In an idyllic provincial town of occupied France, two German soldiers come upon the secluded home of an old man (Jean-Marie Robian) and his niece (Nicole Stephane), in search of a boarding house. One evening, a German officer named Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) introduces himself as the new household tenant. Despite their deliberate silence towards the German stranger, von Ebrennac is respectful and considerate, stopping by the living room to greet the residents before retiring to his room for the evening: admiring their home, sharing the warmth of a fire. Soon, he changes his evening ritual by changing into civilian clothes before visiting them, politely knocking before imposing himself into the company of the old man, smoking his pipe, and his niece, engrossed in knitting. As in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, he fills the silence by speaking casually about his life: his past love, beliefs, literature, music. He reveals that he is a great admirer of French culture, believing that the German occupation is an equitable union of two nations that will contribute to the greatness of Europe, and that France will heal the pervasive cruelty of his country. However, during a highly anticipated trip to Paris, von Ebrennac learns the underlying plans of his compatriots, and is forced to reconcile with his allegiance and culpability.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Silence of the Sea is a beautifully realized, lyrically haunting film on compassion, love, and human decency. At the heart of the film is the gentle von Ebrennac’s indoctrination into the reality and consequence of war. Symbolically, Melville uses the recurring image of von Ebrennac standing against the burning fire, reflecting his inner conflict through light and shadows. Using isolated framing and variable distance close-ups similar to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Melville reflects the family’s shifting perception towards von Ebrennac. Note the transition from the ominous first encounter showing a harshly lit, upward shot of von Ebrennac, to the perspective cuts of his face divided by light and shadow as he plays the organ, to his agonizing visit after his trip to Paris, as he looks overhead at the figure of an angel. In an oppressive society resigned to cruelty and persecution, von Ebrennac’s idealism serves as a reaffirmation of the innate goodness of the human soul – struggling from being extinguished – finding validation, acceptance, and community in a foreign land, among silent, defiant enemies.
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