29 years after Louis Malle made his first feature film, he finally brought the painful memory that pushed him to filmmaking to the screen with ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants.’
Part of the emotional impact of tragic war dramas like Schindler’s List and The Pianist is the reveal that they were based on true stories at the end. What those films lack, however, is the benefit of having the writer, director, and producer witness the events in the film firsthand. The authenticity in Louis Malle’s autobiographical Au Revoir Les Enfants is obvious even before his voice cuts over the climax at the end. With its 30th anniversary this week, we’ll look at the history behind one of Malle’s best films and the power it still holds on today’s audiences.
Born into a wealthy Catholic family, Louis Malle was fortunate enough to be sent to a boarding school during Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Through an alter ego Julien Quentin (played by Gaspard Manesse), Malle tells the story of the end of his childhood in Au Revoir Les Enfants.
The film follows Quentin from his departure from his mother at the train station to his intriguing encounter with the only boy brighter than him at school, a Jewish refugee Jean “Bonnet” Kipplestein (played by Raphael Fejtö) hidden from Germans by the priest Pére Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud). The boys’ friendship begins at odds with Julien’s bratty response to a new student he is unable to understand. Their love of books brings them together and they connect amidst the turmoil of WWII that Julien has yet to realize.
Its a film wrought with real struggles of growing up, battling the want to stay in the comfort of our parents’ arms while aspects of adult life beckon outside their safety. Malle clearly constructs the daily life of schoolboys with a fondness for a simpler time, but always intersects simple activities with the looming truth that the boys’ shelter from current affairs at school cannot last forever. These small moments where we see the separation between the rest of the boys and Bonnet are where Malle’s hand in the narrative truly shines.
The real Jean “Bonnet” Kipplestein that Louis Malle befriended for only a short few weeks before his Jewish identity was given to Gestapo authorities was German-born Hans Helmut Michel. After his father’s suicide in response to Hilter’s rise to power, Michel’s mother took their family to Paris. There they were a part of the first French mass deportation of Jews, where Michel was separated from his family thanks to the pity of a Paris police guard. Passed along several Catholic churches, Michel was led to the same boarding school Louis Malle was sent to, Petit College d’Avon.
There Michel’s indifference to the other schoolboys’ teasing and ease of threatening Malle’s stance as the school’s top student caught Malle’s attention. In Au Revoir Les Enfants, Bonnet slowly reveals his Jewish identity to Quentin. Bonnet’s name wasn’t Catholic. His parents never visited. He didn’t eat pork paté. After Quentin finds Bonnet’s book inscribed to Jean Kipplestein, he realizes Jean’s Jewish identity.
This is where Malle admits the fiction element of the film steps in. Possibly as an ode to the kind of close friendship he was never able to have with Michel or simply as a plot device, the confidential relationship that does develop between Quentin and Bonnet makes the ending that much more heartbreaking. As Bonnet complies to the Gestapo officer’s commands to leave the classroom, Quentin reaches out his hand to shake touch Bonnet one last time.
Louis Malle told The New York Times when Au Revoir was released in the United States in 1988 that he “reinvented the past in the pursuit of a haunting truth.” Even in the moments of fiction, Malle’s connection to the story emotionally is obvious. He lingers on Quentin’s reaction to the misfortune of the those around him like Bonnet and the kitchen worker Joseph (who gives Bonnet and the priest up to the Gestapo). He recognizes his privilege in the situation and shows the guilt that evidently followed.
Although he claims this moment of watching his new friend taken away by German soldiers was the moment that “triggered [his] becoming a filmmaker,” Malle waited until he built a solid career before attempting to put it on screen. The delicate way he shows the complex characters of the film is partly thanks to the retrospect that he allowed before writing about it. He spent years researching what happened to Michel, the two other Jewish boys that were in the Petit College, and the priest after they were taken from the school. Once he felt comfortable with the story he constructed from memory, he showed the screenplay to his brother, who went to the school as well, and the few surviving teachers he had.
The memory is dear to Malle, which shows in the intimate moments between Quentin and those he encounters within these few weeks we see in the film. The impact of his mother, his brother, Peré Jean, Bonnet, Joseph, and the Gestapo have on Quentin’s transition into adulthood is moving in a unique way. This is because of Malle’s relationship to the material, as he says to the NYT: “I remember in every detail some of the scenes, like Bonnet’s face. When you get older, lots of things come back, they sort of float up out of memory, things that I had blocked out for years.” His ability to turn a memory into a story that makes everyone feel as he did at the moment is a skill reserved for true masters.
What makes the film still accessible to today’s audience isn’t just the popularity of the subject, but the way the characters deal with an evil force larger than themselves. This is especially true in Peré Jean’s character, who risks everything to try to save three Jewish boys as best he can. Throughout the film, his passion to help others is the overarching hope in a story doomed for tragedy. He preaches to the parents just as much as the children when he tells them, “More than ever,
Throughout the film, his passion to help others is the overarching hope in a story doomed for tragedy. He preaches to the parents just as much as the children when he tells them, “More than ever, we must beware of selfishness and indifference.” He calls for their action, a controversial position for a priest but a necessary one. The best moment, however, is when he catches the schoolboys trading food with Joseph. He is not angry at Joseph for creating a black market within the school, but with the boys for hoarding food and supplies that could have been shared with the other students who are less fortunate than them. His passion for reaching the children is what transcends the story beyond the time it is set.
The courage displayed in the film is something that anyone can take with them, Catholic or not. The responsibility to do better by those who need help is not limited to times of war, but the urgency makes it that more evident to the viewer. Modern viewers can connect with the characters and the man behind them directly, which makes this film a must watch on its 30th anniversary.
You can stream Au Revoir Les Enfants at Filmstruck.