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.

The Pianist: The Holocaust in Film

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

The Pianist, released in the United States in 2003, is a biographical, historical drama about the struggle of a Polish Jew to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. The movie is based on the autobiographical book of the same name, written by Wladyslaw Szpilman about his own experiences surviving the Holocaust in Warsaw. The film also incorporates some of the childhood memories of the director, Roman Polanski, who also survived the Holocaust. In the film, Szpilman is a brilliant pianist living in Warsaw who, along with his family, suffers the increasing restrictions placed on Jews under Nazi occupation. Eventually, he is forced into the Warsaw ghetto along with his family and the rest of the Jewish community. Later, during the liquidation of the ghetto, he manages to evade deportation, but his family isn’t as lucky. He briefly survives as part of a work detail and then escapes and remains in hiding in various places in the city until the war is over.


Szpilman, near the end of The Pianist, caveman-like and dehumanized.

Szpilman, near the end of The Pianist, caveman-like and dehumanized.

One of the main themes in the film is the degradation and dehumanization of the Jewish people who suffered through the Holocaust. Szpilman, who begins the film as an accomplished pianist, epitomizes the gradual slide into a state of inhumanity as the film progresses. The first restriction of his status as a human being is the implementation of the racial laws that restrict Jewish people from entering or using public facilities, which sets Jews apart from and below the non-Jewish residents. The next step down occurs during the ghettoization of the Warsaw Jews, restricting their ability to interact with “normal” people. Jewish businesses are seized. Jews are placed in a situation where they have to fight over food and living space like animals competing for territory.

The closing scene of The Pianist, where Szpilman's return to humanity is shown through his performance.

The closing scene of The Pianist, where Szpilman’s return to humanity is shown through his performance.

When the Jewish population in the ghetto is rounded up to be exterminated, Szpilman is attached to a work crew that is, presumably, left alive to deconstruct the Warsaw ghetto. At this point, he has been completely devalued except insofar as he is able to labor, a long fall from where he began as a cultured and talented pianist. Ironically, after he escapes the ghetto, he becomes caged up in an apartment, first out of fear of leaving and then because he is literally locked in, like a caged animal. When that situation falls apart, the last vestiges of humanity slip away and he is depicted as an animal scavenging for food wherever he can find it, first in the abandoned hospital and then in the bombed out wrecks of houses. It is only after the war that the restoration of his humanity occurs, which is demonstrated by the closing scene of Szpilman playing in concert to a crowded room.

Szpilman, on a street in the Kraków Ghetto, after Nazi liquidation of the Jewish community.

Szpilman, on a street in the Kraków Ghetto, after Nazi liquidation of the Jewish community.

An interesting recurring theme in the film is the depiction of city streets. The streets in this film are definitely used as a visual tool to indicate status or mood. The increasing violence against Jewish people after the Nazi invasion is shown through the scene where the old man is struck by the Nazi patrolman and is made to walk in the gutter. In the Warsaw ghetto, the dehumanization of the Jews is shown through the crossing guards that make random Jews dance with each other in the street, while waiting to cross over the road for non-Jews. The worsening situation is shown through the constant appearance of bodies in the street in different stages of decay. After Szpilman escapes the deportation, a long shot is shown of him walking, alone, down a street littered with luggage, clothing and furniture, perhaps to emphasize the scale of the deportation and how alone he is.

When Szpilman is on the work detail, the plight of the Jews is emphasized by the abundance of food and vibrant life in the Warsaw street market. Even the colors seem brighter in that scene, as if to emphasize the vitality of local life compared to the gray drudgery of what Szpilman endures. This isn’t the only scene where color is important. As Szpilman’s situation worsens, the colors in the film get progressively darker, until the war ends and golden light floods the scene when Szpilman and his colleague go back to the farm to try to find the Nazi officer that helped Szpilman survive.

After escaping the work detail, in both apartments and when he is in the hospital, Szpilman’s view of the world is restricted to what he can see on the streets outside his window. The last dramatic view of the streets in the film is when Szpilman is escaping the hospital and the camera pans up to give us a top-down, long shot of bombed-out buildings. When compared to the long shot of the street full of luggage and empty buildings after the deportation, this scene of bombed out buildings is probably meant to indicate the difference of degree in Szpilman’s isolation. Now, there really is no one around, not other Jews and not even Poles.


One of the great ironies of the story is that Szpilman found his greatest security when he was literally sitting on top of the Nazi headquarters. As the film progresses, Szpilman receives help from various people. In the beginning, he is helped by his family. In the ghetto, he is helped by other Jews. When he escapes the deportation, he is helped by a Jewish collaborator. When he escapes the work detail, he is helped by ordinary Poles and then the Polish resistance. At the end of that road, he was given the food that kept him alive until the end of the war by a Nazi military officer. What does it mean? Being a true story, it probably doesn’t mean anything, but it’s an interesting coincidence and a window onto the complexity of the situation. Schindler wasn’t the only Nazi with a kind heart, though it may be argued, especially because of the scene where the Nazi captain is in the Russian POW camp, that he may have been kind to Szpilman specifically because he realized he was a man with influence that could possibly help him if he were captured.

In The Pianist, Jews are portrayed as victims of an outside ideology. In the beginning of the film, Szpilman seems to fit in quite well with non-Jewish members of his community and was in the process of developing a relationship with a non-Jewish woman. Though I’m unfamiliar with World War II history in Poland, the Poles in the film do not generally seem to be favorably disposed towards fascism and an underground resistance movement is shown as active and willing to help Jews escape into hiding. The Pianist is an outstanding film that helps explain the horrors and dehumanization of the Holocaust.