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Literature / Le Silence de la mer

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Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) is a French novella written in 1942 by Jean Bruller and published secretly under his pseudonym, "Vercors". Which is just as well, as it quickly became a symbol of mental resistance against the German occupation.

The story centres on an elderly man and his young niece, who are forced to share their home with a German officer named Werner Von Ebrannac, and though they are unable to hinder him directly, they resolve to show resistance by never saying a word to him. The uncomfortable arrangement is complicated by the fact that Werner is a polite Francophile who genuinely desires amity with his unwilling hosts and between their two warring nations.

A 1946 English TV adaptation was one of the first programmes broadcast by the BBC after the end of World War II. The book has also been adapted into several stage plays as well as two French-language films — one of them is Jean-Pierre Melville's feature-length debut released in 1949 and starring Howard Vernon, Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain, the other is a 2004 TV film starring Julie Delarme, Thomas Jouannet and Michel Galabru. In the 2004 adaptation, the niece becomes a granddaughter called Jeanne Larosière and the uncle a grandfather called André Larosière.

See also Suite Française, a novel written around the same time with similar themes and situations.

Le Silence de la mer contains examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Villain
  • Anachronism Stew: In the 1949 film, part of Werner's Heel Realization comes on a visit to Paris in September 1941, when he reads a memo from March 1941 about operations at Treblinka. Treblinka was not brought into service as an extermination camp until 1942.
  • Break Them by Talking: Inverted. The uncle and the niece break the officer by not talking.
  • Break the Believer: Werner truly believed the Reich would bring about a better breed of humanity, until he realizes what kind of brutal thugs they truly are.
  • Contempt Crossfire: Werner the German officer quartered in the French home is an Officer and a Gentleman, truly believing in the ideals of the Nazi party and how eliminating the weak will make the world a better place (for their part, his unwilling hosts maintain absolute silence towards him). Then after he meets his best friend (now a Card-Carrying Villain delighting in the pain and misery he causes) and learns about the death camps, he finally realizes the brutish, destructive thuggery that the Nazis stand for, and volunteers for the Eastern front.
  • During the War: The interplay between a German officer and his two unwilling hosts in a small house in occupied France.
  • Elective Mute: The uncle and niece refuse to say a single word to the German officer who has been quartered in their home.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Werner.
  • Final First Words: "Adieu", says the niece to Werner as he's leaving.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Werner positively gushes when he sees his hosts' library.
  • Heel Realisation: Happens during Werner's time in Paris.
  • Hitler Cam: The 1949 film uses this several times, including some instances shot from the POV of the uncle sitting in a chair, but also a couple of shots from the inside of the fireplace as Werner stands over the fire.
  • Just Following Orders: In the 1949 film Werner is no doubt thinking about this at the end, when, right before leaving, he cracks open an Anatole France book and sees the quote "It is beautiful for a soldier to disobey orders which are criminal."
  • No Name Given: In the original novel, the two principal characters are known only as "the uncle" and "the niece". In the 1949 film, Werner is the only character who has a name. The 2004 film names them as André and Jeanne Larosière.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Werner to a tee.
  • Place Worse Than Death: When Werner reveals that he has requested a transfer to the Eastern Front, he remarks to his hosts in the book and the 1949 film that he is "Off to Hell".
  • Polite Villains, Rude Heroes: Although Werner barely qualifies as a villain.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Although he does it to himself, volunteering to leave his cushy, pleasant duty station in occupied France and instead fight on the Eastern Front.
  • La Résistance: Naturally, as the author was a member of the French resistance when he wrote the book.
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: A rare use of this for drama, as Werner doesn't have to leave.
  • Thinking Out Loud: Werner, frequently, as he attempts to fill the uncomfortable silence, and connect with his hosts.
  • Title Drop
  • Tranquil Fury: The humiliated anger of the uncle and niece is palpable, but never finds expression.
  • Worthy Opponent: How Werner views France. The uncle comes to feel the same way about Werner.