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Au Revoir les Enfants: Malle’s Devastating Holocaust Drama

Au Revoir les Enfants Raphael Fejtö Gaspard ManesseAu Revoir les Enfants movie with Raphael Fejtö and Gaspard Manesse. Among its award wins, Louis Malle’s coming-of-age drama received the Venice’s Golden Lion; seven Prix César, including Best Film & Director; and the Best Screenplay European Film Award.
  • Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) movie review: Possibly Louis Malle’s best effort, this poignant Vichy France-set drama focuses on the budding friendship between two young Catholic school students, one of whom is Jewish and in hiding from the Nazis.
  • Au Revoir les Enfants was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.

Au Revoir les Enfants movie review: Louis Malle reached career peak with poignant World War II-era coming-of-age drama

Unlike the three best-known and most widely admired Holocaust-themed movies out there – Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture Academy Award winner Schindler’s List (1993), Roberto Benigni’s Best Foreign Language Film winner Life Is Beautiful (1998), and Roman Polanski’s Best Director winner The Pianist (2002) – screenwriter-director Louis Malle’s 1987 coming-of-age drama Au Revoir les Enfants actually feels true to life.

Based on events that the future filmmaker witnessed while attending school in occupied France, Au Revoir les Enfants is set at a Catholic boys boarding school where a pampered rich kid on the cusp of adolescence, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), slowly befriends a mysterious newcomer, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö), who, as it turns out, is Jewish and in hiding from the Nazis.

In Malle’s film, there is no Oskar Schindler or Wladyslaw Szpilman for audiences to applaud. There’s no bullshit about the ultimate “triumph of the human spirit.” And no one cries I could have done more! in order to satisfy the needs of moviegoers hungry for mush.

Instead, it’s all crushingly simple: Boy meets boy, boy befriends boy, boy loses boy, life will forever be less lustrous.

Boy meets extraordinary boy

Raphael Fejtö is particularly moving as the Jewish boy, for although Jean is a victim of both fate and humankind’s boundless capacity for cruelty, Fejtö, 13 years old at the time Au Revoir les Enfants was released, never comes across as an object of pity. For that very reason, he’s someone one can empathize with, relate to, feel for.

On the downside, while Louis Malle’s handling of the young actor is all but flawless, his idealization of the character is a bit problematic: Jean is more introspective, more intelligent, more mature, more handsome, more devout, more … than the Catholic boys around him. Jean may be no movie hero, but he does seem like a superior specimen all the same.

Yet more troublesome is 12-year-old Gaspard Manesse’s diffidence as Malle’s alter ego, Julien. Although at first Julien is supposed to behave like a pampered rich brat, his maturation into a more caring individual is less convincing than it should have been because it’s not evidenced in the actor’s demeanor.

Something else: How come Julien is the only one in the crowded school dormitory to notice that Jean routinely recites Jewish prayers in the middle of the night?

Realistic ending

The other cons in Au Revoir les Enfants consist of minor details – e.g., an overemphasis on the “carefree spirit of youth” as we get to see time and again how rowdy schoolboys are. In that regard, Malle should have checked out Claude Miller’s The Best Way to Walk, which presents a far more naturalistic depiction of boys being boys.

Malle also comes up with an unnecessary and unsubtle homage to the movies – straight out of Preston SturgesSullivan’s Travels – that tells us we’re all, Catholic priests included, lighthearted little children whenever we laugh at Charles Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

But despite its minor and not so minor flaws, Au Revoir les Enfants remains one of the most devastating motion pictures about the persecution of Jews during the Nazi era. Unlike Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, and The Pianist, the film offers no audience-pandering happy or hopeful finale. Just like there was no feel-good ending for the vast majority of European Jews at that time.

Au Revoir les Enfants / Goodbye, Children (1987)

Direction & Screenplay: Louis Malle.

Cast: Gaspard Manesse. Raphael Fejtö. Francine Racette. Stanislas Carré De Malberg. François Berléand. Irène Jacob.


Au Revoir les Enfants Movie (1987) Review” endnotes

Raphael Fejtö and Gaspard Manesse Au Revoir les Enfants movie image: MK2 Diffusion.

Au Revoir les Enfants: Malle’s Devastating Holocaust Drama” last updated in September 2021.

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1 comment

Nathan Donarum -

I had to read the screenplay and then watch this film for French class in high school. I haven’t seen it since, but I remember truly loving it. Having not seen it in so long, it’s hard for me to respond to your criticisms of the film. I’ve been meaning to see it again since then, and just haven’t gotten around to it (so many other things to watch), but I will say I’m glad we agree on this one. It’s a really wonderful film.

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