Raphael Fejtö and Gaspard Manesse in Au Revoir les Enfants
Père Jacques was honored at Yad Vashem in 1985 as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for his efforts to hide Jewish boys from the Nazis by enrolling them under pseudonyms at the Petit-Collège d'Avon, the school of which he was headmaster. Ordinarily, his heroism would make him the central figure of a film, the way Oskar Schindler became the subject of Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). But Louis Malle was a pupil at Père Jacques's school in 1944 when the Gestapo arrested the priest and the boys he was hiding, so he tells the story from the point of view of Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), a student at Malle's fictionalized version of the school. Père Jacques has been renamed Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) and moved to the periphery of the film's action, although his work in saving the boys remains, and he has one great moment at the heart of the film when, before an assembly that include the well-to-do parents of his students, he preaches a sermon excoriating the rich for their complacency and indifference. One man walks out indignantly. The film centers on Julien's sometimes rocky friendship with Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö), whose real name is Kippelstein, as Julien discovers, snooping in the boy's locker. Julien makes a highly effective protagonist for Malle, who draws from his own experiences -- his pre-adolescent naïveté, his occasional sneakiness, perhaps even his bed-wetting -- to introduce a note of actuality that undercuts the sentimentality into which a story that primarily focused on the priest's heroism could descend. It enables us to see Bonnet, as he adapts to being the new boy, the outsider in more ways than one, at the school less as a victim than as a human being. Malle even humanizes film's potential villain, the kitchen boy, Joseph (François Négret), who, after he is fired for stealing from the larder and selling the goods on the black market, turns in Père Jean and the Jewish boys he is hiding. Lame and therefore limited in his survival opportunities, Joseph sees aiding the Nazis as his only out. "C'est la guerre," he tells Julien when they encounter each other, "There's a war going on, kid!" Julien, who has been aiding Joseph by passing along some of the food his mother sends him, recognizes his own complicity. Malle's steadfast insistence on portraying complex human beings gives the film a strength that a more simplistic treatment of the events would lack.