Au Revoir Les Enfantes: Holocaust in Film

Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).
Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a 1987 film directed by Louis Malle. The film is a biographical war drama that focuses on events at a French boarding school run by priests during World War II. The film follows the developing relationship between two students, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet, who is actually named Jean Kippelstein. Father Jean, the school’s principal, has been hiding Jewish children in the school to save their lives. As the story develops, Julien realizes that Jean isn’t like everyone else. To hide his identity and excuse the fact that he doesn’t know the Catholic prayers, Jean Bonnet claims to be Protestant, but Julien discovers the truth. Instead of driving a wedge between them, this shared secret brings them closer together.

Based on a true story, this film demonstrates the level of common knowledge of Jews in France and how they were seen by their French neighbors. The relationship in France between Jews and non-Jews is presented as being complex, rather than black and white. This can best be seen in the restaurant scene, where an older man is sitting alone and Vichy government officials come in and ask him for his papers. When the official discovers the old man is a Jew the official begins to harass him. Some of the restaurant’s patrons express feelings similar to the official’s, but the majority believe the official’s actions are a disgrace and an affront to human dignity, including Julien’s mother.

But, how much did the average French person really know about Jews? When Julien asks his brother to explain what makes a person Jewish, his response is that a Jew is a person who doesn’t eat pork. When Julien asks why everyone hates the Jews, his brother tells him it is because Jewish people are smarter than non-Jews, and because they killed Christ, which Julien dismisses as an obvious lie, since the Romans were responsible for crucifying Christ.  Perhaps this scene is meant to convey the idea that there really aren’t any significant differences between Jews and non-Jews, since Julien continues his friendship with Jean. It is interesting that Jean was at the top of his class, along with Julien, and they manage to develop a strong friendship, while their less intelligent peers are still spouting stereotypes and comparing Jews to Communists and Germans. Perhaps the message here is that a little intelligence and thought leads to peaceful coexistence.

Jean spends most of the film trying to blend in with his classmates, for obvious reasons, but throughout the film he’s shown as being slightly different. He stands out, not necessarily because he looks different, but because of his demeanor. He carries himself differently from the other students. In many scenes he appears to be hunched over slightly, or he walks differently. It almost looks like he’s physically struggling with the mental burden of staying hidden. He does tell Julien that he is afraid all the time. Jean’s desperate need to fit in causes him to attempt to take communion, perhaps to prove to his friend that he is not so different from him, or perhaps because he feared that since Julien noticed that he is Jewish, he should redouble his efforts to appear Protestant. That could also explain why he hid during choir practice, to avoid revealing his unfamiliarity with Christian hymns.

The scene I found most interesting in the film was when Jean was removed from the classroom, because of how his classmates reacted. After the schoolyard repetition of stereotypes and expressions of dislike for Jews, the students did not react violently when they discovered that Jean was Jewish. When the priest came in and asked the boys to say a prayer for their classmates, there wasn’t any rowdiness. In other scenes that involve prayer, there is rough-housing, mocking or laughter. But in this scene, there is solidarity, and later, the non-Jewish students are proud that Negus was able to avoid capture, implying that familiarity dispels ignorance and breeds acceptance and friendship. I wonder if, when producing this scene, the director was specifically thinking of laïcité, the French conception of secularism, which states that religion doesn’t matter because the French are French first.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is an interesting film that depicts the French response to German occupation and fascist doctrine regarding the Jewish community. Some collaborated, some resisted, some were apathetic and some profited from exposing Jews in hiding. But, the film also shows that understanding and familiarity are important tools to overcoming stereotypes. The acting in the film is excellent and the director’s portrayal of Jean Bonnet and his classmates expresses the emotions and ideas buried in the story of Julien of Jean’s friendship excellently.

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