I experienced the 1987 Louis Malle film Au Revoir les Enfants as at least moderately engrossing the whole way, and appreciated the emotionally powerful payoff.
It is especially meaningful and poignant when you realize that it’s semi-autobiographical, based on a series of events in Malle’s childhood that he has carried the memories of, and guilt from, for his entire life.
I like the title (“Goodbye, Children”) too. On the one hand, it is a reference to the priest who runs the French Vichy-era boarding school attended by the young Malle stand-in, and who turns out to be a heroic figure. Throughout the film he is greeted by the students and greets them in turn—“Good day Father,” “Good night children,” etc. Then as he is led off by the Nazis at the end of the film, one by one they sadly call out “Goodbye Father.” “Goodbye children. See you soon,” he says, and he and we know of course that he will not.
But I also read into the title the interpretation “goodbye childhood,” as the children and especially the Malle character—Julien—come to realize the gravity of adult responsibility and adult capacity for evil.
Not that they’re blind to serious issues before that. They’ve been dealing with war and its consequences for several years. But this is different. This is being confronted by such issues directly, participating in them, appreciating the gravity of them, and realizing you’ll never be able to look at life as a child again.
It is 1944. Julien is emotionally in turmoil, at times driven to tears, by the fact that he (and his older brother) are separated from his family at this school during such an unstable time of war. But he puts on a brave face to safeguard his reputation as something of the “alpha” student of his class—academically high scoring, athletically and socially looked up to by the other boys, artistically at least somewhat accomplished (though not enough to impress the hot piano teacher).
The priests accept three incoming Jewish students to try to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis, changing their names and passing them off as Protestants. One, Jean, is assigned to Julien’s class.
The psychology of the relationship between these two boys is handled quite well, specifically Julien’s mixed feelings about the newcomer. Jean is at least as accomplished a student as Julien, and clearly exceeds him at the piano (having no problem impressing the hot piano teacher). Julien is resentful, wary, competitive, even hostile as a result.
But at the same time he’s admiring, respectful, intrigued, and desirous of being closer to Jean. Jean is receptive to a limited degree to Julien’s efforts to make a connection, while being even more aloof from the other students. This reserve intrigues Julien all the more. He watches him closely, and over time comes to know his secret. (Not that Jean is all that meticulous about keeping the secret. During the night when all the boys are sleeping in rows of beds in one large room, Jean lights candles and murmurs Jewish prayers. Implausibly, Julien is the only one who ever wakes up to see this.)
Julien seems uncertain whether to treat this as a reason to pity and sympathize with Jean, as a reason to dislike him, as leverage to use against him, or what. Mostly he’s just puzzled by the revelation.
It’s stunning how little familiarity the boys have with Jews, given that they’re not little kids (I’d say about junior high school age) and that one would have to think certain things had been “in the news” and a hot topic of conversation in recent years. There’s some degree of anti-Semitism, but not very deep or informed. They have a vague sense that Jews are different, probably in a bad way, though maybe in a neutral exotic sort of way, but little or no grasp of specifics. Julien himself asks his brother “What’s a Jew?” because he really has no idea beyond having heard the word. “People who don’t eat pork” is the response, leaving Julien a bit surprised that there isn’t more to it.
But Julien and Jean do end up in at least the beginnings of a friendship, albeit with neither seeming to fully commit to it emotionally.
Then when a vengeful ex-employee turns rat, the Nazis descend on the school to capture the three Jewish students and the priest who had taken them. (All of whom, as stated in voiceover at the end of the movie, subsequently died in concentration camps in real life.)
In the crucial scene of the movie, when the Nazis enter Julien’s classroom and demand to know which is the Jew, Julien at one point nervously glances over at Jean. This is witnessed, and Jean is seized.
Now on the one hand, you can ask what all the fuss is about, since there’s zero chance Julien’s glance made any difference. It’s not like if all the students had played dumb that the Nazis would have said “Oh, guess there’s no Jew in here after all,” and left. Jean even absolves Julien of any responsibility as he’s leaving. By that point they were going to get the Jewish students regardless.
But I think the deeper point—and this is why the depiction of the whole psychological duel between Julien and Jean is so important—is that Julien could not be sure whether his involuntary gesture had, at some subconscious level, been intentional. Had his jealousy, or even some rudimentary anti-Semitism he’d picked up from his peers and society, caused him to desire that this Other, this intruder, be plucked out of the school and out of his life?
And that point isn’t about the (lack of) consequences of the glance. It’s about what’s in Julien’s heart. It’s the kind of thing a person replays over and over and over to try to understand if there is something to feel guilty about. The kind of thing a person even makes a movie about forty years later because it’s still on his mind.
Giving the title more of an ironic twist, perhaps we never say goodbye to childhood when it includes incidents like that that forever drag us back to that time.