Some of the best films of celebrated filmmakers have been their debut films because they put in all their pent up creative energy in that effort to find recognition as a director. Examples are Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane(1941), Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge) (1958), Mike Nichols' Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Sir Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977), and Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007). Unfortunately, they rarely are/were able to repeat or improve on that amazing quality that is often not tailored for commercial viability but more for artistic value.
Very few cineastes would associate the director Jean-Pierre Melville with his debut film Silence of the Sea; most will associate him with his cops and robbers action films or noir crime films, such as The Samurai, films that have a wider appeal.That's because Silence of the Sea is essentially unusual and intense filmmaking so different from the rest of his films. The film mainly is built around three characters with one talking most of the time and the other two of them rarely or almost never speaking to the camera. It’s unforgettable film-making, with amazing play of light and shadow and camera angles that recall German expressionist cinema. Of course, each of the aforementioned debut films by the different directors too had exhibited that finesse of melding the plot with incredible unusual technical quality. All these are films for the lover of quality cinema not for the lover of escapist thrills.
The uninvited guest--a Nazi officer--is thrust into the world of French uncle and niece duo during the German occupation
Silence of the Sea is based on a French novel written 7 years before the film was made. The novel was written by Jean Marcel Bruller better known by his pen name “Vercors.” He was part of the French resistance against the Nazi invaders of during World War II. Director Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach and, like Vercors, was also a part of the French resistance with a code name Melville (after the novelist Herman Melville). And his name “Grumbach” transformed officially into “Melville,” once he launched his career in cinema. Jean-Pierre Melville almost did not make this important debut feature film, first because Vercors did not think he could do justice to his novel and refused permission to film it. Melville coaxed Vercors to a wager that he would destroy the film if any in a jury of 24 French resistance workers disapproved the final film product. Vercors reluctantly agreed to that wager. Then the debutant director Melville had to face another hurdle: two of his cinematographers left the project, one after the other. Debutant cinematographer Henri Decaë was the third choice and this was his debut as well. And what a debut that turned out to be!
The speaker and the two silent listeners
As mentioned earlier Silence of the Sea revolves around three characters. One is a German Nazi Lieutenant called Werner von Ebrennac (played by Howard Vernon) and the other two are French residents of a French village—an elderly pipe-smoking man living with his niece, shown cooking and knitting indoors in most of the film’s duration. They are nameless—the filmmakers/Vercors do not name them. They represent the proud but conquered French population. For some unknown reason the house of this French duo is chosen for the German officer to stay and as a conquered nation the French family obliges but refuses to communicate with their uninvited guest.
The German officer who's changed into his civilian dress gives regular monologues on why he appreciates French literature, as the French elder seems to pay more attention to his pipe
Most of Silence of the Sea is filmed in the very house the author Vercors wrote the novel. The film thus gets reduced to regular pleasant monologues of the German officer to his silent hosts in the evenings as the old man either smokes or holds his pipe and his niece is preoccupied with her knitting. The victor in war tries to communicate with the vanquished. In return, all he gets is silence, not even a visual acceptance of his physical presence. The old man is forever seemingly preoccupied tending his pipe, and the young lady busy with her knitting. The German is an intruder in their daily lives. The silence is not to be interpreted as a social weapon but as a moral and patriotic response. And where is the sea? There is no sea in the film. The “sea” of French men and women who disliked the German occupation opted to be silent in their adversity—a smart, cultured passive resistance, when analyzed in retrospect. A silent rebellion that hurts the victorious enemy!
The silent listener to the German's monologue in French, not even acknowledging the presence of his uninvited guest
The difference Vercors/Jean-Pierre Melville presents in the novel/film will bother the viewer’s conscience. The German officer is not a brute; he is cultured, well mannered, well read, very knowledgeable about music, and actually admires French writers Moliere and Racine. He even states that he finds German girls to be coarse. [A good cineaste would be quick to note the parallels between Vencor’s von Ebernnac in Silence of the Sea and Konchalovsky/Kiselava’s Nazi officer in Paradise (2016) who admires the Russian literary giants as he deals with a Russian lady prisoner in the prison camps.] Director Melville allows the old man to speak off-camera in Silence of the Sea using a voice over narration and one of the most pertinent lines he utters is “It pains me to offend anyone even if he is my enemy.” Despite the silence and impassive faces there is visual evidence that the niece is possibly falling in love with the “Beast” (von Ebrennac had deliberately mentioned how he loved The Beauty and the Beast, a French fairy tale) as she pricks her finger while missing a stitch while knitting at the precise juncture when the German mentions his German woman-friends. The brilliance of Melville’s film is the ability to get the camera to pick up subtle details of the silent couple that talk more than words. Spielberg did just that in his film Duel.
A rare moment when the niece looks up from her knitting --her hurt finger is of little concern
The camera captures three sets of hands evoking a silent conversation of their own
The subtlety of the filmmaking is astounding in Silence of the Sea. Was von Ebrennac in love with niece or was he merely wanting to discuss his views on how the French and the Germans could be united in “a beautiful marriage.” Did the niece make a muffled adieu to the German without looking up towards the end? These are details for the attentive viewer to pick up.
Director Melville won the wager with Vercors when the jury of 24 eminent French resistance fighters that included André Malraux and Jean Cocteau and the La Figaro editor voted on the final cinematic product. The La Figaro editor was the only one who voted against the release of the film because he found he was a last minute substitute on the ”24 person jury.” Director Melville would have had to burn his film going by the wager. Luckily for us, Vercors dismissed the scribe’s vote on realizing why he had voted against the film.
While much of the film is shot indoors, there is a wonderful sequence when the niece is walking alone on the snow and the German guest walks past her in the opposite direction. No words are spoken. The visuals speak more than words.
Another unforgettable sequence is when the French elder visits the office of his German guest for some trivial requirement and the host and the guest note each other’s presence. Mirrors play a role. Who is the guest and who is the host? The roles are reversed. Words are not spoken between the two—but what the camera captures speaks volumes. That is great cinema.
The body language of actors can be more expressive than words. Essays could be written on the the very subtle body language of the niece captured by Melville and Decaë.
A hot beverage is seemingly more interesting than a guest's monologue
On the other hand, von Ebernnac’s character is fleshed out more by words. Imagine a German even today stating that Bach’s music is “inhuman” and that Germany has that “inhuman” character. Of course, Vercors was writing a novel that presented the French being superior to Germans in his subtle manner through the words of von Ebernnac. In Silence of the Sea, Vercors/Melville present the unusual German (recall again and compare the German Nazi of Konchalovsky/Kiselava in Paradise) which makes the intelligent viewer to realize that there is rarely a clear black and white distinction when we consider an enemy—there are more grey areas. That is why both Silence of the Sea and Paradise will remain great works of filmed screenplays.
The low-angle shot and lighting are equally as eloquent as the spoken words
Towards the end of the film—the old man gives his guest a verbal response and a virtual goodbye to von Ebrennac leaving open a book by Anatole France with the opening quote clearly visible to his guest: “It is a fine thing when a soldier disobeys criminal orders.”
Director Melville took a big risk in attempting to make this film. If any of 23 jury members did not like it, the negatives of the film could have been burnt as a part of the wager with Vercors. This is without a doubt the crowning glory of Melville’s and Decaë’s respective careers.
P.S.The Silence of the Sea is included in the author’s top 100 films. The films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Duellists, Michael Clayton, and Paradise mentioned in the above review have reviewed earlier on this blog.
203. French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s and cinematographer Henri Decaë’s début feature film “Le Silence de la Mer” (Silence of the Sea) (1949) (France): When silence (and the camera) talks and can be more effective than the spoken word