A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
There is such exhilaration in the heedless energy of the schoolboys. They tumble up and down stairs, stand on stilts for playground wars, eagerly study naughty postcards, read novels at night by flashlight, and are even merry as they pour into the cellars during an air raid. One of the foundations of Louis Malle's "Au revoir les enfants" (1987) is how naturally he evokes the daily life of a French boarding school in 1944. His central story shows young life hurtling forward; he knows, because he was there, that some of these lives will be exterminated.
The film centers on the friendship of two boys of 12, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet. They are played by Gaspard Manesse and Raphael Fejto. They had never acted before and barely acted again. Julien's father is always absent at his factory; his glamorous mother wants him safely away from Paris, and sends him by train to a Catholic school for rich children. Here he will find priests and teachers he respects, and classrooms where the students actually seem happy. One day after Christmas, a new student arrives: Jean.
Of course the others pick on the newcomer, and Julien joins in. Sometimes at that age fights are a form of expressing friendship, and often enough they end in laughter. They both love to read. Gradually, through a series of signs so subtle the other boys never pick up on them, Julian learns that Jean is concealing a secret. Is it the way he avoids questions about his family? The fact that he doesn't recite the prayers with everyone else, and skips choir practice? Julien notices that when Jean kneels at the altar rail, the priest quietly passes without giving him a communion wafer. In Jean's locker, Julien finds a book from which the name has not entirely been removed. The name is Kippelstein.
Julien knows almost nothing about Jews. "Why do we hate them?" he asks his older brother, Francois. "They're smarter than we are, and they killed Jesus." Julien doesn't understand: "But it was the Romans who killed Jesus." He does, however, feel some envy after he fails a piano lesson with the pretty Mlle. Davenne (Irene Jacob), and then Jean sits down and begins to play with ease and beauty. From time to time, the single awkward notes of Julien's tortured piano lesson will be heard on the soundtrack, as when Jean gets a better essay score than Julien. When Julien sits for a long time in a bathtub, in closeup, we hear the notes again as the camera focuses on his face. We imagine he is piecing together everything he knows, and deciding to keep Jean's secret.