Le silence de la mer: Stranger in the House

On Film / Essays — May 1, 2015
Le silence de la mer 3

When the French illustrator and journalist Jean Bruller wrote the novella Le silence de la mer in late 1941, he could not have foreseen that the story would go on to become a primary inspirational text for the French Resistance. Bruller's narrative took its point of departure from his own circumstances following France's defeat in 1940: a German officer had been billeted with him and his wife in their home outside Paris, and Bruller had observed that the officer was a man of culture who kept a bust of Pascal in his room instead of a portrait of Hitler. From that premise, he wove the sparest of parables.

A French householder and his niece are, like Bruller, encumbered with a young occupying officer, Werner von Ebrennac, and vow not to speak to him or otherwise acknowledge his presence. Over the course of six months, he visits with them almost nightly as they sit by their fireside, accepting their silence while he opens his heart to them in monologues about his youth, his musical vocation, and his deep love of French culture. An attraction, expressed only obliquely, develops between the officer and the niece. The officer’s idealistic vision of a union between Germany and France—a vaguely conceived new dawn for Europe—is shattered when he comes to realize that his compatriots intend not only to rule France militarily but also to destroy its spirit forever. In a suicidal gesture, he arranges to be transferred to the eastern front—suicide by submission to a military machine against which he is finally incapable of rebelling.

To distribute Le silence de la mer—“the first underground book of the occupation,” in historian Alan Riding's words—Bruller adopted the pseudonym Vercors and cofounded an underground press, Les Éditions de Minuit, which would go on to publish clandestine works by Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, and many others. The book began its subterranean career in 1942 and in short order appeared in London in a translation by Cyril Connolly, under the title Put Out the Light. It was in this version that Jean-Pierre Melville first encountered the work. He stated later that he knew right away that he wanted it to be his first film.

Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, Melville took as his nom de guerre the name of his favorite writer. He had been forced to flee to England and, as a member of the Free French Forces, would return to participate in the liberation of France. It is perhaps not surprising that he should have set his sights on adapting a work that had become something like the bible of the Resistance—unlikely as that status might seem, considering the work's restrained and subtle tone, so far from inflammatory diatribe or other marks of wartime propaganda. Le silence de la mer seems intended rather to embody the most refined values of a culture as they persist against all odds at a moment of maximum pressure and hopelessness. The metaphorical tact of the title is representative of the work; it is left for the reader to reflect that the sea is never silent. The story ends not with a call to arms but with an evocation of silence and cold.

The book is physically present in the movie, first and last. We begin with a sequence in which a man hands off a suitcase of forbidden publications to another, copies of Le silence de la mer side by side with issues of the Albert Camus–edited Combat; and the final shot is of the book's last page, bearing the date of its composition in the year following France's defeat: October 1941. There was more, however, to Melville's attraction to Vercors’s text. He later described himself as being drawn to “the anti-cinematic aspect of the narrative, which immediately gave me the idea of making an anti-cinematic film.”

In fact, it is a story hard to conceive in terms of the cinematic conventions of the mid-1940s—narrated by the uncle, it describes a situation in which two people say and do nothing while a third speaks at great length without response—and it may have been for that reason that Vercors resisted the idea of anyone making a movie of it. By his own account, Melville set about the task more or less without encouragement, making the film independently, on a very limited budget (getting into trouble by ignoring labor unions), and agreeing in advance that if a jury chosen by Vercors found it unworthy, he would destroy the negative. The gamble paid off. Though the film, made in 1947, was not released until two years later.

The material constraints of the filmmaking are very apparent. Melville and his close collaborator the brilliant cinematographer Henri Decaë (whose first feature this also was) worked on a tight schedule, with a hodgepodge of film stocks, and were forced to suggest events like the bombardment of Chartres and the German occupation of Paris by the most threadbare tricks of editing (adding to the difficulties, the mere act of parading an actor in Nazi uniform on the streets of Paris in 1947 was not without its dangers, which may account for the brevity of those insert shots). Yet the visible signs of impoverishment in the production are in mysterious accordance with the film's themes of defeat and resistance. We are brought into immediate identification with uncle and niece huddling around the fireplace in the depths of winter. With no outward scenes of extreme hardship, and certainly no scenes of large-scale suffering and violence, the film sustains an atmosphere of deprivation and darkness throughout its length. With the help of its three central performers—the Swiss actor Howard Vernon as von Ebrennac, Jean-Marie Robain as the unnamed uncle, and Nicole Stéphane (star of Melville's subsequent Les enfants terribles) as the niece—a deeper level of emotional estrangement and desperation is made quietly apparent.

The most radical decision Melville made as a filmmaker was to adhere with extraordinary fidelity to the book. There are a few additions that enlarge the historical scope, notably a discussion by Nazi officers of the horrors of Treblinka (of which Vercors could not have known at the time) and a public notice of hostages executed by the Germans, but essentially the film amounts to an almost literal reading of the book. (Another difference is that the conversations between von Ebrennac and his fellow Nazi officers, summarized in the book, are here rendered in German, so it becomes the language for the only conversations of any length—a harsh reminder of the recently ended occupation.) Melville clearly saw that to alter the mechanisms of the storytelling would be to destroy the story. Thus the film does not merely employ voice-over narration; the narration is its heart. This is, literally, a story told by the fireplace, the fireplace being Vercors's own; Melville chose to shoot the interiors in the writer's home.

The effect is of a doubled experience: the tale is told and at the same time retold without words. Melville does not use images in place of Vercors's words but rather reinforces the words with visual enactments, sometimes to underscore, sometimes to subtly elaborate or enlarge. Von Ebrennac loses himself in an excursus on breast-feeding as a metaphor for France's bond with Germany as he leans over the fire, and later we watch his nervous fingers even as the narrator is discoursing on how hands can reveal more emotion than a face. In their last encounter—when the niece finally looks directly at the German and he remarks, "Oh, what a light!"—the light is made visible in an extraordinary close-up of Nicole Stéphane's eyes.

It's a shock cut, a more abrupt effect than Melville would have been likely to go for in his later work, but this was, after all, his first film. He would not make another so austere or—for all his later masterpieces—more profoundly moving. The fidelity of the adaptation in a strange way liberated him. Since the voice is telling the story, the camera is freed from narrative. We study the images not to find out what is happening but to try to catch the essence of what is being revealed, whether it is a face or a hand, an isolated gesture or a glance across a room. (Melville would later plausibly insist that the style of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest was indebted to Le silence de la mer.) We also go beyond the immediate historical circumstances, contemplating not only the fate of France and the crimes of Nazism but also the most intimate hesitations and resignations of the heart.

The actual space of the rooms in which most of the action occurs, the materiality of every word spoken and the pauses marking the words not spoken, not to mention the ticking clock that makes the silences hang heavy in a way that the book could only suggest—all these elements combine to establish the pervasive atmosphere of intrusion and discomfort and a rigorously maintained interpersonal distance. The film makes some forays into the outside world, with its flashback to a youthful woodland idyll (as von Ebrennac's wholesome-looking blonde girlfriend tears the legs off an insect that has stung her) and its enactment of the Paris trip that exposes to him the moral depths of the German high staff, but it always comes back to the domestic interior where speech and silence confront each other. Short as the film is, it instills a powerful sense of the same nightly scene being repeated over and over, finding new ways to film the unchanging standoff: glances and the avoidance of glances, extended hands and folded arms, the fire with its promise of an illusory warmth, faces separated by an abyss within the confines of a small room

"Sincerity can always overcome obstacles": such is the almost childlike delusion of the German officer, a delusion quite in keeping with the spirit of many popular films of the thirties and forties. Uncle and niece are determined to behave "as if the officer didn't exist, as if he were a ghost," and there is undeniably something wraithlike about Howard Vernon's performance. Though he is unavoidably there, with all his awkward good intentions—reciting lists of French authors, playing Bach on the harmonium, reading aloud from Shakespeare, rattling on winningly but absurdly about how much he loves the story of Beauty and the Beast—the futility of his openheartedness, the very endlessness of his talking, already makes him an apparition, a remnant of an inconvenient humanity destined only to be trodden under. With his last "Jawohl" to his adjutant, the departing von Ebrennac makes clear that he has brought under control any remaining spark of resistance to the criminal order of which he finds himself part.

As his silent counterpart, Nicole Stéphane's niece is a fierce and dominating presence, even as she looks down and continues with her knitting. She is the figure of self-containment, of necessary disciplined refusal, brought almost to the edge of self-destruction. In one stunning shot where her head is framed against total blackness, she seems resigned to absolute isolation.

Her uncle has moments of weakness when he is inclined to break the vow of silence, but her look shames him. Her role is calculated, as in the book, to culminate in a single spoken word, and Melville makes this whispered farewell as explosive and heartbreaking as it needs to be. That is the real end; the silence and cold that follow merely register its impact. She has said good-bye, for the time being, to the possibility of tenderness itself, and a long freeze has set in.