Judge Paul Pritchard cannot be silenced in any language.
"We have to extract the venom from the beast!"
In Jean-Pierre Melville's debut film, Le Silence De La Mer (translated as The Silence of the Sea), a Nazi officer, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), is billeted to the house of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephanie) during Germany's occupation of France in World War II. Understandably upset at this turn of events, The Uncle and his Niece refuse to speak to their "guest" and do their utmost to act as if he isn't there. However, von Ebrennac insists on spending time with his hosts, and surprises and confuses them with his apparent love for their country. Eureka presents the adaptation of the Vercors story as Le Silence De La Mer (Region 2).
Central to the success of Melville's film is the performance of Howard Vernon. His portrayal of Nazi officer Werner von Ebrennac is riveting, and instantly confuses the viewer, as his views seem so at odds with those held by the Nazis, and also in many ways contradict the way he is initially presented. His introduction immediately brings to mind the introduction of a classic horror icon, such as Bela Lugosi's Dracula, as a door is opened revealing Von Ebrennac stood in stark contrast to the darkness behind him. As the camera slowly zooms in from a low angle, we are made instantly aware of the oppression that he represents. And so it goes that we accept von Ebrennac as a monster. Sure, he frequently flatters his "hosts" by regaling them with tales recalling his lifelong love of all things French, but there is no escaping the fact he is a cog in a terrifying machine and therefore must be masking his true intentions. So it comes as a great surprise when we discover that von Ebrennac is, in fact, completely sincere and truly loves French culture, and even believes the French and Germans will one day live hand in hand. Through his recollections, we learn that which is most dear to von Ebrennac, which gradually softens the attitudes of both The Uncle and his Niece to their guest. Vernon's delivery means we are never too sure where to stand on von Ebrennac, until a scene where he is ridiculed by his fellow officers for his beliefs (primarily that the Nazis will allow French culture to survive their occupation) confirms his compassion.
Melville's direction is excellent, particularly due to the way the full extent of the Nazi occupation of France manages to get across, even though the movie only features several characters and a handful of sets. With our sympathies naturally lying with The Uncle and his niece, Melville is able to create a sense of foreboding every time von Ebrennac enters the room to deliver one of his monologues. The sense of claustrophobia created is surely as close as cinema can get to capturing the horror of Nazi occupation. Were I to find a fault with Melville's approach to adapting Vercors' original story, it would be The Uncle's narration, which too frequently feels unnecessary. We do not need to hear The Uncle tell us that he is taking tea with his Niece, when we can see this for ourselves quite clearly. That said, due to The Uncle and his Niece refusing to speak to von Ebrennac, the narration is still an important element of the film—if only it had been used more sparingly.
Considering it was released in 1949 (the story is from 1942), this is an amazingly conciliatory picture. The way it is suggested that The Niece develops feelings for von Ebrennac is especially brave. One should always consider how the will of a nation's people might not reflect the actions of their leaders, but there is a certain level of naïvety to the character of von Ebrennac that feels apologetic in all the wrong ways. For all his good intentions, von Ebrennac's ultimate decision is to turn his back on his humanism and entrench himself, albeit reluctantly, even further into the Nazi war machine.
Presented in a 1.37:1 full-frame transfer, Le Silence De La Mer looks extremely good on DVD. Save for the occasional occurrence of softness, this is a sharp-looking picture with an excellent level of detail. The print shows signs of its age, with inevitable damage being apparent, but this fails to detract from the excellent work done on restoring this film. The mono soundtrack impresses with its clarity of dialogue.
Eureka will be releasing Le Silence De La Mer as a dual format release, but for this review only the DVD copy was made available. As such, only one of the special features was included. In this, Ginette Vincendeau (a professor of French cinema) discusses the film and Melville's other works. Clocking in at 23 minutes, the feature provides a concise overview, and could easily have run longer without losing the viewers' interest. The Blu-ray included in the final retail copy will also include a documentary on the film, as well as the original theatrical trailer. Eureka is also including a fifty-six-page booklet, which features an interview with Melville, an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, and production stills.
A fascinating and challenging piece of cinema, Le Silence De La Mer is thought-provoking stuff that is further enhanced by a stunning performance from leading man Vernon. A solid effort from Eureka makes this yet another recommended purchase.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
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