No film-maker emanating from the French New Wave of cinema made a more popular film than 1987’s Au Revoir les Enfants, a worldwide success for director and screenwriter Louis Malle.
The film, re-released this week, is set within a select Catholic boarding school near Fontainebleau in 1944, at a time when Jewish people were still being deported from France by the occupying Nazis. A 12-year-old newcomer to school (Gaspard Manesse) is asked to befriend another new boy (Raphael Fejtö) who turns out to be Jewish.
The two become close but the Nazis force the non-Jewish boy into betraying his friend. All this is at least partially based on Malle’s own experience during the war, and it is no surprise that at the premiere he was moved to floods of tears.
The film’s great virtue is its lack of sentimentality and its proper appreciation of how young people can betray each other without meaning to. The scene is set with honesty, showing how the school tried to protect its Jewish pupils despite the fact that it could have been closed down by the Nazis if this was discovered.
Au Revoir les Enfants may not have the subtlety of Malle’s more controversial films — such as Lacombe, Lucien or Murmur of the Heart — but as the director once said: “Emotion is always more important in films than ideas.”
Au Revoir touched a great many people in its day and should do so again now. It is one of the best there is about the young, and the fact that it is based on Malle’s own childhood experience makes it all the more powerful.