Melville found fame and success later in his career with a series of well-crafted, terse action-oriented thrillers. As such, it is easy to forget that he got his start in filmmaking in the period immediately following WWII, working alongside such luminaries as Bresson and Renoir on pictures which have little in common with Le Cercle Rouge or Un Flic.
Few subjects have been adapted to the medium of cinema as often as the story of the Second World War, its historical status as a manichean struggle between the forces of the evil nazis and a benevolent coalition of Western powers permitting screenwriters to frame it as an unambiguously just war which had to be waged against an inhumane, irrational foe. Melville’s The Silence of the Sea is not that sort of war picture. Instead, it offers a realistic and gripping portrait of life in rural France under Nazi occupation in which ambiguities abound and even among the German occupiers there exists doubt and moral confusion about the righteousness of their cause.
The film relates the story of a Nazi who, inspired by the steadfast and unshakeable resolve of his French hosts to speak even a word to him, lest their speech be construed as acceptance or collaboration, comes to question his participation in the war. Werner, characterized as a sensitive and artistic soul, believes himself to be righting the wrongs of the WWI, and in doing so, setting the stage for a second European renaissance in which France, Germany, and the other cultures of Western Europe will find themselves restored and re-invigorated. For large portions of the film, Werner is the only character who speaks with the thoughts of the unnamed Frenchman and his niece being delivered through narration. This gives the film a tone which some have described as anti-cinematographic in which we come to understand the inner-turmoil experienced by the protagonists not through visualized actions or words but a sort of stream-of-consciousness to which Werner has no access. This serves to highlight the major theme of the work which is the breakdown of communication and, by extension, the dissolution of classical notions of humanism which the war symbolized. As Werner comes to understand that his idealistic interpretation of the Nazi occupation was deeply misguided, he frantically attempts to reach out to the frenchman and his niece so that he might have some means of shielding himself from the horrors to which he is now a party. However, they deny him this, despite their misgivings, because of Werner’s inability to abandon his duties even after coming face to face with the realities of Hitler’s final solution.
This is among the most powerful and evocative World War II films ever created. It examines the power dynamics and motivations at play between the Germans and the French, the first of the major Western powers to fall in the face of blitzkreig, in a manner wholly absent from the glamorous and jingoistic Hollywood pictures which would follow it. I’ve often taken issue with the likely apocryphal quote attributed to Francois Truffaut that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because war is inherently exciting on screen; I think this film strongly demonstrates the foolishness of such a sweeping and un-nuanced proclamation.