Perhaps one of the reasons why Louise Malle’s 1987 movie “Au revoir les enfants” (Goodbye Children), is so moving is its believable portrayal of schoolboys.
The story pivots around a friendship between Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), and Jean Bonnet (Raphael Feito), both staying at a French Catholic boarding school in the Nazi occupied France in 1944. Manesse and Feito the actors behind the main characters had no prior experience in acting.
We never get to see Julien’s wealthy father, his mother a charming Parisian sends him to the boarding school to be away from the Nazi-stricken Paris. One day a new student arrives at the school, his name is Jean Bonnet. At first, Julien joins in the childish custom of picking on the new kid but soon they form a friendship. Both boys love to read.
After a while, Julien discovers that his friend avoids questions about his family. He skips choir practice and doesn’t recite the morning prayers, and the priest avoids giving him the communion wafer when he kneels at the altar.
His suspicions drive him to search Jean’s locker, in there he finds a book with the name Kippelstein on it. For Julien that doesn’t mean much. He doesn’t know anything about Jews. He questions his brother about why everyone hates Jews. “ They’re smarter than us, and they killed Jesus,” replies the older brother. ‘ But it was the Romans who killed Jesus,” says Julien curiously.
Even though Julien doesn’t feel any resentment towards Jews, he is envious of Jean as he is an excellent piano player and his essays get higher scores than his. Nevertheless, Julien keeps his friend’s secret. We see a close-up of him sitting in a bathtub with the sounds of Jean playing the piano as if the boy is making a final decision of keeping Jean’s secret.
The story takes place towards the end of the war, France’s collaborationist government is very disliked, and an American invasion seems to occur at any moment. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Julien and Jean get lost in the woods while included in a treasure hunt with the rest of the boys. “Are there wolves in the forest?” asks Jean. It is way beyond the curfew time, so two German soldiers stop them. By instinct, Jean begins to run. The Germans go after him give the boy a blanket and offer both of them a ride back to the boarding school. “ You see, us Bavarians are Catholics also,” they tell them.
Director Louise Malle himself had lived through a story similar to the story of his movie at the same boarding school (le Petit-College D’avon). The school like many other schools at that time took a few Jewish students in to save them from impending death. According to historian Francis J. Murphy, these schools’ endeavor to save Jewish children from death played a factor in the survival of 75 percent of Jews during the World War II.
Malle had said that he never forgot the day that the Nazis invaded their school and arrested the three Jewish students and their headmaster. According to him, the students lined up, and all said goodbye to their master as he took a final look back and said: “ Au Revoir les enfants” (goodbye, children). Malle’s school headmaster died at Auschwitz three weeks later.
Louis Malle had an undeniable influence on the French New Wave cinema. He made “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958), following his main character of the movie with a camera while riding a bicycle. Malle switched to making conventional movies like “Atlantic City” (1980), “Pretty Baby” (1978) and “Au revoir les enfants” (1980) later in life. Something that lost him the approval of some movie critics who thought he has given in to the pressure of making commercial films. However, he never stopped experimenting in filmmaking, and his later films“ Vanya On 42nd Street” (1994) and “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) testify to that.
We never find out if Julien did play a part in his friend’s capture. Nazis enter their class and demand to know the identity of the Jewish student. Julien involuntarily looks at Jean. We might all make the mistake of looking the wrong way without even realizing it from time to time. Jean doesn’t blame him as he is packing his things to go. “They would have caught me, anyway,” he tells his friends as the duo say their final goodbyes.
The movie ends with a close up of Julien’s face – as was the style of French New Wave Cinema filmmakers. The shot lasts for 25 seconds during which we hear Jean playing the piano in the background.