Le Silence de la mer, Melville’s first feature film, was shot in 1949 on a shoestring budget, based on the novel of the same name by Jean Bruller, under the pen name of Vercours.The plot is simple: a German lieutenant, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) moves in with a rural French family during the Nazi occupation of World War II, consisting of an old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), who refuse to speak to him during the time he is billeted there. Courteous, cultured, and superficially charming, von Ebrennac is an impractical idealist, who is proud of German heritage and culture, but who also believes that in the end, the war will serve a common good; the uniting of Germany and France, and the intermingling of each nation’s cultures.
Night after night, von Ebrennac emerges from his bedroom upstairs with the deepest politeness, and engages in a series of seemingly endless monologues about the future of France and Germany, the cultural history of both nations, his childhood and upbringing, his first romance, and his faith in the Nazi hierarchy. During all the time, the uncle and his niece say not a single word to von Ebrennac, who despite his position of power, doesn’t threaten or intimidate them, but rather longingly expresses his hope that someday the two nations will “marry,” while making obvious allusions to his attraction to the old man’s niece.
One day, von Ebrennac announces that he has been called to Paris to meet with the Nazi hierarchy. Here Melville manages to blend newsreel footage of the Occupation with staged footage of Vernon, as von Ebrennac, taking in the sights, and reveling in the city’s cultural atmosphere. A music composer during peacetime, von Ebrennac doesn’t really know how barbaric the Nazi regime is, until one functionary tells him of the death camps at Treblinka, and later, a group of Nazi officers at a party reveal that their true plan is to crush French culture entirely, to destroy the entire nation down to the ground so that it can then be rebuilt according to Hitler’s plans, stating that “only technical books” in French will be allowed – everything else, modern or old, will be summarily destroyed.
Von Ebrennac finds this impossible to believe, but gradually realizes that he has been duped into joining the Nazi cause. When he returns to the old man’s house, von Ebrennac relates the story of his “grave” discovery in detail, one which he finds impossible to accept. Finally comprehending the monstrous nature of the regime he so blindly supported, von Ebrennac files an application for active duty on the Eastern Front, where he will almost surely be killed. As he puts it, I’m “off to Hell.” A last shot suggests that he may disobey future orders given to him by the Nazi regime, but this is left unresolved.
Shot in Bruller’s own house in 27 non-consecutive days by the great Henri Decaë – his first film as a Director of Cinematography – Le silence de la mer manages to pull off a neat trick; though it’s utterly claustrophobic in design and execution, and is essentially a series of monologues by Von Ebrennac, the film is continually visually inventive, and through an intricate design of fade in / fade outs and wipes, weaves a spell over the viewer, who soon becomes invested not only in Von Ebrennac’s coming to consciousness, but also in the outcome of the narrative – how on earth will this battle of wills be resolved?
Some have described it as a love story, but if so, it’s one that never really announces itself; the niece may indeed be a sort of stand-in for France as a whole, but this is never unduly emphasized. Instead, the film explores what happens when a tyrannical regime recruits an aesthete, and what then transpires when that person discovers he’s been deceived. Bruller wrote the novel in 1941; it was published clandestinely during the Occupation, and circulated by members of the Resistance, during a time when the possession of single copy of the work was punishable by death. Bruller was initially resistant to the idea of adapting his novel to film, despite offering the use of his house as a shooting location, and stipulated that when the film was completed, it would have to pass a “jury test” by 27 members of the former Resistance, to see if it was faithful to the novel, and should be released.
If the jury voted against the film, Melville promised to burn the negative and all prints. Thankfully, only one member of this “jury” voted against the film, and now it has been digitally restored in glorious fashion, first by Eureka DVD in Europe, and now in the United States from Criterion. This is a superb, one of a kind film – and a real window not only into the past of cinema, but also to an era in which films were made for the sake of art, rather than commerce – when individual talent was sufficient to overcome all financial and practical obstacles. And, of course, although he loved film noir and American crime films, Melville never sold out and went Hollywood – instead, he remained an individual and committed artist, something that’s completely rare these days.