Le Silence de la Mer will surprise those who only know Jean-Pierre Melville for directing thrillers like Le Samourai (1967) or Le Cercle Rouge (1971). Melville’s debut feature is a wartime drama about a German officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) who moves into the home of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane) in occupied France.
The only form of resistance available to them is silence, so they refuse to speak to their guest. Respecting their patriotism, von Ebrennac does all the talking instead. He describes his upbringing in Germany and his lifelong affection for France. Von Ebrennac reveals himself to be a cultured, civilised man with a love for French literature.
Von Ebrennac also believes the war will bring France and Germany closer together though his idealism is eventually shattered by his colleagues in Paris. The old man and his niece agree he seems decent, though they acknowledge they cannot ever talk to him out of loyalty to France. Melville’s derives tension from little moments, a clock ticking for example, or a facial expression, rather than conventional dramatic means.
Though an early representation of the ‘good German’ may have seemed insensitive coming only four years after the Occupation Melville opens the film with a statement condemning Nazi barbarity and the complicity of the German people.
While Le Silence de la Mer is notably different to Melville’s later Americanised genre films, his use of stillness and silence would be recurrent throughout his career. Von Ebrennac may be unusually loquacious for a Melville protagonist, but he shares the bruised romanticism and the existential despair common in his later movies.
Howard Vernon is remarkable as von Ebrennac. Tall and striking-looking, Vernon is first seen arriving in the doorway and entering out of the darkness like the monster in a Universal horror film. In Vercors novel, von Ebrennac is a handsome, blonde Teutonic figure, while Vernon with his sharp, haunted features is much more unconventional.
Based on a famous novel by the Resistance writer Vercors, Le Silence de la Mer is a milestone in French cinema. Melville hired Henri Decae, a young photographer with no experience of working in film to act as director of photography. Melville and Decae take a minimalist approach using unusual camera angles and close-ups to convey meaning.
This approach was revolutionary and created a new language for film. Melville directed Le Silence de la Mer without any formal training or industry connections. The use of voiceover, location shooting, and Melville’s refusal to play by the rules influenced the Nouvelle Vague. Robert Bresson’s minimalistic filmmaking style clearly owes a debt to Le Silence de la Mer.