Le Silence de la Mer is a fireside chat without the explicit exchange of ideas, given that all of the talking is done by Werner (Howard Vernon), a German officer seeking nightly refuge in the French villa of an unnamed pair the closing credits deem L’oncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and La nièce (Nicole Stephane). It’s 1941 and the German occupation of France compels the homeowners to take an unstated vow of silence in protest against the officer’s presence, as he begins to come and go freely from the home while gradually indicating a sexual interest in the niece. These are the film’s bare essentials, but writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville’s first feature is one of the trickiest and most deceptively simple in his entire oeuvre, perhaps the most extreme example where a narrative of great stakes is given a minimal environment, but evoked with a dynamic interest in cinematographic presentation. Adapted from the French resistance novella by Vecors, Melville adheres to its dialogue-heavy passages and claustrophobic construction without simply replicating the work for its content. In fact, few character entrances in cinema can rival that of Werner’s initial sighting, as he’s illuminated in high-contrast pools of black and white and centered in a low-angle shot that’s punctuated by a shrill note from Edgar Bischoff’s score. Howard Vernon’s face, with protruding cheekbones and hard eyes, is the ultimate terror, suggesting Boris Karloff in Nazi regalia. Harry Lime, eat your heart out.
Melville’s film has more in common with The Third Man than simply a canonical introduction to a menacing figure, since the prolonged discussions of unification between France and Germany, along with Werner’s convictions that eventually “the sun will shine of Europe,” typifies the emergent cynicism among young European filmmakers at the end of the 1940s regarding nationalism as a tool for the betterment of a people. That is, Werner’s certainty of Eurocentric righteousness is automatically countered by the known outcome in 1947, during the time of production, roughly six years after the events of the film. Melville consistently stages Werner’s towering physically from a low vantage point while putting words in his mouth that will ultimately prove him to be idealistic, naïve, and, at worst, a willing accomplice to an impending genocide, despite his subsequent protestations to Gestapo infiltrations. A man of culture and rhetoric, Werner is a verbose aesthete whose knowledge and appreciations are of little use against exterior wieldings of corruption.
Melville’s rigorously cinematic treatment instantiates three distinct perspectives, though Werner’s is the only voice given a literal soapbox throughout. L’oncle may never speak to Werner or anyone else, but he’s constantly relaying insights through voiceover about both Werner’s behavior and the rapid passage of time, remarking at one point that he’s “forgotten all that was said over those 100 winter evenings.” In this assertion, l’oncle offers memory (or lack thereof) as a form of dissent or, perhaps less consciously, an admission that a singular mind is incapable of comprehending the reach of displaced agency that’s night after night embodied by the same figure. If these two men are the only actual voices heard throughout much of the film, there’s also Melville’s directorial presence, which speaks in every inch of the frame to the inherent necessities of mediated documentation. These would remain implicit suggestions were it not for the film’s opening scene, in which a suitcase filled with illegal or banned literature is dropped off on a sidewalk for a young man’s perusal. Inside he finds the Vecors book, the title page of which doubles as the commencing credits sequence for Melville’s film.
Taking literary inspiration to ends that shatter what would be termed “cinéma de papa” by the writers at Cahiers du Cinéma in subsequent years, Le Silence de la Mer suggests a conscious break on Melville’s part from the kinds of “quality” cinema that exemplified bourgeois film interests in the decades prior. For Melville, it isn’t literature that’s the problem, but unimaginative filmmakers whose misunderstanding or disinterest in exploring the medium’s capabilities has steadily rendered it a tool for producing readily consumable products, what theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer deemed the “culture industry.” Perhaps Melville had the essay in mind while making his film, since the film’s climactic gesture reveals Werner silently reading a passage from French poet Anatole France, which states: “It is a noble thing for a soldier to disobey a criminal order.” For Melville, art’s criminal order entails loosening one’s voice to accommodate profit concerns and maintain cultural hierarchies, which are merely extensions of the very same power-hungry apparatuses the film outwardly reviles.
Le Silence de la Mer makes its premiere on North American home video in a stellar Blu-ray presentation that flaunts commendable preservation efforts of the film’s sound and image. The sumptuous black-and-white cinematography staggers throughout, especially in close-ups and stagings of depth, most notable in a kitchen scene that features household objects as prominently as human figures. Pools of darkness dominate, but there are equally evocative instances of high-key lighting, most famously in a close-up of Nicole Stephane’s eyes. There are, unfortunately, various instances of scratches and blips that are perceptible, mostly around the edges of the frame, which serve as minor distractions in a number of scenes. Sound is of equal quality: impressive, but not perfect. Edgar Bischoff’s score is a constant supplement to Werner’s monologues and the music is mixed somewhat weakly throughout, though this may have been Melville’s original intention or simply the constraints of the transfer. Fortunately, there are no flagrant instances of cracks or pops.
The Criterion Collection provides Melville’s remarkable first film a suitably extensive dollop of supplements, including two documentaries that combine for a two-hour runtime and Melville’s first short film, 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown, from 1946. The documentaries offer extensive overview of both the conception and production of Le Silence de la Mer, as well as commentary on later Melville films about the French resistance, including Léon Morin, Priest and Army of Shadows. These are indispensible works for any student of either Melville or the history of French cinema. Also included is an excellent video interview by Ginette Vincendeau, who explains why Melville came to filmmaking as his craft, his interest in Vecors’s novel, and a fascinating anecdote regarding a wager made with Vecors about the film’s reception by members of the resistance. Like the documentaries, it’s essential stuff. Finally, a two-minute archival interview with Melville is rather disposable, but the essay by Geoffrey O’Brien lays more groundwork for understanding the film’s peculiar visual dynamics. Finally, there’s a brief excerpt from an interview with Melville, taken from the book Melville on Melville.
Keeping quiet about the Criterion Collection’s must-own Blu-ray release of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer would be tantamount to committing a cinephilic war crime.