I had always meant to watch Au revoir les enfants, by Louis Malle, but it seemed like one of those “art” movies that might be a bit pretentious or tedious. So
it was a revelation to watch it the other evening, as it is a great,
great movie, one that leaves you changed after you’ve seen it. It’s based on Malle’s memories of an event at a Catholic boys school where he was a student, in France in 1943. Three new students had been enrolled, and Malle’s alter ego, Julien, made friends with one of them, a boy named Jean. As it turns out, the school’s headmaster Pere Jacques de Jesus, was providing refuge for the three boys, who were Jewish. A disgruntled kitchen helper named Joseph, who is resentful of the boys at the school because they are well-to-do, informs on the three boys, and the Gestapo raids the school. By a mere glance, Julien unintentionally reveals that Jean is one of
the Jewish students. The three students and Pere de Jesus are taken away and killed in death camps. As Pere de Jesus leaves, he bids farewell to the students: “Goodbye, children. See you soon.”
No matter how much you know about the Holocaust, at a certain level it is still hard to fathom how it happened. This film shows you one of the mechanisms. French society was rife with anti-semitism. The particular Germans shown in this film are pretty decent; it’s the French who are the “heavies.” The resentment of the kitchen helper, who had been disciplined by Pere de Jesus for petty theft, was enough to turn him against the three boys and to take malicious pleasure in sending them to their terrible fate.
This is a memory told with crystalline clarity and beauty. It removes any distance we may feel from a long past historic event, and replaces it with palpable reality. Perhaps Louis Malle made it to atone for what had to be a terrible, shocking moment in his young life. In the movie, as the narrator, he
says “More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that
January morning until the day I die.”
In French, with subtitles.