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1941 in a small town in Nazi occupied France. Against the will of its elderly male and his adult niece residents, the Nazis commandeer a house for one of their officers, Lt. Werner von Ebrennac, to live in for as long as he is in the area on Nazi business. As a figurative and literal silent protest against the Nazis and the officer, the uncle and niece do whatever is required of them while the officer is in their house, however they do not acknowledge his presence, living largely in silence whenever he is around. The officer treats the housing situation with care, like he is a guest. Although not a nightly occurrence, the officer begins an evening routine with his reluctant hosts: in his civilian clothes, he knocks on the door of the room in which they have convened for the evening, walking in shortly thereafter knowing that no acknowledgment will be made for him to enter, he visits with them for no more than five minutes before he bids them a good evening as he exits. During these ... Written by
Melville began filming without the rights to Vercors' novel; when Vercors heard of this, he met with Melville, who told him that if he did not like the film, he would burn the negative. Melville was also not in the screenwriters' or directors' unions and had difficulty in employing people and getting distribution. However, the film was an immense success, both critically and commercially and Vercors loved it. See more »
France 1942. Jean Pierre Grumbach alias Melville is away in London with General de Gaulle. France is occupied by the German nazi swastika. Jean Bruller, actually an illustrator, writes a novel 'LE SILENCE DE LA MERE', which is published by the underground 'Edition de Minuit'. Bruller calls himself Vercors. On Feb. 22, 1942 the book is ready to be issued and distributed in Paris by messengers on bicycles.
Melville first read the novel in English. He reports, that he was absolutely determined, that it would be his first film. He returned to France and negotiates with Vercors to buy the rights for his resistance novel. Vercors refused to let Melville have it. The book had virtually served as a Bible during the war and had become part of the French national heritage. Finally Vercors and Melville make a deal: The future famous director guarantees to submit the film as soon as it was finished to a jury of resistant selected by Vercors. Should one single member of this Jury be opposed to the film being shown, Melville promised to burn the negative.
The trouble was, that Melville was unqualified professionally, had no union card and in fact not obtained the rights to the book. Still, the director of the GTC laboratories Colling encouraged Melville and did the chemical work for nothing and the later famous lighting cameraman Henri Decae was the operator of the hired and not so well working equipment. The film was made in Vercors own house and Howard Vernon, a German (Swiss?) starred, as well as a friend of Melvilles Jean-Marie Robain, a wartime comrade, and a family friend Nicole Stéphane, whose profile and limpid eyes Melville loved and who was according to him a Rothschild, what the CGT didn't like so much.
What is it all about ? Uncle (Robain) and his niece ( Stéphane) live together in a house outside some village that is occupied by the Germans (and drink expensive coffee all the time). They have to tolerate a German lieutenant (Vernon), who comes to live upstairs and has a bad leg and who works in the Commandantur. He is a well educated composer of music and has never been to France, though he has traveled the world except France. When he after work comes back to the uncle-niece couple (he sucking a pipe, she knitting) he knocks at the door and speaks (mostly in his German uniform) in French to the owners of the house, who never answer to him or comment on his statements, explanations, ideas, longings, who never say good night. They are just listening to him.
What is the lieutenant speaking and dreaming of ? He imagines the genius of German music and the greatness of French literature being united in a peaceful Europe. One day our lieutenant Werner decides to go to Paris, that he avoided a long time. The opera like action inside the (Vercors) house is now taken to open air Paris, Vernon with his officers cap is a tourist in front of several well known Paris Buildings and we watch him attending a party of officers, who wise Ebrennac up, that they never intended to respect the French culture or let it at least exist as it is. They make clear that the occupation has just one aim, finish the French for once and for all times. Ebrennac looses all hope, returns to the cottage of uncle and niece, packs his luggage and reports to them what he had heard in the officers Club in Paris. He decides to go back to the front. He leaves the house and this is the time, when the niece says just one word: Adieu.
Certainly the film has an anti-cinematographic aspect and there is little action. But you watch every minute with growing interest how the relationship between the three is developing. There are simple means, two or three walls, a ceiling, a door, a uniform, a ball of wool, a flickering fireside and the over and over repeated greeting of the officer, that he wishes a good night. Are we even witnessing a quiet love affair ? It is probably not in the book, but I like to accept that idea, sympathy for the devil. (Andre Gide: I think the girl was a fool. She deserved to be spanked.)
The film is full of fine details. All of them put splendidly by Decae into a black and white photography as if that sort of film was just freshly invented. The church at the horizon (where would that be ?) behind a field of corn and the forgoing panning shot followed by a slow pan toward a gun barrel. The scene when the lieutenant and his corporal cross a bridge and three French occupy the sidewalk and don't move a single inch. The group of officers caps on the table at the soiree, the perfect focus in the kitchen (Gregg Toland's way) and the nice scarf of the niece towards the end, which looks like decorated by Jean Cocteau, but was drawn by Melville himself, who greatly admired Cocteaus work. Its all much more than just a first film of a future independent film maker.
Melville tells us, making the film was the happiest year in his life. Decae and Melville did the editing from 35 mm rushes in a hotel room. They projected on to the wall. They filmed in total penury. After putting an original music to the film (cost as much as the whole film, 120 musicians) in October 1948 the film was first screened at the studio des Champs-Elysees, in the presence of a top-drawer audience. Now at last Pierre Braunberger came in and managed to persuade Melville to give him the film. It did well at the box office.
And thanks to young Howard Vernon, who passed away only recently at the age of 82. And Cocteau thought the mentioned scarf was a work of his.
Michael Zabel, Offenbach/Rodenbach
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