Au Revoir Les Enfants

I got my hair did today, which was fun - more summery blonde in it, it's so cute! After that, Anthony and I ran some errands, including grabbing some Criterions at B&N's sale. I had a bunch of coupons for $5 - $10 off at various stores, and some for free birthday gifts, so I went to those places to collect my presents. It was a pretty fun day out :) I had plans to go out for dinner for my birthday, and when I got home, I wanted to start watching a little of my movie before we left. I put on Au Revoir Les Enfants, directed by Louis Malle in 1987, and I couldn't turn it off like I planned. I was so engrossed in it that I didn't want to do anything else.

It was a great movie. It was also a sad movie, which I know really turns people off. I think this is really unfortunate - you can learn so much from movies, and just looking for ones that you can use to distract yourself or "turn off your brain" causes you to really miss out on so much. I was crying at the end of this movie, but I also felt like I saw something I never even thought of or heard of before. A new perspective on an important subject I heard a lot about. A glimpse of a life that I never could lead. And how can that not make you wiser?

This is a hard, if not impossible, film to write about without spoiling most of it. I'm going to try to avoid that, because I'm glad I wasn't robbed of any emotional reactions because I knew something ahead of time. I will say that probably, if you want to see this movie, just don't read my post. I probably give more away than I mean to.

The film is about a Catholic boy's school during World War II. It focuses on Julien and Jean, two boys who start to form an uneasy friendship. Jean is new to the school, and is picked on by his schoolmates. Julien dislikes him at first. Jean is competition - he's better in school, and better at playing piano (and at winning the affection of the cute piano teacher). Julien starts to learn about a secret that Jean has, though. He realizes that he doesn't got to church services, or choir practice. Jean never receives communion - the priests always pass over him. As Julien snoops around, he learns the secret - Jean has a different last name than the one he goes by, a name that identifies him as being Jewish. The priests at the school are hiding him. After a tense and scary game of capture the flag that ends in Julien and Jean being shuttled back to the safety of the school by the Nazis (who else?) the two boys become friends.

I feel like I've already ruined the whole movie. It's such an effective film. I love that it was told from a child's perspective. The whole world of the film is only Julien's world. There are other Jewish students at the school, but we don't know that, because Julien doesn't know that. If any of the other students have issues with Jewish people, we never see that. We only see Julien, who seems pretty open minded. It really made it easy to get lost in the film, because I felt like I had such an easy character to connect with. I liked that I felt like I was puzzling things out with Julien, and that I didn't know everything all the time.

Sometimes movies set in World War II are huge - they cover a lot of different characters and people at once, and are big, scoping productions. This movie was so perfect because it just told this quiet, personal story. This happened to Julien while he was at boarding school. That's it. It didn't have war scenes, or big shots of concentration camps. It was so subtle and small. That's what I mean when I say it was something new. I never saw such a personal little snapshot of life during this time before. It made me think about new and different things, and was enlightening, I guess you could say. 

I loved that Malle so perfectly captured what daily life was like for these boys. There were so many details of their lives that we saw - I felt like I was right there with them. It made me feel so close to Julien and Jean. As I read about the film afterward, I realized why Malle was able to so wonderfully create this world - it was real for him. Malle actually attended a Catholic boarding school. The events of the film (which, unlike Ebert, I'm not going to spoil here) are something that he witnessed as a student. I paused as I read it. "I feel like I'm going to cry again," I told Anthony. It was so much more powerful to know that it was real, that I was moved by something that had so deeply affected others. It really was stunning, and I understand why I was so touched by the film. How could I not be, when Malle was telling such a powerful and personal story?

Stop reading here if you haven't seen the film. Seriously. Stop. Spoilers.

As much as I was sad at the end of the film, I was so happy that it did not end perfectly. It wasn't that I was happy that anything bad happened to the characters, but I felt that the ending was so important and real. The Holocaust was tragic. Innocent people, including children, died during it, and it was terrible. It was appropriate the the movie was terrible. I thought that maybe it would end well because it involved kids, but it is realistic that it did not. I had the worst chills at the end when Malle did the voice over mentioning what happened to the boys and the father. He mentioned that Pere Jean died at Mauthausen, and I felt sick. I visited Mauthausen when I was in Europe, and I rarely hear it mentioned in films. I just felt really unsettled by that for some reason. I remember what it looked like in the barracks there. I remember the quarry, the Death Stairs, the gas chamber. I remember how it felt, and I felt so upset to think of this character there. I felt worse when I realized that the story was real. It was really powerful before, and more so in that moment. I love the movie for this - I certainly won't watch it again tomorrow, but that does not make it not an incredible film. It was incredible for it's realism, for showing me something that I didn't understand before. I hope this makes sense, I feel very rambly.

Ok, spoilers over. 

It's hard for me to write about this movie because I know a lot of people won't want to see something that someone pegs as "sad". I already said I feel frustrated by that, and I hope that I didn't turn people off just by saying it was a sad movie. It's so important. I haven't really seen this side of WWII before. I rarely see this side of the Holocaust - the small and personal side. It's just a perfect, beautiful film, and I'm so happy that I finally saw it. I feel like I could keep writing about this all night, even though it's so difficult. I really haven't been able to stop talking about it. It really affected me, and I think it's just amazing to find such a wonderful, powerful film.

Have any thoughts about Au Revoir Les Enfants? Share them in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Au Revoir Les Enfants
Buy it on Amazon


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