Jean-Pierre Melville (1949)
IN ONE OF THE GREATEST DEFENSES of poetry ever written, Percy Shelley wrote that “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” Shelley defined love as a “going out of our own nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.” If he was right—and I think he was—then it follows that art helps us to live better by expanding our imaginations and, thus, strengthening our moral capacities.
Because film is immersive, it acts on our imaginations in a particularly potent manner.
At the movies, we are engaged imaginatively, not just intellectually. It is much harder to walk out of a movie than put down a book—or to skip over the parts that challenge or provoke us. The films that have helped me most in my desire to live better (by which I mean more in accordance with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ) have not necessarily been the ones that best mirrored my own life, most closely parroted my own philosophy, or best illustrated my deepest convictions. Rather, they have been the ones that invited me—seduced me, really—to step outside myself and adopt the perspective of someone not at all like me. When doing so, I often found that those who seemed most “other” were actually more like me than I had dared imagine.
Miloš Forman’s Ragtime made me weep tears of hot anger for the injustices visited upon a black man, fundamentally changing my attitude towards those whose skin was a different color than my own. James Cameron’s Aliens and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter allowed me the imaginative space to be inspired by women who were stronger than I ever thought I could be. They made me affirm what I already knew: the greatest strength comes not from fear or hate but from love. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis allowed me, finally, to speak aloud some of my own disappointments and disillusionments with my adopted faith community. I was not raised or educated in any particular faith tradition; I came to Christianity in my teen years, largely absent any religious instruction. It is probably an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to say that my moral and spiritual development can be mapped out through the books and movies that inspired and challenged me.
Many films have allowed me to imagine the lives of those not all that different from me. A select few have also inspired or challenged me by modeling humanist, imaginative compassion and directing it towards one’s enemies. It really isn’t that hard to feel or express compassion for the downtrodden from one’s lofty perch of privilege; seeing the humanity in one’s oppressor is a different matter entirely. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) is the consummate example of a film that scandalizes, angers, provokes, and ultimately changes me each time I watch it. I begin with all my intellectual, historical, and social defenses raised against the argument that I must see its protagonist, a Nazi officer, as a flawed human rather than simply a monster.
That officer is Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), an educated man in love with French culture and ultimately aghast at the plans of his government to decimate rather than assimilate its enemies. (The film is based on a novel published pseudonymously in German-occupied Paris in 1942.) Ebrennac is housed with an elderly Frenchman and his niece. The French pair enact a strategy of psychological resistance by refusing to speak to von Ebrennac or even acknowledge his presence. Initially the silent treatment may seem a futile, feeble gesture, but its impact is undeniable. The human soul thirsts for connection. By severing the most basic bond of humanity between themselves and the German, uncle and niece bring to the surface the huge psychological cost of violence.
It is important to underscore that the effects of psychological isolation are not merely felt by the Nazi but also by those who refuse to acknowledge him. Le Silence de la Mer illustrates that resistance comes at a cost. No matter how well justified, all violence, even the most benign, takes its toll on the perpetrators as well as the victims.
To call von Ebrennac a victim—to say that his character inspires empathy and compassion—in no way excuses the Nazi war effort nor posits a moral equivalence between the violence of oppression and that of resistance. Melville’s surname is a nom de guerre, adopted during his time with the French resistance. His later film, L’Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), incorporates that experience in more familiar but no less devastating ways. Le Silence de la Mer may not be as brutal as L’Armée des Ombres, but this is no dewy-eyed, “love your enemies” panacea turning a blind eye to war’s atrocities. It simply blurs the lines between the personal and the political, between our enemies and the people we think we must be in order to oppose them.
Art matters. It always has. In its power to mediate, salve, and transform our most painful experiences lies one of the chief reasons film is cherished by so many. It is easy to forget that power in the midst of a cultural moment populated by endless franchise tent poles and superhero sequels.
In an interview with Rui Nogueira reprinted with the Criterion DVD, Melville claims to have offered to submit the film to a jury picked by the novel’s author, and to burn the negative if a single juror objected to its being publicly shown. He relates how Howard Vernon risked violence by wearing a Nazi uniform while shooting the scenes on the streets of Paris. In 1949, some wounds were still a little too fresh for some viewers.
Vernon and Melville made the film anyway. In their own woundedness, they spoke complicated truths to a wounded nation—a wounded world, really. They told us that empathy for devils we know may be our best protection against becoming like them, and that what sustains us during the darkest nights of our souls is love, not righteousness.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema and the founder of 1More Film Blog.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.