Traces of war inevitably linger in people’s minds long after the gunfire and explosions subside. In many ways, the disquieting calm of a once peaceful landscape now occupied by aggressive forces is even more horrifying than combat itself. While the best war films frequently represent the physical cost of violence, they also reveal an undercurrent of emotional trauma hiding in plain sight. It’s an evolving development we see all too regularly: civilians caught between battle lines, dominated and forced to suspend all claims of identity and self. Collective unease and doubt follow, producing powerful social ripples affecting the populace at large. This ideology gets personified through small acts of betrayal and deceit, crippling actions burrowing deep into the subconscious of people willing to sacrifice anything to survive. Finally, thoughts of unity and trust become entirely expendable in such an environment, ensuring that some innocents will fall through the cracks, despite the best of intentions.
Louis Malle understood this pattern of degeneration well, having witnessed the unflinchingly heinous Nazi occupation of France as a child. The master director recollects the subtle nuances of everyday life in a landscape gripped by terror in his semi-autobiographical Au Revoir les Enfants, a carefully measured examination of wistful youth tainted by burgeoning human weaknesses found in regular people verging on moral collapse. Malle’s young namesake is Julien (Gaspard Manesse), a well-read and inquisitive lad obviously conflicted about the surrounding tenor of his environment. We first meet him at a crowded train station saying goodbye to his wealthily dressed mother, Madame Quentin (Francine Racette), before he returns to Catholic school. Julien wants to stay in the city, tired of leaving his home for the frigid but safe confines of the countryside. As Julien begins to weep, his mother lovingly says, “It’s naughty to cry,” trying to instill strength through a tone her son will understand. Julien reluctantly leaves, but the pain stings, much like every moment of sudden separation in Au Revoir les Enfantes.
Julien arrives back at school and settles into a regular mixture of childish debauchery and education. He and his classmates tease each other, play games (a competition on stilts is especially relevant), and attend class despite the interruption of air raids and random checks by Vichy French sympathizers. When the priests admit three new boys to the school, including one Julien’s age named Bonnet (Raphael Fejito), their arrival is shrouded in secrecy and immediately peaks the children’s interest. While other students’ curiosity dwindles as the new boys become more familiar, Julien’s keen preoccupation with Bonnet only grows. Malle infers that Bonnet and his friends are Jewish, hiding from the Nazis in order to avoid deportation to concentration camps. But since Au Revoir les Enfants unfolds from Julien’s point of view, this revelation remains in the background, and Malle focuses entirely on the sublime and sometimes contradictory interactions between the children.
The relationships between Julien, Bonnet, and the rest of the ruffians attending the school develop within a carefully constructed bubble, solidified by the priests and the staff who run the institution. Markers of fascism surround them, but mostly these threatening figures merely pass by indifferent to the student’s daily exercise regiment and recess playtime. Malle uses this bubble to infuse the mannerisms and fallibilities of the children with subtext, each representing the possibilities for Frances future, both good and bad. At one moment they’re friendly to one another, the next they turn into thoughtless goons, and slowly racism and fear begin to creep into the space.
The calm center to all these volatile personalities is Bonnet, who’s smart, talented, and kind, permeating a quiet confidence that is unmistakable. If Bonnet represents Malle’s version of potential and unselfishness, Julien is not necessarily his opposite, but a foreigner to these more complete ideologies. He spends long sequences watching from a distance as Bonnet plays the piano, completes math problems in class, and plays games in the woods. At first he is spiteful of Bonnet, much like the other students who ridicule him at every turn. Soon, Julien’s anger grows into admiration, the clincher coming when he wakes up one night to find Bonnet secretly praying in front of two lit candles. Julien, who wants to become a priest himself despite having the idea dismissed by his teachers, finds this moment fascinating and exotic. For the viewer, it’s a foreshadowing of Bonnet’s fate.
While the two boys never become good friends, they share a desire to question the problematic and violent world around them. Bonnet suffers from having to enter adulthood at such a young age (he hasn’t seen his parents in two years), while Julien constantly tries to determine the essence of faith, religious identity, and salvation. When Julien asks his older brother, “What is a Jew?” seeking some all-encompassing explanation, the cocky teenager replies, “Someone who doesn’t eat pork.” Some characters have given in to easy characterizations, but Julien and Bonnet represent humanity in its purist forms. Julien asks the big questions, while Bonnet comes to represent the complex answers that will remain obtuse. For this reason, Malle paints much of Au Revoir les Enfants in shades of uncertainty, both for Julien’s quest to find rationality and Bonnet’s search for safety. The fact that neither comes true proves that Malle’s heart-breaking vision of his past, even when rendered through decades of reflection, is still devastatingly incomplete, seething with a trauma that will never be fully quelled.
But Au Revoir les Enfants is less about justifying moral imperatives as it is about remembering the ethical turning points that shape our lives, no matter how seemingly insignificant. This comes to fruition in the conflict between religion and fascism, which plays out during the harrowing and tragic final scenes. When a disgraced kitchen worker named Joseph (Francois Negret), who’s been bullied because of his deformed leg the entire film, makes a terribly selfish decision condemning Bonnet and the priests to the Nazis, Julien’s thoughts on friendship, loyalty, and dedication get frozen in time by another sudden separation. Bonnet is led away doomed to Auschwitz, and the words of one priest, “True education is teaching you how to make good use of your freedom,” echo through the shocking silence.
All the small conflicts, arguments, and jealousies mean nothing when faced with this kind of massive, seamless evil. In the film’s final moments, Malle holds on Julien’s stunned eyes looking deep into the camera, searching for answers as Bonnet disappears around the corner of the church, into the history books as just another one of many who were senselessly slaughters. But Julien and Malle cannot erase his face, no matter how hard they try. For character and filmmaker, it’s clear the affects of war come in many shapes and sizes, memories permanently projected by the flickering reels repeating in their memory banks. All they can do is remember, and pray for a time when the nightmare won’t seem so vivid.
The image quality on Criterion's Blu-ray of Au Revoir les Enfants is solid. But the disc is a digital restoration, so the presentation doesn't have the level of detail a high-definition transfer would bring. The colors are appropriately crisp, but since most of the film is made up of different shades of blue, black, and gray, there's not a considerable difference between this disc and Criterion's previous standard-definition release. The monaural soundtrack is much improved over previous releases, smoothly layering the different diagetic noises and music that make the atmosphere of Louis Malle's film so entrancing. According to Malle's wife Candice Bergen, Malle would close his eyes during takes, able to tell if it was a success simply by listening. The sound design here pays wonderful tribute to this attention to the details of audio.
Two video interviews lead the way. The first is with Malle biographer Pierre Ballard, who gives an insightful foundation to the real life events that shaped Au Revoir les Enfants, including pictures and names to the priests and students who were arrested that fateful day in January of 1944 by the Gestapo. The second is an intimate conversation with Bergen, who tenderly remembers Malle's passion for filmmaking, and how terrible it was to go to the movies with her husband. "He would treat the cineplex like a buffet," she says, watching 15 minutes of one movie before dipping into another. Memories like these are priceless. The other real pleasure on this disc is a five-minute video essay, "Joseph: A Character Study," by French filmmaker Guy Magen discussing the troubling and complex antihero Joseph, who ultimately rats out Bonnet and the other Jews hiding in the church. Finally, the disc includes Charlie Chaplin's short The Immigrant, audio excerpts from and AFI interview with Malle in 1988, and the original theatrical trailer and teaser. A booklet, including essays by film critic Phillip Kemp and historian Francis J. Murphy, bring even more context to Malle's excellent achievement.
Part dream, part nightmare, Au Revoir les Enfants vividly remembers a traumatic moment in time that cannot be forgotten.