Au revoir les enfants (Goodbye children, 1987) is an autobiographical film, written and directed by Louis Malle, about life in a Catholic boarding school during World War II. It’s a sensitive, effortlessly natural depiction of boyhood, and the friendship that forms between Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). The story is told from the perspective of Julien, dealing with the effects of the war in an indirect manner; the only reminder being the air raid siren, where in one scene the algebra class resumes in the bomb shelter. The focus of the story is on the hardships and joys in everyday life, and their hardships are grounded in how to keep warm in the freezing classrooms, for instance, rather than the ongoing war beyond the gates of the monastery.
Julien comes from a wealthy family, a bright boy with an air of arrogance; Jean is new to the school, and gets pushed around by his classmates—especially Julien—as an entering ritual. Jean holds his ground, and keeps to himself; in him Julien soon recognizes a kindred spirit, in their shared intellectual talents. One incident in particular brings them closer: during a game of Capture the flag, Julien and Jean get lost in the woods and come across a couple of patrolling German soldiers, who take them back to the school.
Au revoir les enfants portrays the German occupying force with humanity; there is a scene which takes place in a restaurant, where a pair of French collaborators threaten an elderly Jewish man, (Jews were forbidden from many public places under German orders) and they get dismissed by a German soldier. This highlights the complexity of the situation in France at the time, where hostility arose between fellow Frenchmen, when French citizens joined the Nazi camp.
The extent to which Au revoir les enfants can be considered autobiographical is ambivalent, but one event, which lies at the heart of the film, actually did happen—it leaves a strong impression on the character of Julien, as it did on Malle as a young boy. In a very real way, the director was revisiting his past in making the film, by filming in the school he attended at the time, (Carmelite monastery, near Fountainebleau) which during the German occupation took in a number of Jewish children under false names, in order to shelter them from the Nazis. The closing sequence is narrated by Malle himself: ‘More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.’