Le silence de la mer Criterion Collection Blu-ray review
It’s 1941 and the Nazis have taken over France. An older man and his niece watch from the door as two men approach their home. The older man shows the uniformed visitors a room upstairs. It is where German officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon, who appeared in Sacha Guitry’s THE LAME DEVIL and would later become a favorite of Spanish horror director Jesús Franco) will be staying while he is deployed in the region.
One night, von Ebrennac arrives. He removes his hat and bows to his hosts. He begins to apologize for intruding, but wants his hosts to know that he is only there because it is necessary. He tells them he has great respect for those that love their country and admires an angelic figure display in the home. The man (Jean-Marie Robain, who would appear in a number of director Jean-Pierre Melville’s works) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane, who would next star in Melville’s LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES) react in silence.
They remain that way as von Ebrennac passes through the kitchen the next morning, admiring the charm of the home. They remain that way as he bids them goodnight. They remain that way as he comments on the weather. Time passes and still the uncle and the niece remain quiet, letting the officer go on about his childhood and French art, showing he has a sincere care for his heritage and the country the Nazis have invaded.
LE SILENCE DE LA MER (translated as THE SILENCE OF THE SEA) is a unique film in which dialogue is left primarily to just one individual and the thoughts of others are left to voiceover. This allows the viewer to understand that the uncle does not fear the visitor as may have initially been suggested. Rather, through the voiceover, it is revealed that the uncle can see the visitor as a human being.
What LE SILENCE DE LA MER does through these (non-)exchanges—and having von Ebrennac appear in civilian clothing night after night—is show a German officer not serving as the menace, but rather as an intelligent man who takes a viewpoint that is unlike those of most of his fellow troops. This is a shocking approach, and it’s no mystery why Jean Bruller, who joined the French Resistance, wrote the source novel under a pseudonym.
LE SILENCE DE LA MER is the debut feature of Jean-Pierre Melville, who would go on to direct such classics as 1956’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR, 1967’S LE SAMOURAI and 1969’S ARMY OF SHADOWS. LE SILENCE DE LA MER doesn’t show a director trying to find his vision; it is a vision.
The film takes place in almost one location (actually Bruller’s personal home, a space that allows cinematographer Henri Decaë the proper room to highlight the messages of the film) so as to confine these characters, underline the invasion that was occurring and suggest that, as von Ebrennac says, the Germans were indeed bent on having France join them.
LE SILENCE DE LA MER is a daring effort, a superb debut from a director who told what should have been in a way that delivers the point better than perhaps any line of dialogue could.
Video: 1.33:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine film scanner from a 35 mm fine-grain at Éclair Laboratories and Épinay-sur-Seine, France, where the film was also restored. Additional restoration was performed by the Criterion Collection.”
This high-definition transfer looks quite nice, with strong details and fine contrast throughout.
Audio: French and German Mono. Subtitles in English. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm print at Éclair, where it was also restored. In addition, Criterion manually removed clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube’s integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4.”
The audio features clear dialogue and a clean score.
24 HOURS IN THE LIFE OF A CLOWN (18:26): Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1946 short film, about two clowns (played by Beby and Maïss) who find inspiration on the streets for their performances.
CODE NAME MELVILLE (1:16:39): This excellent 2008 documentary explores Melville’s life and career
Melville Steps Out of the Shadows (42:19): This 2010 documentary looks at the making of LE SILENCE DE LA MER. Interviewees include actress Nicole Stéphane, filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (THE TIN DRUM), cinematographer Pierre Lhomme (ARMY OF SHADOWS) and author Rul Nogueira (Melville on Melville).
Ginette Vincendeu (17:09): Film professor Vincendeu discusses LE SILENCE DE LA MER.
CINEPANORAMA (1:43): This brief interview with Melville aired on a 1959 episode of the French television program CINEPANORAMA.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a selection from Rui Nogueira’s 1971 book Melville on Melville.