The year is 1941. War has engulfed Europe and France has fallen to the Germans. It is a time of great upheaval, a genuine threat to the established order, to culture and history.
When local Nazi official Werner von Ebrennac takes up forced residence in a French home, the occupants, an old man and his niece, do as ordered, but otherwise they do not speak to him or even acknowledge his existence. So, he spends his evenings regaling them with stories of his life, going back to his youth, his past loves, his role in the army. He monologues, never inviting their response – knowing all too well that he will not receive one.
To cloud matters, von Ebrennac seems like a decent sort. He’s respectful of the house and its inhabitants. Quite the opposite of the vile stereotype Nazi that has become prevalent and, undoubtedly, formed a huge part of public opinion at the time.
It’s a surprisingly forward thinking position for a film to take in 1949, the war and its atrocities fresh in the public’s memory. More so as von Ebrennac’s personality becomes more established. We learn almost nothing about his French hosts by comparison, only that they are glad to discover that he is a half decent person.
The thing is, there is an element of principle to their silence. Once a certain amount of time passes their resolve wavers, albeit briefly, until it becomes an established part of the routine, nigh on impossible to break whilst he remains living under their roof.
Other than the old man looking like Bob Mortimer hastily made to look like an old man, I couldn’t fault the production. It is a resolutely simple idea executed well. von Ebrennac may journey to Paris, or the characters may go for a walk around the snowy streets of their home town, but the majority of it takes place in a small lounge complete with fireplace and a piano/organ.
In the context of this story, von Ebrennac is one such man. His reaction at discovering the purpose of the Treblinka camp is heartfelt and from a genuine position of dislike. Here is a man who applauds culture no matter which country it originated from, praising the French philosophers as equally as he does German classical artists. This slow build of his character makes his objections to the death camps all the more believable.
To sum up the story overall, it is a plain and simple character study and doesn’t try to be anything more than that. It emphasises that you cannot tar everyone with the same brush. It is easy to vilify the Nazis and the German people who knew of the death camps but did nothing to stop the atrocities. But there would have been many more who did something, in their own way, to fight back against it.
In the grand scheme of things this might not be much, but in isolation it’s a potent gesture all the same. And that, really, is the point. Individually we may not have the ability to affect change on a grand scale, but in small ways we can make a difference. At the very least, like von Ebrennac, you can maintain your sense of honour and pride in your nation whilst also setting yourself apart from the butchers that have tarnished that once impeccable reputation.