Louis Malles 1987 masterpiece ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a genuinely breathtaking exploration of the end of childhood during war. One that shines with natural and unforced performances displaying the innocence of youth in the face of conflict, destruction and hate.
Set in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France in 1944. Twelve-year-old Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is caught between an occupying force’s ideology and a community of silent rebellion versus acceptance. Often struggling to unpick the feelings and thoughts of the adults surrounding him. But when a new boy enrols at the school called Jean (Raphaël Fejtö). Julien finds a friend who is equally artistic and dreamy. A boy who, while quiet and reserved, allows Julian to escape the confusion of the world around him. However, as their friendship grows, Julian also finds himself perplexed by Jean’s close protection from the school’s headmaster. His young mind not grasping that Jean’s enrolment at the school hides a secret; one that, if uncovered, could lead to disaster for Jean and the teachers protecting him.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is partly based on Malle’s own childhood experience. And this relationship to the director’s memory and emotion permeates every frame and scene. As the personal memories and the pain attached to his experience spill out on film. Creating an ode to lost innocence that transcends typical war movie themes. While equally delicately dissecting the complex relationship between religion, community, collaboration and rebellion in an occupied land. Malle creates a film that is both beautiful and heartwrenching in equal measure. His camera harnessing the deep feelings and emotions of children on the verge of adolescence. At the same time, as dovetailing these with the harsh reality of oppression and war. Ultimately, this creates a film that plays with the confusion, conflicted beliefs and emotion of young adolescents in the face of hatred and divide.
Timeless in its emotion and power, Malle’s story rises far above and beyond the confines of the decade to which it was born. And while Au Revoir Les Enfants is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Holocaust drama, it is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and affecting Holocaust-related films ever made. The comforting cloak of childhood innocence lifted as the horror of a world in conflict streams in.
Director: Louis Malle