Sunday, January 29, 2012

Day 284 - Au Revoir Les Enfants

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) directed by Louis Malle

Au Revoir Les Enfants, or Goodbye Children, is a touching film about growing up in a world that is difficult to understand. Actually, better phrased would simply be "growing up" because there are always things that children do not know or understand. This is never more fully realized in this tragic tale of a youth not quite understanding the dangerous world of prejudice and persecution.

Set in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi occupied France, Au Revoir Les Enfants follows the lives of the children there, in particular Julian and Jean. Julian is an established student while Jean is new. At first they are cold to each other but eventually warm up and become good friends but there is always something about Jean that seems different to Julian. Julian slowly uncovers pieces of information about something that we already know, that Jean is a Jew. But Julian is too young to understand what that even means. He has to ask his older brother "What is a Jew?" and "Why do people hate them?" He does not understand that they are being rounded up by the millions and being executed, or does he? The extent of what Julian does and doesn't know isn't quite clear; he can only grasp things with a child's understanding. He knows that people do not like Jews, but he also knows that likes his friend Jean.

There are no real dramatic moments or big emotional cues like in other Holocaust films. Instead the film focuses on the daily lives of the characters. We get to know each one personally as we see their daily routines, their lessons, their games. There are only brief moments of anti-Semitism, a snide comment here or there, with just one confrontation in a restaurant involving an older gentlemen being asked to leave by a soldier. The protectors of the school do their best to shield the kids away from their cruel surroundings.

The entire heart of the film lies in one single moment, an unconscious decision by Julian that accidentally outs Jean. When the Gestapo comes into the classroom asking for a boy named Kippelstein, Jean's real last name, the kids remain mum. Only Julian knows that name and he involuntarily looks back at Jean and in that split instant betrays his secret. It is such a heartbreaking moment of guilt for Julian who must live with that glance for the rest of his life. That Jean would have likely been figured out eventually anyways is besides the point. Julian let him down in the moment he needed him the most, a child's honest mistake, but one with adult consequences. The film was written and directed by Louis Malle, who based the story from his own childhood. That he felt he needed to tell this story forty years later is evidence of the heart wrenching moments that still lingers.

Grade: A

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