#8 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach and took the nom-de-guerre Melville during his time with the French Occupation against Nazi rule during World War II. With the war ended, he struck out to become a filmmaker, being rejected by the actual French studios, and went independent, adapting the underground French novel by Jean Bruller as his first film, without Bruller’s permission. The film is a very still film, but I sense intense anger and even hatred just below the surface.
The film tells the story of three people. Uncle (Jean-Marie Robain), Niece (Nicole Stephane), and Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon). Uncle and Niece live quiet lives in the early days of the Second World War in a German occupied French town. One day, two German troops arrive with boxes for their lieutenant, Ebrennac, who is going to stay in their upper room. The film is a one-way dialogue between Ebrennac, who comes down to the sitting room every night to speak to his two landlords. He speaks of his love of France, stemming from his father’s experiences during World War I, of his love of French literature, of his affection for French winters. He holds up French literature to a great extent, listing the great French writers off the top of his head and struggling to find similar numbers from other cultures, even his own. Germany, though, has the superior musicians.
What Ebrennac sees the war as is a melding of two great cultures. This manifests in a simmering affection he has for Niece. She’s a reasonably attractive woman, and he looks at her like something of a conquest, though he never even tries to get her to respond to anything he says. He never touches her. He never proposes anything directly to her. It seems as though he finds their union inevitable, and he has no need to push things. They will naturally come together in time.
Through all of this, neither Uncle nor Niece says a thing to him. The film is narrated by Uncle, who explains little details, gives the specifics of his inner life, and helps fill in the picture of his steadily growing admiration for this German officer. Ebrennac is on a charm offensive, and it works. He stops wearing his military uniform in front of them, going up the back stairs when he comes back from his daily duties, changing into civilian clothes, and coming down the front stairs into the sitting room to speak for a few minutes on the wonders of France before retreating back to his own room. The internal monologue by Uncle is almost all we know of the steadily eroding wall between them except for one scene where Ebrennac plays the piano, and, with Ebrennac’s back turned, Uncle and Niece watch on.
Ebrennac gets sent to Paris to visit one of his school friends who has risen faster and higher in the German command structure, and he’s thrilled. He gets to go to the cultural center of France, to view the monuments and art of a culture he has long held in high regard, but the visit turns bad. Ebrennac’s delusions of a post-war order where France and Germany are held up equally are dashed by the truth, told to him by his friend and other German officers, that any word of equity between the two cultures is a lie, that the goal is to oppress the people and suppress the culture of France in favor of Germany.
When he returns, he is crestfallen and admits everything to Uncle and Niece before telling them that he has put in a transfer to fight at the front. It is his sadness and resolve to no longer participate in the lie that finally breaks down the barriers with Uncle verbally allowing him into the room for the first time and Niece saying goodbye, the first word out of her mouth the entire film.
The quietness of the film is what gives it its power, I think. It’s mostly set in a single room, but it never feels confined, breaking away for views of the outside of the small town and of Paris, and that concentrated view in the room creates a microcosm of the fight over hearts and minds of the French people. When the film started, I thought it was going to be a film about how there were no good Germans. Ebrennac is a man, though. A genuine man with real affection for France who was as lied to as the French people were. His inherent love of France that never falters is what bridges the divide between him and Uncle and Niece, and his inability to maintain the lie anymore, to throw himself into the meat grinder of war instead of keeping up the fiction, is what makes them finally see him as human.
There’s great anger in this film, but there’s also sadness. It’s an intensely nationalistic film, all but waving the French blue, white, and red while screaming La Marseilles at the top of its lungs. The defense of France, its land, its villages, its cities, its culture, is what animates the film’s subtext, and the idea of squashing it becomes the emotional core of the film. The idea that Melville’s French identity was being intentionally wiped out angered him. When the Allies defeated Germany, Melville used his first film to express his rage at the effort, and it’s all the more impressive because the film is so quiet and small and effective all at once.
This is a very good introduction to the cinematic world for Melville.