"Can duty ever mean accepting the crime?"
Many films have a fairly straightforward production process, following well-trod paths ensuring things running smoothly from inception through to the film's final release. Some, however, can have a truly tumultuous time, and it's the sign of a great filmmaker that they can deal with all of the obstacles that are presented to them, and not only prevent them from ruining the film, but use it as motivation to ensure they completely dedicate themselves to try and produce the best possible film. Watching the great French Resistance film Le Silence de la mer it's not at all apparent that there were any production issues at all, but in reality director Jean-Pierre Melville had almost insurmountable problems to contend with. And that's before the cameras had even started rolling.
The film is an adaptation of an illegal novel written by Jean Bruller (under the pseudonym of Vercors) at the height of the German occupation of France in 1942. Its subject matter of dignified resistance against the Nazis ensured it quickly became an underground hit. After Germany's fall there was inevitably talk about bringing Bruller's book to the big screen to celebrate this resistance.
By 1946 Jean-Pierre Melville was a confident 29-year-old who had been a daring and dedicated member of the French Resistance throughout the occupation (including six months spent in a Spanish prison), and returned from the war eager to make films - a vocation he'd always intending on eventually pursuing. When he discovered there were plans to make a film about Bruller's novel, he did everything in his power to ensure that the work be entrusted to his own direction. Unfortunately for Melville, as a young, unknown director with no studio backing and just one short film to his name (1945's Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Clown), Bruller refused to allow him rights to make the film. Undeterred, Melville pledged to Bruller that so important was the film to him because of its Resistance theme, he would film it regardless. And if, when faced with the completed print, Bruller, or anyone else in attendance at the screening didn't approve of it, Melville would destroy the only copy of the film. Bruller eventually allowed Melville to adapt his work, even permitting him to film the interior scenes in the author's own house in Villiers-sur-Morin in east Paris, but in return he maintained a strong creative influence over filming, much to Melville's annoyance.
So Melville had overcome his biggest obstacle - but he still found himself confronted with numerous other issues. He was angered by the strong opposition to his making of Silence by the French film industry, and so endeavoured to make the film without their assistance. As he was not a member of the French film union, this meant he would have to do without the benefits that this attracted, such as subsidised production costs and access to film stock. This latter problem forced him to turn to the black market, as well as recycling offcuts of nitrate, running for less than a minute, which would be the reason for some of the short shots in the film. As he was also financing the film himself, this resulted in a protracted filming period which lasted only 27 days, but was drawn out over many months between 1947-48.
The story is set in 1941 in a small French village. A German officer, Werner von Ebrennac, (Howard Vernon) is assigned to live in the house of an old uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and his young niece (Nicole Stephanie). Distressed at the notion that one of the invading force will be living under their roof the uncle and niece conclude that the most dignified form of protest will be to simply ignore their uninvited guest; to carry on as if he is not even there. The first glimpse we get of the German is as he knocks on the door, and as the niece opens it we are confronted by a tall, fearsome looking man, mirroring the famous introduction to the titular character in Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927). However, here the man confidently strides towards the camera, and the camera immediately retreats without taking its focus off the German, charging the moment with a mixture of terror and curiosity, the same emotions the uncle and his niece must have felt. Will von Ebrennac be in the mold of the typical sadistic Nazi we've come to expect from contemporary French cinema? Surprisingly, no. After a number of monologues that we hear from the German as he visits the couple every evening, we begin to discover this is no uncultured monster. He is a kind and intelligent man who has a deep adoration of French culture, music and arts. He reveals that he was a musician before the war - a profession he saw a far more suited to him but was happy to pause his career so he could help the effort and, in his eyes, play his role in uniting their two great nations who could then work together to rebuild Europe. In time, the uncle finds he is beginning to respect the man and his passion for French culture, whilst the niece begins to fall in love with him. The uncle resists his temptation to offer the German advice, while the niece resists the urge to confess her feelings towards him, and they both maintain their silence.
It's almost unprecedented for any French film based on the Second World War to portray a Nazi with anything but disdain, and certainly not as a compassionate and sympathetic character. The only other Nazi to be dealt with in such a way in a contemporary French film was Erich von Stroheim's aristocratic von Rauffenstein in Jean Renior's La Grande Illusion (1937); indeed he shares many characteristics with Silence's von Ebrennac.
When von Ebrennac is called to a meeting in Paris he discovers that his notion of Germany and France combining their cultures is misplaced, and realises that it is Hitler's plan to subjugate France and exterminate their culture that von Ebrennac holds so dear. Devastated, he returns to the uncle and niece where he confesses what he has learned, but is conflicted as to whether he should carry out orders that go against everything he believes in.
With most of Silence taking place inside the small house, it tends to feel claustrophobic at times, but a few scenes outside, such as when von Ebrennac and the niece meet outside in the snow, and more vitally when the German officer is summoned to Paris, give the film welcome space. Melville wished to shoot scenes of von Ebrennac in Paris, and indeed when he reports to the Kommandantur the location is precisely the same place which was used during the war. Filming a German in full Nazi uniform walking the streets of Paris in 1948 was more challenging, but through a combination of short shots (using those offcuts of film) and old newsreel footage Melville was able to convincingly depict the wartime capital without coming under attack from outraged Parisians.
Jean-Pierre Melville would have later success with his decidedly film-noir style of filmmaking with Le Doulos (1962) and Le Samouraï (1967), and it's evident in Silence that he was heavily influenced by the genre and the films of Billy Wilder in particular. There was no other filmmaker in France at this time who was using natural lighting in his films, but Melville uses it to such effect at times that it's shocking to realise how little experience he had prior to making the film.
One of the most surprising things about Le Silence de la mer is how little known it is today. It has aged remarkably well, and despite so much time devoted to von Ebrennac's one-sided conversations, it doesn't feel particularly slow. Seen as a snapshot of the active but dignified French resistance to the German invasion, there is no other film that portrays it half as well. Melville presented the film to Bruller and a number of Resistance fighters who unanimously agreed that it did justice to the subject matter. Despite the French film authorities trying to bury the film on release, it was well received critically, and the popularity of the source novel alone guaranteed solid returns. But over the intervening years it has certainly fallen out of favour somewhat - I was stunned to see it's never had a place in the popular 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, and it's never seen in lists of the best French war films. This is one of my personal favourite films to deal with the Second World War and one I've returned to a number of times, always seeing something fresh. Hopefully as time goes on it will take its deserved place as not only one of Jean-Pierre Melville's greatest films, but as one of the very best French films of the 1940s.