19 July 2009

Au Revoir Les Enfants

In fact, this film has become part of my syllabus in a course called Instructional Analysis, a graduate course I created and which I teach regularly in the Department of Education at University of Wisconsin-Stout. To analyze instruction is, to my mind, an autobiographical project: how one teaches is to a large part determined by how one was taught and how one was taught to teach. Until this material is analyzed, no significant change is really possible. In this course, we study a wide variety of strategies concerning the writing and reading of autobiographies. And to this purpose, we screen Au Revoir Les Enfants, a film directed by Louis Malle.

To my mind, this is only marginally another Holocaust film. The events of this film are not explicitly situated in the Holocaust, the way Schindler’s List is, but this film could not have taken place without the occurrence of the Holocaust. And what I want to suggest is that though the Holocaust underlies the film, it is not to my mind the subject of this film.

Film is a most manipulative medium. Film demands that the perspectives of the viewer be supremely controlled, and in film our ability to choose what we can see and how long we can gaze is wholly in the control of the movie makers. Editing attempts to influence our emotional . responses. Our choices in screening a film are severely circumscribed; we are least free in our responses when we screen a film and most available for manipulation.

I think autobiography is a manipulative medium as well, but in a slightly different manner. When a person writes his/her autobiography, they do so with a teleological purpose. When they begin writing, an autobiographer has an end in view. That is, the autobiographer wants you to see him/her in a specifically defined way; the autobiographer has her character in mind and desires to describe, to explain, to define, even sometimes to explore it for him/herself (Wayne Booth’s autobiography, My Many Selves,is a case in point) . But regardless, the autobiographer writes to portray her/himself to the reader mostly aware of who that self may be. Of course, the reader may interpret the autobiographer’s life in ways different than the autobiographer intended, but it is not the purpose of the autobiographer to write an open life—they are always hiding in very plain sight, to use Wendy Leeser’s wonderful phrase regarding the essayist, essays being a premier mode of autobiography.

And so, I want to suggest to you that the events of this film are about Louis Malle more than they are about the Holocaust, but that the Holocaust helps define the character Louis Malle becomes. And the Holocaust might even define the life Louis Malle has lived and the art he has produced, even when those works have nothing to do with the Holocaust.

Who we think we are is a story we tell about ourselves. Autobiographies are one version of this story.


Blogger The World Surrounding Me said...

This is an interesting viewpoint. I am a student of both film and the Holocaust, so i was interested in what you have to say here. In a 20th Century France course which I took, we studied this film to the end of studying Louis Malle. I didn't think of it in terms of the autobiographical signature, although I was aware of it as such. Your class sounds intriguing.

20 July, 2009 09:44  
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29 April, 2011 13:24  

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