NB: This review discusses some plot points in the film in some detail.
Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Silence de la Mer now seems an atypical work in light of his later, more widely-known gangster films, but this 1949 adaptation of Vercors' hugely popular WW2 novella can lay claim to having influenced both Robert Bresson and the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers both in terms of its style and its production. The book was written under an assumed name by Jean Bruller and published by a (literal) French underground press during the Occupation, and it's a surprising work to have been written during the war, not demonising its central German character but rather making a kind of plea for understanding - but not understanding the enemy, rather making him understand why even his best and idealistic assumptions are so wrong.
The story is simplicity itself: Howard Vernon's German officer is billeted at a French farmhouse where the owner (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) resist in the only way they can - by refusing to say a single word to him. Introduced as a figure out of a horror film yet transformed in the same shot into a less threatening figure the moment he crosses their hearth, he's not a stereotypical Nazi thug, but rather a more sensitive and naively idealistic figure. Soft spoken and polite, he never imposes his will on his reluctant hosts but rather tries to win them over through conversation, never losing his temper at their refusal to respond like a patient suitor. He dreams of a marriage between Germany and France that will take both nations to a higher level, achieving through the reluctant use of force what pre-war politicians failed to do with diplomacy. He doesn't want an empty conquest but, rather, wants France to come willingly to its embrace. He sees the Occupation in terms of Beauty and the Beast, with the proud Beauty destined through time to see that the ill-mannered Beast is not nearly so brutal as it appears. He even admires their silence, taking it as a sign that France is not some easily won over craven coward but rather worthy of Germany's attentions and the effort to woo her to its side. Yet after an ill-fated trip to Paris it is their silence that ultimately wins him over to the realization that the Beast is far worse than he imagined, a rapacious, soulless figure without redemption, eating away at his idealism with the same ingrained contempt with which it destroys the culture and character of those it conquers.
The film itself had a bizarre history: refusing to sell the screen rights, Vercors eventually agreed to allow Melville to shoot the film after the director promised to submit it to a jury of prominent resistance figures and destroy the negative if any were opposed to the finished film being shown. Made completely outside the studio system over a period of months as and when he could raise the money and film stock for a few days shooting, shot with a non-union crew and going through two cinematographers (Luc Mirot and André Vilar) who objected to Melville's unconventional lighting requests before striking lucky with Henri Decae (making his first fictional feature after working in documentaries), and filmed in Vercors' house in the very same room the author had shared with the real German officer who inspired the story, in many ways it's an exemplary no-budget film, a virtual three-hander that makes a virtue of its economy, although it's not a perfect one. There is far too much narration at times, particularly in the early scenes where what we can see is constantly described (Ginette Vincendeau makes a particularly unconvincing argument that this isn't the case simply because there could have been even more narration in the booklet accompanying the DVD) and the relationship with the niece isn't particularly well-handled: there's little sense in Nicole Stéphane's performance that she's trying to hold emotions back, and even small moments like her missing a stitch at a crucial moment in one of Vernon's monologues seems muffed in the execution.
Yet the strengths outweigh the limitations. The situation is a compelling one, the act of passive resistance more intriguing than the more conventional heroics of resistance cinema, and the minimalist treatment is often fascinating. In many ways the film is a bridge between the classic tradition of quality style of pre-War French cinema while heralding a more adventurous and stylised approach, with Henri Decae's often strikingly modern cinematography giving notice of why he would become one of the great cinematographers of French cinema with films like The 400 Blows, Lift to the Scaffold, Plein Soleil and several more collaborations with Melville such as Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. Indeed, Decae's importance to the film cannot be underestimated: as well as being willing to experiment and at once be `anti-cinematographic' yet `classical' as Melville demanded (or to risk the film "looking like crap" as Mirot allegedly put it) he would even work on the post-production and editing of the film alongside Melville. To those unfamiliar with Melville's early work it's a world away from his later crime films (although a brief prologue with resistants exchanging a suitcase with copies of the book on a street corner offers a hint of what was to come), and it's not as powerful or accomplished as his masterpiece L'Armee des Ombres, but it's still a remarkably assured and accomplished debut.
Although it has to be said that the film works better on the big screen than the small one, the Eureka Masters of Cinema PAL DVD is absolutely stunning quality: not only is it better than any of the theatrical prints available for years or Waterbearer's NTSC video release but, considering the technical problems that plagued its production, probably looks better now than it did in 1949. Aside from an interview with Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau, the DVD also includes an excellent 56-page booklet including and extract from her book on Melville about the film and, better still, Rui Nogueira's interview with Melville about the film from the long out-of-print 'Melville on Melville.' Better still, rather than simply porting over the same extras package to their new Blu-ray release, Eureka have actually added extras (albeit not to the DVD that's also included) in the form of a new 43-minute documentary about the making of the film, Melville: Out of the Shadows, and the original trailer. Highly recommended.