Based on a real incident that took place while director Louis Malle was a student at a French boarding school during World War II, 1987’s Au Revoir Les Enfants tells the story of the friendship between Julien (Gaspard Manesse) and the mysterious Jean (Raphael Mejto), who’s hiding his real identity under the protection of the school’s priests.
I wouldn’t want to ruin the secrets of this deeply touching film directed by Malle with utmost honesty and tenderness, even though the truth about Jean’s identity becomes pretty obvious from the get-go. All I can say is that Au Revoir Les Enfants might be one of the best films ever made about the Holocaust, even though not a single frame takes place in a concentration camp. The reason behind this lies in the way Malle treats his characters as real people instead of ethnic identities and it’s their interpersonal relationships that matter for the story, instead of the politics that surround it.
The best scene in the film involves Julien asking his brother about why the Christians hate the Jews. His brother says it’s because they killed their lord. Julien promptly corrects him by saying “That’s not true. The Romans killed our lord.” The scene is not handled in a melodramatic or preachy way, the way it would have in other films about the Holocaust, but in a sympathetic manner that understands the reasons behind the character’s curiosity.
Malle’s slow pacing for the film is precisely how it hooks us in and manages to personally involve all the way to its heartbreaking finale. It starts off as yet another auteur’s autobiographical nostalgia piece about their innocent days of youth, a-la 400 Blows, then slowly introduces the harsh politics and confusion of the era while still being able to keep the personal stories in the foreground. It’s quite an unsung masterpiece.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is available on Hulu Plus and from The Criterion Collection.
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