‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ Rooted in the Memory of Louis Malle
Louis Malle’s film, “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (“Goodby, Children”), which Wednesday received Academy Award nominations for best foreign language film and for best original screenplay (by Malle), is his very moving remembrance of horrifying things past.
In its clear-eyed evocation of childhood innocence, and of that innocence confronted by the evils of the adult world, the film is a testament to the power of the medium and to the art of the writer-director in dealing with an overwhelming personal experience.
Like much great work, “Au Revoir Les Enfants” is simple and complex, bold and subtle, funny and tragic, engaging at first sight and then unforgettable. It returns to theaters on Friday, having played a week in December for Oscar qualification in hope of the nominations it did receive.
Malle, whose “Lacombe, Lucien” in 1973 was another intimate but illuminating examination of the French wartime experience, was born into a wealthy family, big in sugar refining and other endeavors. One privilege of birth was to be sent off to a Catholic boarding school near Fontainebleau, where the discipline was strict and the prevailing atmosphere even more monastically austere than usual in wartime 1944.
The events that became “Les Enfants” were brutally simple. The monks who ran the school were active in the Resistance. A new boy who arrived at mid-term and became a friend of Malle’s turned out to be a Jewish refugee whom the monks were trying to conceal from the Gestapo.
Someone betrayed the monks and the boy to the Gestapo. (Who the betrayer was is clearer in the film than it is in history, Malle says. Here it is a kitchen helper who is not unlike the boy Lucien from the earlier film.)
On a day in 1944, the Gestapo arrived and arrested the headmaster and Malle’s friend. Malle has said that the morning changed his life. “It may have triggered my becoming a film maker. I should have made it the subject of my first film. But I preferred to wait. . . . In 1986, after almost 10 years in the United States, I felt the moment had come.”
By then he had perfected his skills with two dozen films and documentaries.
Malle, wife Candice Bergen and their 2-year-old daughter, Chloe, live much of the year in New York but spend their summers in the Dordogne, in a remote house in wild country resembling the moors of England. The place has been Malle’s retreat since the ‘60s--"It is like going back a century"--and there, amid all the echoes of his past, he wrote the script.
“Imagination used memory as a springboard; I reinvented the past,” he has said. Not much needed reinventing. The Germans kept such careful records at the camps that Malle was able to discover that his childhood friend had been marched directly from the train to the gas chamber at Auschwitz; he was recorded in a ledger.
The local Gestapo chief, a Frenchman, had worked briefly for American military intelligence at the end of the war, Malle learned. He was subsequently tried as a war criminal and sentenced to death. But he was paroled after seven years and now lives in Germany.
The original school, which closed after the arrests, reopened after the Liberation but closed again at the end of the ‘60s. Malle found a near-duplicate, a Catholic private school that had been a convent in Provins (“the epitome of the provincial town”) two hours east of Paris.
Malle checked his script with his older brother, who had been at school with him, and with a couple of the surviving teachers. Their recollections varied in small details. But the moment, devastating in the film, when the boys line up and Father Jean (played by Philippe Morier-Genoud) says “Goodby, children” is fixed in all their memories.
The real events took place in winter, so Malle had to work during the school year. There were difficulties but the gains in realism more than compensated for the trouble. The students themselves worked as extras and, Malle says, “They had no trouble identifying with the children of 1944.”
“I’ve done lots of films with children,” he said. “I’ve learned what not to do with them. I never use child actors; they haven’t had time to learn their craft so they’re neither children nor actors. Children lose their freshness, their innocence, very quickly. It is tricky because one day they are just right and the next day they can’t do anything right.”
His two principal actors, who are not actors, are appealing and authentic. Malle nods his agreement. “Sometimes--rarely--everything works for you. If I couldn’t have found them, I would have had to postpone the film,” he says. Raphael Fejto, who plays Jean Bonnet, the Jewish boy, is the son of a Hungarian father and an Egyptian mother and the grandson and namesake of a well-known historian. Gaspard Manesse, who plays Malle’s alter ego, Julien Quentin, is--what can you say?--a schoolboy, shy, defensive, intimidated, and clearly a projection of Malle’s memories of himself.
What may be most deeply affecting, or disturbing, about the film is Julien’s isolation from and naivete about the plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe. He and his brother have a conversation that would seem simplistic if it did not ring so true:
What’ve the Jews done wrong? asks Julien, who is 11. They killed Christ, explains his brother, who is perhaps 13. I thought the Romans did that, Julien says. The brother, uncomfortable in his explanations, stumbles on. They don’t eat pork and they’re smarter than we are, he says. Julien is as unpersuaded as he has a right to be.
It is a remarkable aspect of the film that, despite his lingering memories of the final horror of those days, when the prejudice and the violence have invaded the days of childhood, Malle has been able to recall and reproduce the innocence that was shattered. Up to a point, “Au Revoir Les Enfants” is simply a glimpse of boarding school life with its bullyings, its pranks, the humiliations of bed-wetting, the first risings of those wonderfully steamy impure thoughts.
It is the horror, set against the innocence, that gives the film its seizing strength. It is a cautionary tale, though one that says that evil can win battles but be defeated in the end.