What were your schooldays like? For me, if I’m honest, I didn’t care too much for them. Yes, there were some good moments, but overall I can’t really say I enjoyed them. I didn’t like a lot of the people there, and they likely weren’t too fond of me. However, Louis Malle’s schooldays were a bit different. He attended a Catholic boarding school in France, a place with no heat, cold water, bad food, and vermin. On top of that, this was during World War II, so the school was subject to regular air raids, not to mention inspections and patrols from both Nazi soldiers and French militia. By comparison, Malle clearly had a much rougher time of it than me, so I should probably just stop whining. As it is, when he grew to become a filmmaker, he decided to tell the story of his schooldays and his brief friendship with a Jewish boy being hidden in his school.
In the latter months of 1943, young Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) returns to his Catholic boarding school in the French countryside. Things are much the same, but for three new students, one of whom is a boy his age, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). Initially, Julien doesn’t like Jean, but the two eventually grow to become friends. However, after Julien secretly goes through Jean’s belongings, he discovers his secret – Jean is a Jew being hidden from the Nazis by the friars who run the school.
Louis Malle was 11 years old when he witnessed Gestapo officers enter his school on a cold January morning in 1944, instructing the students to stand in the courtyard whilst they searched the premises for any Jewish children or adults trying to hide out at the school. Three young boys and one teacher were discovered to be Jews and were removed from the grounds, along with the headmaster that allowed them to be secreted within his walls. He watched as they were all taken away, never to be seen again. He would later find out that the three boys and the teacher were taken immediately to Auschwitz, where they were gassed on arrival. The headmaster would also die in a concentration camp at Mauthausen, though this would be after the liberation, as he refused to leave until all of his fellow French prisoners had been repatriated. This headmaster was Père Jacques, a rather well-known figure for his attempts to save Jewish people from the Nazis. It was partly in tribute to him that Malle decided to make Au Revoir Les Enfants (Goodbye, Children), which would be the old man’s last words to his students.
Part of what makes this film so remarkable is that it doesn’t really immerse itself in this bleak and heavy subject matter, instead choosing to focus on a simpler and ultimately more hopeful story – the friendship between two boys. Honestly, I’m not sure as to whether or not Malle really was close friends with one of the boys that was taken that day, but this is not the point. The point is that these boys, all of them, had a connection with each other simply because of how much time they spent in each other’s company. They went to class together, played together, ate together, attended church together, lived together. These boys literally grew up with each other, experiencing the same ups and downs, the same joys and cruelties, the same figures and memories. The connection between them ultimately trumps any religious or political considerations. They’re friends because they would stay up late reading The Arabian Nights together, or talking about Jules Verne, or discovering the magic of Charlie Chaplin.
Of course, this is not to suggest some idyllic setting where they were all inseparably close with one another. They were still children, and as we can all attest, children can be cruel. Teasing and humiliation was as much a part of their lives as were lessons and confession. The targets vary, depending on what was the easiest thing to mock. For example, one boy is quietly ridiculed because he apparently masturbates too much, so his brains have “turned to mush”. Julien is just as open to this ridicule as anyone, leading to him desperately trying to hide that fact that he occasionally still wets the bed. Even the staff are not safe, with the assistant cook being regularly accosted for his shabby appearance and bad leg. As would be expected, much of this hostility is turned on the new boy in the class, Jean Bonnet. All of the boys take an immediate dislike to him, and for a multitude of reasons. Part of it is that he’s the new kid, and that’s just what happens. Part of it is that he’s a quiet and awkward type, so he’s an easy target for those wanting to feel big. Part of it is that he’s very smart, gifted in arithmetic and piano, which makes the other boys look bad by comparison. Almost everything about the boy sets him apart from the others, makes him seem different. It is, I’m sure, no coincidence that Jean is the only left-handed boy in his class, though this is never mentioned, rather just something you notice. His name is also a source of his trouble, with the other boys calling him “Easter bonnet”. Of course, this name is more preferable to his real one, since his real one could get him in a lot of trouble.
Julien, Malle’s filmic counterpart, takes an immediate dislike to Jean, just like the others. However, he also seems to be drawn by a strange curiosity about him, too. He makes casual attempts at something close to friendship, or at least civility, towards Jean, but is often rejected offhand. Julien’s curiosity is particularly peaked when he wakes in the middle of the night, and sees Jean performing a Shabbat prayer, though Jean is unaware of Julien’s attention. When Julien finally, but quietly confronts Jean about what he now knows about him, Jean backs away immediately. Julien is now a threat to his safety. However, the pair develop a more solid bond after a game of Capture the Flag goes awry and the pair become stranded in the woods. After wandering aimlessly a little while, they are picked up by a German patrol car. The German’s don’t suspect anything wrong, and Julien never volunteers any information about Jean. Instead, they sit hugged together under the same blanket, as the soldiers drive them back to their school. Their brief scare is past, and the boys are much closer for it.
Malle’s work on the film, both as a writer and director, shows a tremendous eye for the details of the story. There are so many small moments that add wonderfully to the texture of the film, like when one of the boys faints in church, or the boys finding a dirty magazine on a trip to the bathhouses, or having to shoo away a mouse when trying steal some sugar. These are the kinds of odd memories you remember from your schooldays. And it’s all presented in such a naturalistic, almost docu-drama style. There’s no attempt to force an unnaturally pleasing composition on the visuals, giving the camera freer movement. And there is no music in the film, except for the small pieces that are played during music lessons or in church or during a screening of Chaplin’s The Immigrant. In regard to that scene, it’s such a lovely moment. For a couple of minutes, all of the boys forget everything about their surroundings or the war or whether or not they like each other. They all experience the film together, laughing at Chaplin’s antics and falling a little bit in love with Edna Purviance. I love scenes like this in films, mainly because they show why films are so important to those that make them.
As strongly as the sense of the time and place have a bearing on what we as an audience feel, what comes through just as strong is the moments of childhood that shape us as we grow, like the friendships that stay with us into later years. As young Julien watches his friend be taken away, a voice comes over the visuals. An older Julien, we can assume voiced by Malle himself, tells us that after forty years, the memory of that morning has not dimmed. The final image is a heart-rending picture of innocence being taken, with the boy forever changed by his friendship with someone that was taken from him in an act of ultimate cruelty.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is a sad and poignant tale of childhood and friendship, told with a wonderful clarity and naturalistic style, making the truth of it all the more resonant. Louis Malle has captured not just the details of his own memories of growing up, but something more universal and significant about growing up and beginning to see the world in a less childlike manner. Unlike many other people of his age, Malle remembers what it was like to be young.