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Silence of the Sea

Silence of the Sea (1949)

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teaser Silence of the Sea (1949)

Jean Brullers wrote the novel The Silence of the Sea (Le Silence de la Mer) in 1941 inside occupied France. While the Nazis patrolled Paris, Brullers composed the tale under the pen name Vercors and had it secretly published and distributed, person to person, starting in 1942. It tells the story of a German officer occupying the home of an older French man and his niece, with the uncle and niece resisting their occupying force by remaining silent in front of the officer, no matter how strong the urge is to speak.

Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumback but when he joined up with the French Resistance he changed it to Melville in tribute to the great American writer, Herman Melville. He also served as a soldier in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944. During this time, like so many of his countrymen, he read The Silence of the Sea and was anxious to make the story his first feature length film. As soon as the war was over, he applied for a license to be an assistant director and attempted to secure the rights to Vercors'/Brullers's work. He failed on both counts. He was denied the license, something he was soon happy about as it forced him to form his own production company and independently make his own movies, and Brullers said "No," not just to Melville but to everyone. No one would make a movie out of The Silence of the Sea, period. Melville wasn't discouraged for a minute. He began writing Brullers and even met with him, first promising to allow Brullers complete script control, to which Brullers still said no, then promising to make the movie only for his own private viewing, which Brullers also denied. Finally, Melville took what little financing he could get and determined to make the movie first and apologize later. He promised he would show it to a panel selected by Brullers and if anyone on it voted against the film after seeing it, he would burn the negative. How serious he was is something history cannot answer but it never came to that anyway. Brullers liked the finished product as Melville always suspected he would.

The story, as stated above, is a simple one but operates on many levels. In fact, those multiple levels caused considerable controversy with the film, then and now. The German officer who comes to stay with the old man and his niece is a decent fellow, cultured and literate, and optimistic for the future of the German/French union, one he sees as being beneficial to both countries. He spends night after night speaking to both of them while they stare ahead, never responding. In one scene, he describes the story of "Beauty and the Beast" to the niece, alluding to both himself and Germany as the beast in the eyes of the niece and France but reminds her that eventually the beast is understood and seen to be loving and kind. He believes she and France will one day see the true nature of him and Germany. It is only later that the nave officer goes to Paris and finally sees the brutality of the occupation, as well as learning of the death camp in Treblinka.

The idea that a German officer could be so nave troubled many readers of the book and viewers of the film. This, coupled with the officer's basic decency and eventual change of heart towards his country, felt like an avoidance of the true nature of the evil at hand and a pass to the Germans, excusing their support of Nazism. But Brullers wrote the book with the intent of bolstering morale and empowering his countrymen, not presenting a realistic portrayal of Nazi officers. What Brullers wanted to do was make clear to the French that Germany would do everything in its power to crush France and no matter how civilized or decent some of them seemed to be, like the officer in his book, the French must resist and must not, under any circumstances, collaborate with the enemy.

Most of the film takes place in one room, as the old man and his niece sit by the fire while the German officer speaks. This made it easy for Melville to finance the film but also presented a challenge cinematically, on two levels. The first challenge was to tell the story without becoming visually staid. Melville and his cinematographer, Henri Deca, make great use of lighting and slowly changing motion to keep things from becoming dull. When the officer shows up, played by the great Howard Vernon in a beautifully rich and complex performance, he is lit dramatically from beneath, emphasizing his menace in the same way as a child holding a flashlight under their face. He is meant to seem like a monster from the moment we see him. Gradually, he is only shown in civilian clothes and the camera begins to follow him around the room, ever rising until he no longer feels imposing or dominating.

The second challenge was telling the old man's story even though he doesn't speak. Melville decided to have the old man narrate the film, allowing him to be heard throughout, even illuminating the audience as to his and his niece's thoughts during their nightly visits by the officer. In this way, the three characters engage in a conversation of sorts without ever directly speaking to each other.

The Silence of the Sea isn't as well known as some of Melville's other works, particularly Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Samoura (1967), L' Arme des ombres (1969), and Le Cercle rouge (1970), but it's just as important. As a first film (his first feature length film, having made one short before), it's an extraordinary and boldly stated work. Not many directors, their first movie out, would have the confidence to make one where eighty percent of the action is one man walking around two seated people by a fire in a single room. That he succeeded so brilliantly is a testament to his genius, a genius we lost far too early when he died of a heart attack at age of 55 in 1973. That the film still inspires discussion and controversy today is a testament to that genius as well, and a testament to the powerful story written by Jean Brullers, a story that still speaks to our better angels all these years later.

Producers: Jean-Pierre Melville, Marcel Cartier
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Writers: Jean-Pierre Melville from the story by Vercors (aka Jean Brullers)
Cinematography: Henri Deca
Film Editing: Henri Deca, Jean-Pierre Melville
Music: Edgar Bischoff
Cast: Howard Vernon (Werner von Ebrennac), Nicole Stphane(The Niece), Jean-Marie Robain (The Uncle), Ami Aare (Werner's fiance), Georges Patrix (L'ordonnance), Denis Sadier (L'ami)

By Greg Ferrara

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