‘Le Silence De La Mer’ screens at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films on Tuesday, September 27th at 7:00 P.M.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s film debut, Le Silence De La Mer (The Silence Of The Sea) (France, 1949) was a labor of love. Melville (whose real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach – he paid homage to Herman in his nom-de-plume) was active in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France, and was intimately familiar with the book of the same name which he chose to adapt. Written by ‘Vercors,’ it was published and distributed in secret, and tells the story of a man and his niece who were required to provide room and board in their small rural cottage to an aristocratic German officer who had been transferred there. The officer is civil and cultured, and takes great care in being as unobtrusive as possible. But the man and niece retain a stony, distanced silence toward their boarder, neither welcoming nor confronting him. The film, for the most part, is an extended monologue by the officer, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon, a terrific Swiss-born actor who later became a regular for Spanish trashmeister Jess Franco), and primarily takes place in the modest living room of the house.
Von Ebrennac is an idealist, looking forward to uniting Germany and France and envisioning a European culture that is far greater than the sum of its present (and historical) parts. The reactions and feelings of the two inhabitants are communicated in remarkably subtle ways; small shifts in facial expression, tiny gestures – the niece loses the thread from the eye of her sewing needle, the uncle distractedly stretches his hand toward the fireplace – and the dogged repetition of their daily routine. As the film progresses, von Ebrennac becomes aware of the stark differences between his own aspirations and the actual aims of the regime he’s part of, and we, and the uncle and niece, are torn between all of the likable things about him as an individual and his seemingly naïve complicity in the greater horrors he’s enabling. The ‘resistance’ of the two inhabitants, in their own private way, is just as disruptive, just as condemning, as any weapon, conspiracy or sabotage could be.
Melville and his cinematographer, the great Henri Decaë, draw beautifully evocative black-and-white imagery from the apparently limited boundaries of the small cottage. His camera angles and lighting borrow from some of the extremes of German Expressionist film, and there are myriad variations in his shots of an otherwise static environment, but they’re put in unobtrusive service to the intimacy of the scenario.
The U. of C.’s Doc Films will feature a different Jean-Pierre Melville film, or a film informed by Melville’s examples, every Tuesday throughout the Fall. This is just the first of a fantastic oeuvre; also featured will be ‘Le Samouraï’ (the inspiration for John Woo’s ‘The Killer’), ‘L’Armée des Ombres’ (Army Of Shadows, a completely different view of the French Resistance), and ‘Le Cercle Rouge,’ a smart and hard-boiled heist-noir, his final film, from 1970. Be sure to peruse the entire Tuesday schedule – it’s loaded with small masterpieces.