There is a moment in a child's life where an instant word or action they committed was something they would immediately regret but could never take back. The reason why these moments usually happen within our childhood is because when we are younger we aren't yet trained to think before we act. Unfortunately one of these instant actions would not only change a child's life forever but cost four people their lives. Au revoir les enfants which in English means Goodbye, Children is a heartbreaking true story directed by the great French director Louis Malle who based this story on his own painful childhood memories. It tells the story about a young 12 year old boy named Julien who is attending a wealthy provincial Catholic boarding school when one day a new student arrives named Jean. It is of course is natural that the other students pick on the newcomer and once in a while Julien decides to join in. They both learn that they love to read and the two of them begin to bond, but within time Julian learns that Jean is concealing a secret. Julien notices that Jean avoids answering certain questions about his families history, and that the teachers allow Jean to skip chore practice and not attend mass. When Julien decides to do a little investigating on his own he comes to the realization that Jean's isn't who he says he is, and that he is secretly a Jew. Julien is only 12 and doesn't quite know anything about Jews, and gentiles and so he asks his older brother what they are and why people in their country hate them. His brother answers:"They're smarter than we are, and they killed Jesus." Au revoir les enfants is based on the events of director Louis Malle who at age 11 was attending a Roman boarding school near Fontainbleau, in which it was later discovered that his school staff and teachers were secretly taking in Jewish children and hiding them from the Nazis under assumed names. Malle never forgot the day when the Gestapo raided the school and arrested three of the Jewish students and a priest, in which they were rounded up in the courtyard and marched off the grounds; with the priest looking back at the children and saying, "Goodbye, Children." Malle later learned that the three boys died at Auschwitz and the priest died four weeks after the war ended. Legendary critic Roger Ebert attended the opening screening of Au revoir les enfants and the film was an emotional experience, not just for the audience members but for director Louis Malle himself. Roger Ebert says, "I was almost the first person he saw after the screening. I remember him weeping as he clasped my hands and said, 'This film is my story. Now it is told at last.'"
During the winter of 1943-44 Julien Quentin a 12 year old student at a Carmelite boarding school in occupied France and his older brother Francois Quentin are returning to school from vacation. Julien is a pampered mama's boy who has a close affectionate relationship with his mother Madam Quentin as the two hug each other tightly at the railway station before Julien steps his way onto the train. Julien doesn't want to leave and pouts and begs for his mother to let him stay. Madam Quentin tells him she will see him in three weeks and soon enough he'll be home for Mardi gras. She informs him to be patient and that she and dad will write often. Julien says, "I don't give a damn about Dad, and I hate you." Julien's older brother Francois says, ""Still smooching? A bright boy like you mustn't miss the train." Francois says goodbye to his mother and steps on the train. Before Julien follows his brother, he runs back into his mothers arms for one last hug. Madam Quentin says, "You think I like this? I miss you every second. I'd like to dress up as a boy and join you. I'd see you at school every day. It'd be our secret. You know I can't keep you in Paris with me." Julien finally gets on the train and takes a seat near the window and staring through the window in a sorrowful glaze as the train makes its way to the boarding school.
When arriving to the school Julien gets in line with the other students as they head to their bedroom to unpack their things. Julien tries to act tough around the other boys (at which we know the way he acted around his mother he is anything but not) and when he sees a group of them looking at a nude postcard of a woman, he swipes it from them and says, "She's got no tits." Suddenly the students are interrupted by Father Jean, the Priest and headmaster, who introduces three new pupils including a student named Jean. Father Jean says, "Children, this is Jean Bonnet, your new schoolmate. Find him a locker. Good night children." Right when the Father leaves the room the other boys start razing Jean and make fun of his name saying, "Where's your Easter Bonnet?" Julien tries to act tough as well and rudely goes through Jean's open briefcase and when Jean politely asks what Julien's name is, Jean ignores him and calls him out for reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Julien than says, "My name's Julien Quentin. Mess with me and you'll be sorry."
During English class the teacher asks the students to write two verses on the famous poet Charles Peguy, and during that time Julien takes the sharp end of his protractor and digs it into his skin making it bleed. His schoolmate sitting next to him asks Julien if he's nuts and Julien says "It doesn't even hurt." While he is doing this a German soldier is outside on the property asking Father Jean if he can confess his sins.
At recess the students are outside on the courtyard standing on stilts creating playground wars while the new student Jean is sitting and reading. Julien falls and bruises his ankles when on the stilts and is later called in to see the sees local nurse Mrs. Perrin, and her assistant cook Joseph who is around Julien's brother's age. Joseph illegally uses his job as a way to make quick money through the students, selling them the school's food supplies for such things as cigarettes and other materials in trade. Julien is one of the many students who does illegal trading with Joseph and usually trades his mother's homemade jam for any items that he pleases.
During one lunch period some of the students get packages of snacks from home and are ordered to share with other students, while Julien receives his famous jam from his mother. During lunch Jean is offered the last piece of pork but politely declines and lets the other student have it. During math class Jean seems to have a talent for arithmetic, as he gets called up to the class and successfully solves a math equation. Suddenly an air raid alarm goes off and all the students are ordered down in the school's bomb shelter for a drill which to them is pretty routine.
During the night Julien wakes up to realize that he peed in his bed and he quietly tries his best to wipe it up with a towel. The next afternoon the students are outside on the courtyard of them as they watch the arrival of an attractive piano teacher named Davenne . Each student has a private lesson with Davenne, and when Julien sees her and plays she is surprised when he can't even realize when he is missing a music note. Julien tells her that his mother forces him to take piano and Davenne says, "She's right. If you stop now, you'll always regret it. Time's up. See you on Tuesday." While Julien is leaving Jean arrives and Julian stops to listen to he how he plays on the piano. Jean does a much better job and seems to impress Davenne which frustrates young Julien as he says to himself, "Ass kisser."
During class Julien is called to confession with Father Michel and when the Father asks him to confess evil thoughts, (in which he means sexual) the Father even admits that he suffers from those evil thoughts as well. Julien has the idea on wanting to take the holy orders and join the priesthood but Father Michel doesn't think the priesthood is exactly for Julien. Father Mitchel says, "I don't think you have any calling for the priesthood. It's a sorry job anyways." Father Michel suddenly gets a phone call and after the call the Father says to Julien, "Do you get along well with your new classmate Bonnet? Be very nice to him. The others look up to you. I'm counting on you."
While Julien and the rest of the students are heading to the public baths Jean tries to go by Father Michel's wishes and reaches out to Jean asking him how his book The Three Musketeers is going. Julian then asks Jean what he is doing later, and Jean says that he's probably working on math. Julian says, "Math's a bunch of shit, unless you want to be an accountant." Jean says, "My father was an accountant." When they enter the baths there is a sign that says, "No Jews allowed."
While undressing Julien learns that Jean is not going to be confirmed because he is a Protestant and Julien even questions his last name saying, "Bonnet, isn't a Protestant name?" But Jean says that it is. While in the tub Julien sits back and it seems he is contemplating everything he knows about Jean up to this point (which faint sounds of the piano music earlier played) until he hears that he needs to scrub and hurry up because other students are waiting to use it. During the night Julien wakes up to find Jean kneeling on his bed wearing a kip-pah with two lit candles saying a form of prayer in Hebrew. Julien accidentally makes a noise which silences Jean's prayer, but Julien pretends to be asleep which has Jean than continue.
One afternoon the students are jogging around the courtyard and are suddenly interrupted by German militia who demand to run a search of the school. Julien notices Father Jean and Father Michel quickly grab Jean and pull him into inside one of the classrooms, in which Julien finds extremely odd. Joseph comes up to Julien and asks him if he has anymore of his mother's Jam. Julien changes the subject and asks Joseph what the militia is doing here and Joseph says that they believe they're some guys hiding out to avoid forced labor in Germany.
During English class the students are getting their Peguy papers handed back and when Jean finally makes it back to class his teacher lets him know that his writing skills rivals even Julien. Julien gets a letter from from his mother Madam Quentin from Paris which excites him and so he runs into the bedroom to read it in privacy. Madam Quentin describes how Paris is getting bombed frequently with several people losing their lives. She also promises the two will meet up and have lunch later in the next week at Le Grand Cef and that she'll also bring him more jam for him. Julien starts to become nosey and pry and Jean's things, searching under Jean's pillow and finds the two candles. He then goes through Jean's personal items and finds an arithmetic book with is oddly enough written out to a person named Jean...Keppelstein. Julien quickly puts Jean's things back when the bell rings and the students all return to the bedroom.
At the end of of their classes Julien has some alone time with Jean and starts to ask him a series of personal questions on where he and his family are from. When Julien starts asking questions about Jean's parents Jean says that his dad is a prisoner in a war camp. When Jean won't tell Julien about his mother Julien pushes him into the wall to try and bully the answer out of him. Jean pushes him back and says, "She hasn't written in three months. Happy now?" Father Jean walks in asking what the two children are up to, and tells them to hurry along and get to their next class. In the courtyard Julien sees his older brother Francois and his classmates smoking and Julien decides to join in. Francois takes Julian aside and asks him to do him a favor and to pass a note to his attractive piano teacher Davenne but Julien doesn't want to risk getting expelled for doing that. Francois calls his younger brother a scaredy cat and reassures him that he won't get in any trouble. Julien's mind is on other things at the moment as he asks his brother on what a yid is:
"Francois, what a yid ?"
"I know, but what exactly is a Jew?"
"Someone who doesn't eat pork."
"Are you kidding me? What have people got against them?"
"The fact they're smarter than us, and they crucified Jesus."
"That's not true. It was the Romans. Is that why they have to wear yellow stars?"
"Will you take my letter to Davenne? Be nice. I'll lend you my Arabian Nights. It'll give you a hard on."
One day Julien and the rest of his class get involved in a treasure hunt within the deep shadows of the forests, outside of the school. The students are all taking a nature walk through the rock mountains and Julien says to Muller, "Do you realize there'll never be another January 17, 1944? Never again. In 40 years, half these guys'll be dead and buried." His peers ignore his comments and Julien says to Jean, "Why am I the only one in this school who thinks about death? It's incredible!" Suddenly, after running and hiding Julien seems to get himself lost within the forest, wandering through thick trees, high drops, and large jagged rocks. Julien accidentally comes across the treasure in a dark, hidden cave, and then he finds Jean. "Are there wolves in this forest?" Jean asks afraid. They encounter a boar, who snuffles at them and then waddles away. Sunset begins to emerge and the two come to realize that they are not only lost but way after curfew, until they reach a main road and are seen by two German soldiers in a car. Jean begins to run, but the Germans catch both boys, give them a blanket to stay warm and return to them to the school which one of the German's saying, "We Bavarians are Catholic."
When Julien gets yelled at from Father Jean when arriving the two are found safe and sound Julien starts to cry saying how he found the treasure but then everyone around him vanished. Father Jean calms down and hugs Julien and directs Julien and Jean to get some rest in in the nurses office. While in the nurses office Francois comes in to give him another letter from their mother saying, "Dad's always off in Lille. I bet she's getting plenty. Women are all whores, my friend." When the nurse walks by overhearing Francois he says, "Sorry, sister." She says, "What an idiot." While eating some food Julien traded from Joseph he offers some to Jean but Jean insists that he doesn't like pate. Julien then asks in a slight whisper, "Because it's pork?" Jean asks why Julien always asks such stupid questions. Julien says, "Because your name's Kippelstein, not Bonnet." Jean suddenly gets angry and starts to hit Julien until the nurse comes in and breaks the two boy's up.
Later that week it's Parents Day and all the students are getting dressed up for their families arrival. After attending mass in church with all their visiting families every gets kneels at the alter to receive their communion. Julien notices that when Jean kneels at the altar rail, Priest Michel quietly passes him without giving him a communion wafer. Afterwards Julien and Jean get into a scuffle out in the school yard and Madam Quentin walks up to break the two boys apart to have them only start to laugh. Madam Quentin says, "What's gotten into you boys? You think it's funny?" Julien then asks his mother if Jean can go to lunch with them at Le Grand Cef and she accepts.
When Julien, Madam Quentin, Francois, and Jean arrive at the restaurant they order the rabbit and a bottle of wine. Madam Quentin asks Jean if his parents came to visit him Jean tells her that they couldn't make it. As they sit around the table, the talk turns to Julien's father, a factory owner. When Francois asks if he is still for Marshal Petain, Madam Quentin responds, "No one is anymore."Suddenly French fascist militiamen, buffoons in floppy berets arrive to the restaurant and start asking people for their papers. They harass one elderly man is Jewish and is told to leave, even though he's been a customer at that restaurant for years. Madam Quentin whispers, "Why are those men bothering people? That gentlemen looks very proper."
When Francois calls them, Collabos, the militia commander is enraged and tells Madam Quentin, "We serve France, madam. He insulted us. However, a Wehrmacht officer who seems to had a lot to drink gets up and tells the French militia to get the hell out of the restaurant and to stop disturbing his lunch. Madam Quentin looks at Francois and says, "Say what you will, but some of them are decent." Francois observably says, "He was showing off for you." Julien asks his mom, "Aren't we Jewish? Isn't Aunt Reinach Jewish?" Madam Quentin exclaims, "That's all we need! She's Alsatian. he Reinachs are devout Catholics! If they heard you! Mind you, I have nothing against Jews. Except for that Leon Blum. They can hang him." As Jean listens he seems to really be taken with Julien's mother.
One day the students are ordered to go to the lounge and they all sit and watch Charlie Chaplin's The immigrant. The children all laugh as Davenne plays the background music on the piano. During the night Julien again wakes up after peeing in the bed and but this time while trying to clean it up another student catches him in the act and calls him out on it yelling, "Quentin wets the bed!" That morning Julien tells Jean while brushing their teeth, "It never fails. I'm having a great dream. I feel like peeing. I open my fly. Everything's great. Then I wake up and feel the warm piss on my stomach. It's no fun, let me tell you."
Joseph suddenly has been exposed for selling the school's food supplies on the black market and has implicated several students as accomplices, including Julien and his brother, Francois. Father Jean is distressed by the injustice saying, ""Joseph was selling our supplies on the black market. Mrs. Perrin should have told us. She may have been in on it. We found these in his locker. Private food supplies. He named all seven of you. You disgust me. There's nothing I despise more than the black market. Always money." Father Jean fires Joseph, who now has no place to go, but does not expel the students for fear of offending their wealthy and influential parents.
When another air raid alarm goes off all the students make their way to the bomb shelter, while Julien and Jean decide to not follow, and instead mischievously snoop around the school. The two boys then make their way outside into the empty courtyard and Julien asks Jean if he will stay at this school when the war's over. Jean says he doesn't know and he that he probably doubts it. Julien then turns and asks him, "You scared?" Jean says, "All the time." As the two continue to bond with another they both speak about their fathers, with Jean saying how he hasn't seen his father in two years, and Julien saying that he never sees his father either. That night the two read The Arabian Nights with one another as Jean holds the flashlight on the pages while Julien reads out loud.
The next day during history class the teacher is speaking of WWII when one of the students runs out of the class to the bathroom but is quickly pushed back inside when the Nazi Gestapo enter the classroom. The leader of the Gestapo makes his way around the room and asks the students which one is Jean Kippelstein. Not one of the students say a word as the man walks up to marked flags on a map and begins to pull them out. When Julien accidentally look back towards Jean he gives him away and the Gestapo order Jean to grab his things and come with them. Jean tries to make his rounds around the class to shake all the students hands goodbye, but is quickly yanked out of the room. The leader of the Gestapo says, "That boy is not French. He's a Jew. Your principal committed a serious crime by hiding him. The school is closed. You have two hours to pack you bags and line up in the yard." The students are told that the Gestapo have arrested Father Jean and are currently looking for Father Michel and two other Jewish boys. Bonnet, Dupre and Lafarge are Jewish and Father Jean kindly took them in because their lives were in danger. The students are ordered to go to the dormitory and pack quickly and calmly.
While Julien heads to the bedroom pack his things and to meet the rest of the students in the dining hall, Jean is escorted in by the Gestapo to grab the rest of his luggage. Julien approaches Jean but deosn't know what to say feeling slightly responsible. Jean says, "Don't worry. They'd have gotten me anyway." Jean gives Julien a few of his favorite books while Julien gives him Arabian Nights. Julien heads to the nurses to find that Father Michel is hiding in one of the cupboards as the Gestapo come in to search the room. One of the officers makes sure Julien is not the Jewish boy they're looking for by ordering Julien to pull down his pants to see if he's circumcised. Eventually they catch the last Jewish boy as he tried disguising himself as a sick patient. Father Michel in the meantime says goodbye to Julien and tries to escape by climbing on-top of the roof but is eventually apprehended.
When making his way out to the courtyard to join the others Julien realizes that Joseph is helping the Gestapo hunt down the rest of the wanted. Joseph says to Julien, "Don't worry about it. They're just Jews. You really liked Bonnet?" Julien doesn't know what to say and Joseph says, "Don't act so pious! You guys are to blame. I got fired for doing business with you. Mrs. Perrin stole more than I did. Stop acting so pious. There's a war going on, kid." All the students and faculty line up outside in the yard and the head Gestapo asks, "Are there any other Jews among you? Answer me!" The Gestapo starts calling out names as a soldier approaches him with a few students he found in the chapel praying and the head Gestapo lets them go. He then says to the students, "That soldier did his duty. His orders were to let no one leave. The strength of the German soldier is his discipline. That's what you French lack: discipline. We're not your enemies. You must help us rid France of Foreigners and Jews."
Father Jean, Father Michel and the four Jewish boys are lead out of the property as the students all wish them goodbye. Father Jean turns to his students and says, "Good-bye, children . See you soon." Julien waves to Jean before Jean is pulled away. After they leave you hear the an adult Julien say: Bonnet, Negus, and Dupre died at Auschwitz. Father Jean died in the camp at Mauthausen. The school reopened its doors in October of 1944. More than 40 years have passed, but I'll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die."
“Do you realize,” muses the twelve-year-old Julien Quentin, rapt in the solipsism of early adolescence, “that there’ll never be another January 17, 1944? Never again? . . . I’m the only one in this school who thinks about death. It’s incredible.” As the date implies, he could hardly be more wrong. Many of those around him are thinking about death, and in far less theoretical terms.
The moment of adolescent crisis, the point at which the adult world, in all its messy ambiguity, drives in upon and disrupts childhood certitudes, always fascinated Louis Malle. From 1960’s Zazie dans le métro (whose eponymous heroine turns the tables with some disruption of her own) through Murmur of the Heart (1972); Lacombe, Lucien (1974); Black Moon (1975); and Pretty Baby (1978), his young protagonists find themselves confronted with a world that operates according to no rules they’ve been led to expect. With Au revoir les enfants (1987), Malle homed in on the autobiographical reference point of this theme, the moment that “may well have determined my vocation as a filmmaker,” when, age eleven, he watched a Gestapo official enter the classroom of his Fontainebleau school and summon a fellow pupil by an unfamiliar, Jewish name. The film, a “reinvention of the past,” traces the wary, prickly friendship between Julien (Gaspard Manesse), Malle’s surrogate, and a Jewish boy, Jean Bonnet (played by Raphaël Fejtö, with the raw, wounded stare of the young Kafka).
Malle brought us here, or hereabouts, earlier in his career. The betrayal of Bonnet comes through the resentment of a “Lacombe, Lucien” in the making—a crippled scullery lad, mocked, abused, and eventually dismissed for the black marketeering in which several pupils, Julien among them, have actively colluded. This Joseph, returning in the Gestapo’s wake, swaggers uneasily in his flashy new suit, confronting Julien’s gaze of appalled realization. “Stop acting so pious! There’s a war going on, kid,” he blusters, while Julien registers his own inescapably shared guilt.
Earlier, the film skirts the lusher incestuous territory of Murmur of the Heart, in the relationship between Julien and his mother—once again passionate, sexually charged, but also (unlike in the earlier film) exposed as faintly ludicrous in its hothouse romanticism. Already in the opening separation scene, set (where else?) in a railway station, Malle slyly subverts the tone, as the pair luxuriate in melodramatic cliché, with Julien’s Byronic angst (“I don’t give a damn about Dad, and I hate you”) capped by his mother’s Fidelio: “You think I like this? I’d like to dress up as a boy and come with you.” The image this evokes, of the shapely Mme Quentin squeezing her hips into schoolboy shorts, at once erotic and ridiculous, self-indulgently unreal, sets up one side of the ironic counterpoint that underpins the movie. On the one hand, we have Julien’s smugly moneyed background, where politics are sampled à la mode. (“Is he still for Pétain? No one is anymore,” protests Mme Quentin, with the pique of one accused of favoring last season’s hemline.) Against this stands the stark actuality of the terror endured by Bonnet, for whom no luxury of choice exists—parents vanished or arrested, probably dead, and every passing German soldier a source of anguish.
The film’s moral center resides—unexpectedly enough for the director of Viva Maria! (1965), though it’s worth recalling that Malle was once Robert Bresson’s assistant—in a priest, the school’s director, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud, conveying fierce compassion beneath an aspect of bony austerity). His are the two crucial decisions: first, to harbor Bonnet and two other Jewish boys under false names; and second, to sack Joseph while not expelling, out of consideration for their parents, his accomplices among the pupils—a discrimination whose inequity causes him evident pain, and leads to tragedy. A figure of awkward integrity, he preaches to the assembled affluent parents a diatribe against the callousness of the rich, and laconically dismisses Julien’s professed interest in the priesthood: “I don’t think you have any calling for the priesthood. It’s a sorry job, anyway.”
Two vividly contrasted scenes—one dark, one light—evoke the murky moral crosscurrents of the period. A game of treasure hunt leaves Julien and Bonnet lost together in the forest, with night falling and gaunt rocks looming like primeval wood spirits. “Are there wolves in these woods?” inquires Bonnet nervously. But here in the twilight, the dangers are illusory. All that appears is a solitary wild boar, trotting hastily off into the bushes. Even the German soldiers whom they encounter, menacingly silhouetted in steel helmets, prove a lot less than monstrous, wrapping the boys solicitously in a blanket and wistfully trying to establish common ground (“We Bavarians are Catholics”).
A few days later, in the genteel ambience of a restaurant, where Mme Quentin has taken Julien, his elder brother, François, and Bonnet to lunch, the real monsters manifest themselves. A group of French fascist militiamen, dangerous buffoons in fat, floppy berets, arrive to harass a dignified old Jew, demanding his instant ejection. Commotion, pro and con, among the clientele; one plump, overdressed woman shouts, “Send the Jews to Moscow!” The contretemps ends when a Wehrmacht officer, under whose admiring glances Mme Quentin has been preening, objects to having his lunch disturbed and drives the militia ignominiously from the room. “He was showing off for you,” François observes to his mother. “Are we Jewish?” Julien inquires ingenuously. “If they heard you!” she exclaims; then, catching herself: “Mind you, I have nothing against Jews. Except for that Léon Blum. They can hang him.”
This incident is doubly refracted to us: through Bonnet’s apprehensive gaze and also through Julien’s intrigued scrutiny both of the events and of his friend’s reactions, as it gradually impinges on him what it means to be another person, and a Jewish person at that. In Malle’s sympathetic portrayal, Julien rings wholly true as a creature poised on the brink of adulthood, agitated by contrary impulses—touchy, curious, veering unpredictably from cruelty to kindness, savoring the erotic passages in The Arabian Nights yet still prone to bed-wetting. Gaspard Manesse (a nonprofessional, like all the younger cast members) inhabits his role with total conviction. Around him, Malle skillfully re-creates the rhythms and petty details of boarding school life of the period: the unappetizing food, the welcome break of an air raid, stilt battles on the playground, the history teacher (a World War I veteran) marking Allied advances with flags on a map. And a film show, of Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant, rapturously received by staff and pupils alike. One sequence of it acquires unwonted poignancy: as the steerage passengers, stock ghetto types in beards and head scarves, are roped off on deck like cattle, misgivings temper the laughter on a few watching faces.
Just occasionally, the film verges on stereotype; as in Lacombe, Lucien, Jewishness automatically equals cultural superiority. Bonnet must excel not only academically but also musically, delighting the pretty young piano teacher with his sensitive Schubert. This can be forgiven, though, for the moment of joyous complicity when, alone with Julien during an air raid, while everyone else has retreated to the shelter, he leads his friend in an exuberant burst of four-handed boogie-woogie.
Given such moments, Au revoir les enfants—for all its tragic subject matter and its elegiac finale—is anything but depressing. In the last scene, as the three Jewish boys and Père Jean are led away to their deaths, Bonnet glances back, and Julien (or, rather, the young Louis Malle) raises his hand in timid salute. In that small, affirmative gesture can be read a promise, which this film, with its emotional commitment, its richness of incidental detail, and the warmth and lucidity of its regard, forty years later duly fulfilled.
Louis Malle is one of the greatest and most underrated film directors in the world, probably because of his unbiased freedom to not stay content in one area and instead try so many different genres and themes. As much as some French critics wouldn't want to admit it Louis Malle was in many ways was one of the defining pioneers of the French New Wave movement. He used several revolutionary camera and lighting techniques, and also shot on location, most famously with his noir like crime thriller Elevator to the Gallows which tells the story of a woman's lover hired to murder her husband, and to make it look like an apparent suicide. He then directed the film The Fire Within which is one of Malle's bleakest films, which tells the story of a self-destructive writer who plans to kill himself after saying his goodbyes to his friends and loved ones. Even though Malle's early radical techniques were greatly associated with the French New Wave, many critics didn't necessarily like to fit him in with the rest of the major directors that applied to the movement like Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rohmer; and unlike the others he had nothing whatsoever to do with Cahiers du cinéma magazine.
Later in his career, he made more powerful and dramatic films including his masterpiece Murmur of the Heart which told the controversial and taboo subject of a 14 year old boy and his incestuous and romantic experience with his own mother. Overtime Malle seemed to fall out of favor with French critics after marrying Candice Bergen and moving to the United States making much more conventional and accessible films. Atlantic City was a masterful crime drama about a aging and forgotten gangster played by the great Burt Lancaster. One of Malle's more experimental films was My Dinner with Andre which was a smaller independent film that shared the lives of a theatre director and a movie actor, as they discuss, debate and philosophize over several different discussion over the course of an evening meal at a restaurant.
Au Revoir Les Enfants main focus is on the relationship between the two boys Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet, who were both played by children who never acted before and would barely act again. Because of both of them not being professional child actors, that might be some of the reason why the two children come off as authentic and real, young boys who react and behave like any realistic 12 year old boy. Julien comes from a wealthy family, a absent father who seems to be more involved in his job and less involved with both of his son's lives, and a glamorous mother who wants her children far away from Paris and of the war. Julien like most boys his age tries putting on a tough guy facade in front of his peers, and when Jean first arrives, he has no problem joining in with the other boys as they insult Jean's last name. It's a tough and competitive world growing up as a boy, trying to prove your fearlessness to be liked and accepted by others. Julien tries his best to prove he is emotionless and tough, especially in the scene of him using his protractor to poke a bloody hole in his hand to show he can handle pain. Or when Jean first arrives, and Julien wants to prove his manhood by promoting fear within Jean by immediately threatening him to stay out of his way or their is going to be trouble. Of course, we know that tough guy facade is nothing like the real Julien who right from the first scene of the film doesn't want to let his mother go, begging for her to let him stay. Or the frightened look on Julien's face when Julien comes to the realization that he has gotten himself separated from his peers and is lost in the woods, and last but not least the several wake less nights in which Julien tries his best to cover up that he repeatedly wets his bed.
Gradually, Julien starts to envy Jean and seems to take a particular liken to him, whether it's the bond they make sharing books and stories, or admiring Jean's talents in such things as arithmetic or playing the piano. Throughout the story Julien becomes a witness to a series of signs that seem so subtle that the other boys don't seem to ever pick up, in which Julian isn't who the boy he says he is. When Julien comes to the realization that Jean might be Jewish, he curiously does what any young boy would do in that case, which is ask his older brother Francois why their country would hate Jews, because for all he knows, Jean is a good person and he likes him. When Julien sits for a long period of time in the bathtub, you can hear the faint sounds of the piano keys that Jean earlier played while Julien has a blank expression on his face as if Julien is coming to a deciding factor on if he thinks he should keep this new found information a secret or not. We're never quite sure how much Julien really knows, or how much he thinks he knows, and it could be that Julien possesses a lot of information but never quite understands how they fit, until the very end when the Gestapo finally arrive and ask for Jean Kippelstein; which could be the reason behind Julien's sudden mistake of tragically turning over and looking at Jean. I personally believe Julien knew Jean was Jewish and completely understood how serious the whole situation was, because there is one scene earlier in the film between the two of them that is as gentle and subtle as most of the clues that Julien discovered throughout the film. It's when Julien and Jean are out in the courtyard and Julien straight out and bluntly asks Jean "Are you ever afraid?" Jean simply states. "All the time." Those small exchange of words are all that needs to be said between one another, in that they understand each other and the situation completely. Malle has said that the unthinking moment in which Julien instantly looks back at Jean when the Gestapo commander asked for him didn't really parallel what happened in real life, but I believed it paralleled Malles similar feelings of guilt and painful responsibility on what really happened to the real Jean Kippelstein. And that's what I believe Au Revoir Les Enfants is truly about. It's about the horrifying guilt and traumatic pains of a childhood memory, in which a young boy finally makes the horrifying discovery that hate and evil truly do exist in the world. Because of this disturbing realization, the loss of innocence was taken away forever, not just for the character of Julien but for the young Louis Malle.