An Impossible Love: Some thoughts on “The Silence of the Sea” (“Le Silence de la Mer”)
They were soul mates. Werner knows it almost immediately, when he hears Jeanne, a piano teacher, playing the Prelude to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” on the piano they day he enters their house. A young and very handsome captain in the Wehrmacht, he has been billeted in the home of Jeanne and her grandfather in a little village in western France that had been occupied by the Germans in 1941.
A gentleman as well as an officer, Werner displays every possible courtesy to Jeanne and her grandfather, though he could have simply bullied and belittled them, as two of his fellow officers later said he should. Werner represents the noble tradition of the German military, in stark contrast to the SS and to men who had come under the sway of Hitler’s racist and nationalist rhetoric.
For one thing, he is a musician and a lover of books, especially French novels. In fact, he loves France as a country and a civilization, and is happy to dwell in this quiet seaside town in the home of a trustworthy old man and a very silent and lovely young woman. She reminds him of the sea, which is also silent, though its currents run deep. Despite their chilly and most discourteous refusal to answer any of his kindly greetings or respond to his self-revelations as he warms his hands by the fire, he persists in trying to point to their common humanity.
Jeanne and her grandfather are staunch French patriots, however. Jeanne’s grandfather had been wounded in a previous (unnamed, perhaps 1870) war against the Germans, and her father had been killed at Verdun. They despise the collaboration that Marshal Petain represents and leads, and are not totally unsympathetic to the Resistance, the extent of which they only slowly begin to realize.
Werner has come into their home as an uninvited invader – literally. Signs of German occupation feature prominently throughout the film, along with scenes of angry French protests over their stifling presence and the growing food shortages. Though a kind and gentle man, Werner still wears the uniform of the hated victors in yet another humiliating defeat for France. Jeanne’s friend waits anxiously for her husband’s return from the army; her favorite student has to flee with her family because they are Jews; and another friend is working for the Resistance. How could she and her grandfather fraternize with an enemy?
Gradually, however, Werner begins to win the heart of an unbelievably silent Jeanne. Early on, he reveals that he, too, had lost a family member in the Great War, and that he had joined the army only to carry on the family tradition. In fact, he too is a musician, a composer. His favorite composer is Bach, and his favorite piece the Prelude he had heard Jeanne play the day he met her.
As the film progresses, you watch Jeanne’s icy heart begin to thaw, until, clearly, she has fallen in love with Werner, as he had long ago with her. You long for her to say something – anything – when he reaches out in kindness to her and her father.
But theirs is an impossible love.
Once again, Werner sees it first. As much as he loathes war and the Nazis, he must be loyal to his country; his duty as a soldier must come first. Otherwise, even if Jeanne had returned his affection, they would both be faced with an intractable predicament: They can never marry, and if their love became known, both would be despised as traitors to their countries. They would face not only separation but an ignoble demise.
Our two lovers clearly know that romantic feelings cannot claim our highest loyalty. As the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace wrote, “I could not love thee, dear, loved I not honor more.” (“To Lucasta: Going to the Wars”).
For the Christian, the conflict could be seen as that between personal passion and duty to the Kingdom of God.
This love story could only end unhappily. Faced with only terrible options, Werner leads the way by choosing an honorable path, and Jeanne, though clearly tormented, heroically controls what must have been an almost overpowering urge to deter him.
Perhaps they are comforted by the knowledge that they have loved, and been loved by, a soul mate. Maybe they even dare to hope that they will meet again after the war.
Nevertheless, their parting “Adieu!” breaks their heart, as it does ours.
From Wikipedia: Le Silence de la mer (English: The Silence of the Sea) is a French novel written during the summer of 1941 and published in early 1942 by Jean Bruller under the pseudonym "Vercors". Published secretly in Nazi-occupied Paris, the book quickly became a symbol of mental resistance against German occupiers.’’
A Belgian-French TV movie based on the novels by Vercors was shot from 1 to 28 April 2004 in Tusson and directed by Pierre Boutron for France 2 television. This film was awarded at the Festival of Fiction of Saint-Tropez in 2004 three awards: best TV film, best female (Julie Delarme) and best music (Angélique et Jean-Claude Nachon). The actors are Julie Delarme (Jeanne Larosière), Michel Galabru (André Larosière), Thomas Jouannet (Werner Von Ebrennac), Marie Bunel (Marie), Timothée Ferrand (Pierre).
G. Wright Doyle