Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) is based on the childhood memories of the great French filmmaker, Louis Malle. During World War II, he attended a Catholic boarding school in the countryside of France. One day, the Gestapo raided the school and captured three Jewish students and a Jewish teacher, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz and died there. The headmaster of the school was arrested for giving shelter to Jews; he died at Mauthausen. (The headmaster, Pere Jacques de Jesus, was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations and memorialized at Yad Vashem in 1985.) Malle was eleven years old when these events happened, and they haunted him. Au Revoir, Les Enfants is the film he made to tell the emotional truth about that experience.
In the film, a pampered French boy, Julien, has been sent to a religious boarding school in the countryside by his mother, who is worried that Paris has become too dangerous during the war. There he becomes intrigued by a newcomer named Jean Bonnet, whom he gradually realizes is a Jew in hiding. The two become close friends, and when the Gestapo raid the school, disaster strikes when Julien inadvertently gives Jean’s identity away. As the headmaster is led away by the students, he calls back to them, “Au revoir, les enfants!” [Goodbye, children!}
This is among the most powerful of Holocaust films, even though we never see the camps and we only occasionally see a German soldier. Rather, Malle shows us the terrible losses suffered, and the slow grinding pace at which they proceeded for many French Jews. Julien misses his mother terribly, but she comes to visit at every school holiday. Jean misses his mother, too; he carries her last letter with him all the time, but he has not heard from her in months and by the film’s end we realize he will never see her again. The French boys in the film are normal boys, and they are busy having a childhood despite the fact that a war is in progress. The Jewish children, however, have a terrible shadow over them; their awareness of that shadow colors even the small pleasures of life.
The film does an excellent job of showing the many different opinions about Jews among French Christians, from the most anti-Semitic bigot to the gentle headmaster. It also has a brief but poignant investigation of the banality of evil.
The end of the film raises for us the guilt of the helpless bystander. In real life, Malle did not betray a Jewish child, but his choice to make Julien accidentally betray Jean in the film is brilliant, because it throws a bright light on the guilt that the helpless real-life children felt, watching their friends led away by the Gestapo. It makes it impossible for us to rationalize that Julien shouldn’t feel guilty; we are drawn into his misery.
Au Revoir, Les Enfants is a magnificent film, one of the finest ever made about the Holocaust.