Goodbye, Children (Au Revoir Les Enfants) Reviews
But these are nothing compared to the dangerous secret that some boys are hiding. The lead boy, Julien, whom a teacher describes as intelligent and a bit pretentious, reluctantly befriends a new student, Jean. They share a love of reading, but Julien resents the fact that Jean is a smarter than he and more of a teacher's favorite. Jean is sensitive, and therefore an easy target, so Julien quickly discovers his weak point. But he withholds the valuable information, recognizing its importance without fully understanding its meaning: Jean is Jewish, taking refuge in the school under a false name.
It is hard to find your way to this movie without knowing that key plot point, so even before it comes to the forefront Malle begins exploring it through artful verbal and visual cues. Early on, two students in the schoolyard pretend to be knights engaged in combat. One of them, secretly Jewish, chooses to play the part of a Saracen knight. The other students call him an infidel, and only Jean cheers for him. But such moments of agency in which Jean can express his identity without outing himself are few. More often, he is at risk of appearing different because of things he cannot do: he cannot recite the Hail Mary and other prayers with the rest of the students, cannot eat pork when it is offered, and cannot receive communion.
The communion scene is particularly interesting because it shows the limitations of the school headmaster's charity. After delivering a ringing sermon to wealthy parents about the need to give generously to those in need, Jean comes to the front to receive communion. The headmaster passes him over since he knows Jean is not a Catholic. The moment might have been too-on-the-nose but for the interesting questions it raises. Does Jean intend only to strengthen his disguise by joining in this ritual? Does he do it to better fit in with his peers, and to get closer to his friend Julien? Or, as I tend to think, does he do it because the headmaster's sermon has deeply moved him? In any case, this is one of several moments that make us wonder whether the headmaster could have done more to keep his Jewish charges safe.
Another is the decision that brings about the end of the ruse. The students and teachers gather to watch Charlie Chaplin's "The Immigrant" (a 27 year-old film, but there is a war on and it is a religious school). Images of The Tramp and a woman sliding around a rolling ship give way to Malle's shots of a brawl on icy pavement between the school's cook and crippled kitchen boy. The boy, perhaps 18 years old, has been running a black market in preservatives, so the headmaster fires him. In retaliation, the boy notifies the local Gestapo that the school is harboring Jews. The headmaster is a hero who shelters Jews at the risk of his own safety, yet his incomplete committal to his espoused principles creates an opportunity for his work to be undone. Still, he falls gracefully. He courageously delivers the titular farewell when he is marched off to share the Jewish students' inevitable fate-a fate Malle has foreshadowed in a tense but beautiful forest sequence midway through the film.
The movie's Nazis are one-note, but this is not a problem so long as they are kept in the background. When they show up in force at the end, they indulge in a bit too much leering and mustache-twirling for a film that is primarily interested in the hypocrisy and indifference of the French rather than the blatant barbarism of the Germans. But nothing diminishes the impact of the film's final lines, which are delivered almost without emotion in a voice-over by an adult Julien. The window on the atrocities of WWII that he had as a child was a narrow and privileged one, and his understanding of them was imperfect, but the sudden and permanent loss of a friend became a searing and defining memory for him. By looking at the period and place through a child's eyes, Malle demonstrates that no amount of insularity or innocence could keep one blind as to what was happening to Europe's Jewish population.