Le Silence de la Mer (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature by Jean-Pierre Melville, was both a labor of love based on novella that was considered an almost sacred text by the French Resistance and a maverick, self-financed gamble to break into the film industry as a director. A decade before the nouvelle vague, Melville laid the groundwork for the movement with an independent production that incorporated the limitations of resources into the fabric of the filmmaking.
Set mostly in the small farmhouse of a middle-aged Frenchman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane) where a polite, cultured German officer (Howard Vernon) has been billeted, the film features only one character who speaks on camera (the rest of voice-over narration and reflection, thus limiting the necessity of live sound recording for most scenes). The French hosts offer their own resistance by refusing to speak in the officer’s presence, or even acknowledge him. “By unspoken agreement, my niece and I decided to change nothing in our lives, not the slightest detail, as if he didn’t exist. As if he were a ghost.” Instead of taking it as a slight, the officer treats it as an invitation to indulge in monologues on art and culture (he was a composer as a civilian), the barbarity of the German people, and his dream that French influence will civilize his culture. German though he may be, he is no Nazi and the film is as much about his disillusionment with his own people as it is about the strange and beautiful relationship between these people who might have liked and even loved one another in a different life.