Au Revoir, Les Enfants, according to several other reviews is based upon real events experienced in the life of director Louis Malle. Set in and around an all-boys’ Catholic school during the World War II German occupation of France, it deals with a young boy with intellectual gifts named Julien who figures out that classmate and academic rival, a similarly bright boy named Jean Bonnet, is really a Jew with the last name Kippelstein. While Julien initially needles his classmate about this fact, perhaps having unthinkingly picked up anti-Semitic attitudes from adults in his life, he eventually settles into friendship with Jean, even going so far engage in the male bonding gesture of sharing what racy reading material they could get hold of, a copy of The Arabian Nights. When the Gestapo eventually come sniffing around, having discovered that there is a Jew attending the school, Julien unwittingly betrays the presence of the person they are looking for by instinctively looking towards Jean when the Gestapo officer referred to him by his real last name.
How closely the story adheres to what Malle experienced, and what role Malle may have played in a similar situation, is unknown. What is known is that it was a film with some unusual perspectives on situations that occurred to the characters during World War II in occupied France. While history records that there were collaborators among the French population at the time that Nazi Germany occupied France, they are rarely portrayed in depth or detail in TV and cinematic portrayals of events set in that time and circumstance, though the Resistance is is very often glorified, with their relevant activities portrayed in detail. Though the French Resistance plays an important part in this picture, and (to avoid providing a spoiler for those who haven’t already seen the movie) at least one person important to the story is involved with the Resistance, his Resistance-related activity and his Resistance cell aren’t shown explicitly on screen.
There is a great deal of informal resistance on the individual and institutional level, but it is for the most part quiet resistance. The school had been hiding several other Jews. One of the priests got caught with Resistance pamphlets. And Julien waved goodbye to Jean when the Gestapo took him and the other Jews away, with the authority of the occupying government behind them.
A few people who are overt collaborators appear at various times in the movie, but for the most part, they are regarded as nuisences by the occupying German authorities, who just want to enjoy the benefits of occupying France and are not particularly eager to enforce the anti-Jewish laws and agenda that Hitler created. One instance which illustrates this was the time Jean became separated from his teammates during a game of Capture The Flag. He wandered deep into the woods, and in an effort to return, he ran into his friend, and they both subsequently ran into a uniformed German in a military vehicle…who declared “we Bavarians are Catholic”, and deduced that they came from the Catholic school behind the big wall near the church he had seen before. He returned them with no questions asked, and a warning to be more careful about observing the curfew set by the German authorities. In another, when Julien has his mother take Jean out to a restaurant when she comes to visit at the school, they witness a scene where a collaborator denounces an old man who has been a regular customer of the restaurant for years, and demands that the authorities take old Mr. Meyer away. The group of German soldiers at one of the tables, wanting, perhaps, just to enjoy their lunch, drive the collaborator from the restaurant. Julien’s mother seemed less concerned than she should have been about the whole incident, but says she sees nothing wrong with Mr. Meyer, and has “no problems with the Jews”, “except for Leon Blum”, and that was most likely motivated by the fact that he was a Socialist, rather than religious or racial considerations. It is perhaps because of such sophistication on the part of the French population that many chose to hide or refrain from informing upon Jews rather than aid the occupiers in enforcing anti-Jewish policies or the capture of Jews, and thus 75% of the Jews of France survived the war.
Though it is easy for a lot of people to say that preteen boys sent to boarding school are traumatized by the experience of being sent away and separated from their parents at an age when they are too young to handle the experience, and point to the bedwetting scene where Julien admits that he has often been wetting the bed as proof of this thesis, it would seem to me that the majority of the boys most likely experience less trauma than one may think, as it is evident that this particular Catholic school seems to serve a small population of boys from wealthy Catholic families, many of whom likely know each other and their families. It is Jean whose father is missing and whose mother hasn’t been heard from who is clearly experiencing a more definite and perhaps permanent separation from his parents than the others. This situation suggests a potential motivation for his approach to the Communion rail one day at Mass. (This movie contains a portrayal of a pre-Councilar Tridentine Mass, in which the priest faces the altar and says the majority of the Mass in Latin, but turns around to give the sermon in the vernacular language, in this case, French.) It may be that having been exposed to Catholicism in depth in a way that Jean probably would not have been under other circumstances, he has developed an appreciation for Catholicism which he wouldn’t otherwise have, or a wish to become closer to God in his circumstance of being an outsider in a dangerous circumstance. In any case, when he approaches the altar, he is clearly seeking something. Fr. Jean, the priest saying Mass, is faced with an ethical dilemma when young Jean approaches the Communion rail and kneels with the others. After all, the rules of the Church explicitly state that non-Catholics may not recieve Holy Communion, and that the same is true for Catholics not in a State Of Grace. Could the boy be there out of a serious desire to become a Catholic? If he really did desire to become a Catholic, could it be possible that he indeed qualified as such, due to the doctrine of the Baptism Of Desire? Or is it merely youthful curiousity? Is his state of ritual purity really any worse than that of his classmates? Though the clergy never “pushed” Catholicism or conversion on Jean, the Catholic religion was always there in the environment. Perhaps the priest saw in this gesture the ultimate in groupthink (perhaps Jean was motivated by a desire to become “one of the group” without thinking it through any further) -or gratitude. The priest ends up bringing the host close to Jean, but giving it to the next boy. Though the boys in the school call the monks who run it “monkeys”, and Julien doesn’t like that they’ve banned the Arabian Nights for its sexual content (the Index Libororum Prohibitorum was still in force back then) it is the priests/monks running the school who often step in to stop the other kids from harrassing Jean or coming close to finding out about his real name or Jewishness. In contrast to a lot of fictionalized and theatrical portrayals of Catholic schools run by Catholic clergy, the teaching clergy are portrayed in this movie as tough but fair.
The tender treatment Malle affords the Catholic hierarchy in the movie is unusual, too, when you see other more anti-clerical Malle efforts like “Murmur of the Heart.” There is an unexpected sense of spirituality throughout this film, somewhat muted but there all the same.

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