Jean-Pierre Melville’s debut feature is an extraordinary work of minimalism – a tight, painfully claustrophobic take of unspoken passion, resistance and occupation that remains as impressive and enthralling now as when it first appeared in 1949.
Based on the famed French resistance novel by Vercors, published clandestinely during the German occupation of World War 2, Melville’s film is a close telling of the novel, complete with a relentless voice-over that would allow the film to be released as an audio edition for French speakers. In the occupied France of 1941, German officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) is billeted to the country home of an unnamed old man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane). Powerless to prevent this, the pair resolve to deal with this very intimate occupation by refusing to acknowledge the new arrival, never speaking a word or responding to him in any way.
But each night, von Ebrennac changes out of his military uniform and joins the couple in front of the fire, expressing his hopes and dreams of a unified, cultured Europe with France and Germany in accord once the war is over, and expressing his admiration for the French people. All the time, the sexual tension between the German and the French girl is growing, an unspoken yearning from both that she has to resist, much as France had to resist the wider German occupation. Eventually, von Ebrennac’s idealistic dreams are shattered by the reality of the Nazi onslaught, and he is forced to face reality.
Voice-over aside, La Silence de la Mer is shot with painful restraint – the occupying German’s philosophies giving way to long silences where the tension is palpable, the French couple struggling to keep their own passive resistance in the company of a polite, charming and intelligent intruder, while von Ebrennac himself respects the status quo between them and is unable to bring himself to try to beak it. The three leads portray this tension magnificently, none more so that Vernon – soon to be Jesus Franco’s only male muse and here looking uncannily like Boris Karloff, never more so than in his opening appearance, framed in the doorway like a classic horror movie villain. As the only character with any substantial dialogue, he does a great job of both humanising his somewhat naïve Nazi and revealing the sexual, social and political tensions within his character with little more than a few eye movements.
If the film sometimes slides into melodrama – thanks primarily to a somewhat bombastic score – that’s okay, because Melville always pulls it back to the understated. The result is a masterclass in creating cinematic tension and emotion out of very little.