It is just about unifying Europe—or at least a handful of refined National Socialist officers would like to believe. Of course, it is hard for them to kid themselves when Berlin is ordering mass reprisal executions. Based in part of the diaries of the old line German war hero-novelist Ernst Jünger’s diaries, Volker Schlöndorff dramatizes a notorious episode of Vichy-era French history in Calm at Sea, which screens as part of the 2012 World Film Festival of Montreal.
On the orders of the Communist French resistance faction, two high-ranking German officers are to be assassinated. They realize the occupying Germans will likely retaliate. In fact, that is part of the point. It will help radicalize the general populace. Unfortunately, one of the shoddy guns supplied to the triggermen jams, leaving a target alive. While the actual gunmen escape, the occupying power intends to set an example. If the partisans in question are not turned over to the authorities, one hundred “hostages” will be executed.
The figure of one hundred was the result of a bit of diplomatic negotiating on the part of Jünger and his superior officer, cutting down the literal death list from one hundred fifty. These are not randomly selected names—they are political prisoners, roughly divided between Gaullists and Communists, like the seventeen year-old Guy Môquet, who would become a martyr figure for French leftists.
Surely, that should not be a spoiler to anyone. Indeed, Sea becomes something like the Môquet passion play in its slow, overwrought third act. That is a bit of a shame, because the second act offers a surprisingly insightful and intriguing perspective on some pretty familiar cinematic terrain. In addition to clearly suggesting the mass executions were exactly what the Communist leadership had in mind (except more so), several of their imprisoned partisan openly question whether allying themselves with the National Socialists during the Hitler-Stalin alliance was possibly a mistake in retrospect. You think maybe? Likewise, Jünger pointedly asks if mass executions will prove to be counter-effective as they try to win French hearts and mind. Hmm, perhaps. Yet, the disdainful Jünger’s reluctance to stick his neck out is in turn challenged by the sophisticated French woman he is pursuing—the only sort of conquest that interests him.
A French-German television co-production, Sea is still relatively cinematic and boasts a big screen cast. As the reluctant Nazi Jünger (officially rehabilitated in the 1950’s), Ulrich Matthes is smart, cool, and riveting in every second of his screen time. Veteran French character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the hardware merchant in The Well-Digger’s Daughter) also elevates the otherwise disappointing endgame, appearing as an anti-Vichy Catholic priest, who compassionately ministers to the doomed men, by not ministering, per se. Indeed, his work is welcome and notable as a sympathetic depiction of a man of the cloth. Unfortunately, the prison ensemble is stuck portraying symbols rather than characters.