northern France during the Occupation, and recounts how 12 year old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and his schoolmates are joined by three new boys who, unbeknownst to them, are Jewish boys being hidden from the Nazis by the monks. Quentin becomes friends with one of the new boys, Jean Bonnett (Raphael Fejto), whose real name is Jean Kippelstein (Julien discovers this when he searches his locker). But when the Gestapo come to search the school for the boys, Julien gives Jean away when he instinctively glances at Jean when he thinks the Gestapo officer – who has just asked which of the boys is Bonnett – is distracted.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is based very closely on the wartime experiences of Louis Malle, and Julien is Malle’s alter ego. Its examination of authority, bystanding and victimisation is nuanced and complex. There is bullying amongst the boys, and the monks are given away to the Gestapo by the kitchen help Joseph (Francois Negret) – who is likened to an animal by the pupils – after he is unjustly sacked after being caught black-market dealing with some of the boys, children of the haute bourgeoisie, who remain unpunished.

Au Revoir les Enfants is framed by farewells, that of Julien and his mother at the train station when he leaves for school, and that of the Headmaster (Philippe Morier Genoud) when he says goodbye to the children gathered in the schoolyard as he and the Jewish boys are being taken away. It is this scene which is the emotional punctum of the film.

Through its autumn setting, the bleached, grey northern skies, and its muted palette and soundtrack, along with a Bressonian use of empty, vacated space, of exits and entrances, Malle maintains an atmosphere of melancholy and imminent loss. There is, though, much humour and charm in the portrayal of day-to-day life at the school, and in the depiction of the growing friendship between the two boys. Au Revoir Les Enfants is a flawlessly constructed, intelligent and moving example of a particular kind of classical French cinema, now lost, and which died with Malle.

Chris has awarded Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) five Torches of Truth

5 torches

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