Sophie Eastaugh reviews Au Revoir les Enfants for Holocaust Memorial Day, which is a story of a young boy who befriends a Jewish classmate hiding in his school, in Nazi Occupied France.

Au Revoir les Enfants,

France, 1987

French with subtitles

Director: Louis Malle

Actors: Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö

Poster of Au revoir les enfants_non-dated_equad

Opening on 30 January 2015 at selected cinemas UK-wide, with a special preview at BFI Southbank on 27 January for Holocaust Memorial Day

Au Revoir Les Enfants is such an intensely personal film that French director Louis Malle (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City) waited decades to make it.

Set in Nazi-occupied France, the semi-autobiographical story of a young boy who befriends a Jewish classmate hiding in his school was first released in 1987, nearly thirty years after the filmmaker’s début.

Finally unburdening a memory that had haunted him all his life, Malle’s depiction of the Holocaust is an unflinching condemnation of racism’s barbaric illogicality.

As the world reels from the fresh anti-Semitism displayed in the Paris attacks, the BFI’s rerelease of the multi-award-winning film for World Holocaust Memorial Day couldn’t be more timely.

In the bitter winter of 1944, well-heeled Parisian mothers pack their little darlings off to boarding school, a devout Catholic institution in northern France. Twelve-year-old Julien (Gaspard Manesse) appears a tough, popular kid, but really he is a mummy’s boy who still wets the bed.Au revoir les enfants pic 4

Headmaster Father Jean asks Julien to look after the new boy, the shy and intelligent Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), who is the butt of all class jokes.

As the pair slowly strike up an unlikely friendship, bonding over a shared love of racy books and playing the piano, Julien discovers that Jean and the priests are concealing his secret Jewish identity.

Malle’s gently paced story is deliberately unsentimental, blending memory with fiction in a consuming tale of friendship, childhood and betrayal.

Charming juxtapositions reveal the austerity of monastic life for the adolescent boys, as pious rituals of confession and prayers jar with the dirty pictures they smuggle into their schoolbooks.

Au revoir les enfants pic 2

Though the narrative is clothed in a building sense of doom, genius moments of pleasure fill it with the lightness of childhood; the thrill of a Boy Scout expedition, the fervour of playground fights and the frenzied swapping of supplies. 

This faithful portrayal of the essence of boyhood puts us right in Julien’s shoes, sharing his curiosity and confusion.

Evocative details, diligent characterization and the use of unblinking close-ups let us see through his disbelieving eyes as the strange world unfolds before him.

By placing us so convincingly in the innocent mind of a child, Malle pinpoints the arbitrariness of racism with stunning efficacy; why are some humans treated differently from others?

Malle said it was the true events behind this film that turned him against the establishment and pushed him to become a filmmaker.

He was right to delay over its creation.

With its quiet simplicity and heart-rending scenes, Au Revoir les Enfants is the most moving achievement of his 40-year career.