“Do you realize,” muses the twelve-year-old Julien Quentin, rapt in the solipsism of early adolescence, “that there’ll never be another January 17, 1944? Never again? . . . I’m the only one in this school who thinks about death. It’s incredible.” As the date implies, he could hardly be more wrong. Many of those around him are thinking about death, and in far less theoretical terms.
The moment of adolescent crisis, the point at which the adult world, in all its messy ambiguity, drives in upon and disrupts childhood certitudes, always fascinated Louis Malle. From 1960’s Zazie dans le métro (whose eponymous heroine turns the tables with some disruption of her own) through Murmur of the Heart (1972); Lacombe, Lucien (1974); Black Moon (1975); and Pretty Baby (1978), his young protagonists find themselves confronted with a world that operates according to no rules they’ve been led to expect. With Au revoir les enfants (1987), Malle homed in on the autobiographical reference point of this theme, the moment that “may well have determined my vocation as a filmmaker,” when, age eleven, he watched a Gestapo official enter the classroom of his Fontainebleau school and summon a fellow pupil by an unfamiliar, Jewish name. The film, a “reinvention of the past,” traces the wary, prickly friendship between Julien (Gaspard Manesse), Malle’s surrogate, and a Jewish boy, Jean Bonnet (played by Raphaël Fejtö, with the raw, wounded stare of the young Kafka).
Malle brought us here, or hereabouts, earlier in his career. The betrayal of Bonnet comes through the resentment of a “Lacombe, Lucien” in the making—a crippled scullery lad, mocked, abused, and eventually dismissed for the black marketeering in which several pupils, Julien among them, have actively colluded. This Joseph, returning in the Gestapo’s wake, swaggers uneasily in his flashy new suit, confronting Julien’s gaze of appalled realization. “Stop acting so pious! There’s a war going on, kid,” he blusters, while Julien registers his own inescapably shared guilt.
Earlier, the film skirts the lusher incestuous territory of Murmur of the Heart, in the relationship between Julien and his mother—once again passionate, sexually charged, but also (unlike in the earlier film) exposed as faintly ludicrous in its hothouse romanticism. Already in the opening separation scene, set (where else?) in a railway station, Malle slyly subverts the tone, as the pair luxuriate in melodramatic cliché, with Julien’s Byronic angst (“I don’t give a damn about Dad, and I hate you”) capped by his mother’s Fidelio: “You think I like this? I’d like to dress up as a boy and come with you.” The image this evokes, of the shapely Mme Quentin squeezing her hips into schoolboy shorts, at once erotic and ridiculous, self-indulgently unreal, sets up one side of the ironic counterpoint that underpins the movie. On the one hand, we have Julien’s smugly moneyed background, where politics are sampled à la mode. (“Is he still for Pétain? No one is anymore,” protests Mme Quentin, with the pique of one accused of favoring last season’s hemline.) Against this stands the stark actuality of the terror endured by Bonnet, for whom no luxury of choice exists—parents vanished or arrested, probably dead, and every passing German soldier a source of anguish.
The film’s moral center resides—unexpectedly enough for the director of Viva Maria! (1965), though it’s worth recalling that Malle was once Robert Bresson’s assistant—in a priest, the school’s director, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud, conveying fierce compassion beneath an aspect of bony austerity). His are the two crucial decisions: first, to harbor Bonnet and two other Jewish boys under false names; and second, to sack Joseph while not expelling, out of consideration for their parents, his accomplices among the pupils—a discrimination whose inequity causes him evident pain, and leads to tragedy. A figure of awkward integrity, he preaches to the assembled affluent parents a diatribe against the callousness of the rich, and laconically dismisses Julien’s professed interest in the priesthood: “I don’t think you have any calling for the priesthood. It’s a sorry job, anyway.”
Two vividly contrasted scenes—one dark, one light—evoke the murky moral crosscurrents of the period. A game of treasure hunt leaves Julien and Bonnet lost together in the forest, with night falling and gaunt rocks looming like primeval wood spirits. “Are there wolves in these woods?” inquires Bonnet nervously. But here in the twilight, the dangers are illusory. All that appears is a solitary wild boar, trotting hastily off into the bushes. Even the German soldiers whom they encounter, menacingly silhouetted in steel helmets, prove a lot less than monstrous, wrapping the boys solicitously in a blanket and wistfully trying to establish common ground (“We Bavarians are Catholics”).
A few days later, in the genteel ambience of a restaurant, where Mme Quentin has taken Julien, his elder brother, François, and Bonnet to lunch, the real monsters manifest themselves. A group of French fascist militiamen, dangerous buffoons in fat, floppy berets, arrive to harass a dignified old Jew, demanding his instant ejection. Commotion, pro and con, among the clientele; one plump, overdressed woman shouts, “Send the Jews to Moscow!” The contretemps ends when a Wehrmacht officer, under whose admiring glances Mme Quentin has been preening, objects to having his lunch disturbed and drives the militia ignominiously from the room. “He was showing off for you,” François observes to his mother. “Are we Jewish?” Julien inquires ingenuously. “If they heard you!” she exclaims; then, catching herself: “Mind you, I have nothing against Jews. Except for that Léon Blum. They can hang him.”
This incident is doubly refracted to us: through Bonnet’s apprehensive gaze and also through Julien’s intrigued scrutiny both of the events and of his friend’s reactions, as it gradually impinges on him what it means to be another person, and a Jewish person at that. In Malle’s sympathetic portrayal, Julien rings wholly true as a creature poised on the brink of adulthood, agitated by contrary impulses—touchy, curious, veering unpredictably from cruelty to kindness, savoring the erotic passages in The Arabian Nights yet still prone to bed-wetting. Gaspard Manesse (a nonprofessional, like all the younger cast members) inhabits his role with total conviction. Around him, Malle skillfully re-creates the rhythms and petty details of boarding school life of the period: the unappetizing food, the welcome break of an air raid, stilt battles on the playground, the history teacher (a World War I veteran) marking Allied advances with flags on a map. And a film show, of Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant, rapturously received by staff and pupils alike. One sequence of it acquires unwonted poignancy: as the steerage passengers, stock ghetto types in beards and head scarves, are roped off on deck like cattle, misgivings temper the laughter on a few watching faces.
Just occasionally, the film verges on stereotype; as in Lacombe, Lucien, Jewishness automatically equals cultural superiority. Bonnet must excel not only academically but also musically, delighting the pretty young piano teacher with his sensitive Schubert. This can be forgiven, though, for the moment of joyous complicity when, alone with Julien during an air raid, while everyone else has retreated to the shelter, he leads his friend in an exuberant burst of four-handed boogie-woogie.
Given such moments, Au revoir les enfants—for all its tragic subject matter and its elegiac finale—is anything but depressing. In the last scene, as the three Jewish boys and Père Jean are led away to their deaths, Bonnet glances back, and Julien (or, rather, the young Louis Malle) raises his hand in timid salute. In that small, affirmative gesture can be read a promise, which this film, with its emotional commitment, its richness of incidental detail, and the warmth and lucidity of its regard, forty years later duly fulfilled.
Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian, and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Total Film, and The International Film Guide.
This essay was adapted from a review that appeared in the autumn 1988 issue of Sight & Sound.