War on film takes many forms. It is usually gruelling, physical and emotive. Le Silence de la Mer is all of those things, but it is confined to the accommodation of a French family. It utilises the global acceptance and understanding of how horrible war is. We don’t need to see the fighting in Jean-Pierre Melville’s debut feature to understand how disgusting and brutal a time it was. It is the reaction he is after, not the spectacle so many have brought to the screen before and after him. His tools here are simple and effective, a display of how individuals who are from completely opposite positions in life will do anything to fill an awkward silence.
But their animosity fuels some form of horror within Werner Von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon). He believes in not just himself but his country too. He has no real grasp of how horrible an affliction Nazism was and is on the world. His visit to Paris changes that, and the change in tone and character Vernon brings to the screen is marvellous. It is well-handled and engaging, but not all that memorable. It does not have some cutting scene or brutal part that could corroborate the feeling of tortured souls and the guilt that would follow. It is a bold and open understanding of how atrocious these actions were, and it comes at a formidable time. The wounds of war were still open and sore, and Le Silence de la Mer navigates the post-war feeling with respect and cutting realism.
That realism lasts only so long, though. It is inevitably steeped in regret and a desire to make things right. Melville cannot entirely navigate the conflict within. He uses the uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and niece (Nicole Stéphane) as silent protagonists. They serve their purpose well, but we are left alone with Ebrennac, who must fill this void himself. The before and after that Ebrennac has is wildly different. He is proud of his country, visits Paris, and is then disgusted. It is the natural progression, and the correct way to present it, but it is wishful and simplistic at times. Melville would develop this far better in follow-ups to this, but you can see the sketch marks of something truly great throughout Le Silence de la Mer.
Weaving claustrophobia into the divide between a family and the villains that invaded their country, Le Silence de la Mer is a fascinatingly strong debut. It revels in its discomfort, and how silent treatment brings out the worst in even the vilest of sinners. A small act of resistance bubbles over into a great effect, not just on the German living against the French pair, but on Melville too. It feels like a cathartic piece. A film made not because he had a true desire to share this story, but one that is the by-product of his close ties to the resistance. It is an incredible debut feature, but one that Melville himself would blow out of the water in the years to come. He would soon refine his craft beyond simple narrative stylings, comparative characters and solid-yet-effective camerawork.