The movies tend to oversimplify the countless crimes committed against Europe by Nazi Germany. That label “Nazi” has become screen shorthand for “We don’t need to know how or why, that alone explains it.”
In “Calm at Sea,” German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (“The Tin Drum,” the first film version of “The Handmaid’s Tale”) digs into one pivotal incident to show us the bureaucratic chain of command, the weighing of consequences, the attempts to shift, duck or share blame of an infamous turning point incident in newly-occupied France.
The story of how communist zealots, intent on replicating Russia’s October Revolution in “independent thinking” France, shoot the German officer in charge of the Nantes district, triggering a rash over-reaction from Hitler himself, makes for a grim history lesson and fascinating psychological/sociological study. It’s a logistics-and-paperwork-heavy period piece, not a thriller like the similar and superior “Anthropoid” (about an equally famous Czech assassination). But it makes the viewer look at state sanctioned massacres and how they happen in a new way.
The focal point is young Guy Môquet (Léo-Paul Salmain), a teenager being held in a coastal detention facility run by the French, largely on behalf of their German masters. He runs footraces for the prize of a bar of soap, attends classes and flirts with the fair Odette (Victoire Du Bois) through the fence at the neighboring women’s camp.
He recites poetry to her, compares her to Lenin’s wife (he’s a leftist, son of a communist) and she laughs at “What a child” he is (in French, with English subtitles).
Young Guy and everybody else at this camp figures they’ll serve their time — for political activities, or pickpocketing — and go home. It’s 1941, France has been under German and Vichy control for a year, and the “real” German army is busy invading the Soviet Union.
But the eager hit squad that takes out Lt. Holtz in Nantes is about to change that. They underestimate the reliability of their pistols (another officer escapes), and these Party Members in good standing wholly underestimate the German response. Hitler hears of it, and we start to see his dismaying orders ripple through the “1000 officers” in charge of France, the German chain of command.
Général Otto von Stülpnagel (André Jung) fumes that “I am a soldier, NOT a butcher!” (in German, with English subtitles). His underlings kvetch about appearances, how this will “play” all over France, legalities and the French psyche. As if von Stülpnagel doesn’t know they can’t rule France without “collaborators.” The “individualistic” French are sure to flip out. “We are NOT in POLAND,” he rages, to no avail.
A French police prefect (Sébastien Accart) is ordered to come up with a list of 150 names — communists, Gaullists, and “see if there are any Jews.” He, and then his bosses in Vichy, insist that the Germans use the rule of law, or that at least they be forced to do the selecting, deciding who lives and dies. “No women,” he is told. Kids? Why not?
This will eventually reach the camp, where the defiantly French communists in the barracks insist they have a “right to music” (a smuggled in radio), and carry on with a modicum of defiance even when warning notices spring up around town, Germans show up to order their French guards into action, “selecting,” and the wheels of mass murder are set in motion.
Schlöndorff attempts to create a ticking clock, showing the “hour” or two everyone involved has to set things in motion, or else. He shows us the debates within the trio of assassins about whether or not to turn themselves in, the barracks debate over what might be done and if their deaths with have that October Revolution galvanizing effect of making them martyrs. And we see the German conscripts, green and young occupation troops, struggling to flirt with or at least fraternize with the locals, exchanging “You ever shoot a man?” worries and suffering awful attacks of conscience when that “duty” is hurriedly thrust upon them.
Their field officers served in Poland and scream at their charges to man up and be German soldiers. The viewer is allowed to infer that mass shootings are part of the job.
And the urbane writer and general staff officer Ernst Jünger (Ulrich Matthes) takes it all in, writes it all down and hides his distaste for the buck-passing, inhumane order-following he sees, and tries to defend his own part in this with a French opera singer (Arielle Dombasle) he’s trying to seduce.
“I prefer the role of witness,” he shrugs. His writings and reports are a major source for the screenplay, as are the journals of the various French men, and the letters the condemned were allowed to write wives, sweethearts and family.
“Calm at Sea” is an orderly, unrushed and almost “calm” film of progression through the steps of this war crime in the making. There are meetings, meetings and more meetings, with the Germans conferring with the French gendarmes and trying not to make it look like they’re giving them orders when they’re telling them to select, separate out and inform the prisoners who will be shot if the “real” suspects aren’t fingered by the populace, or fail to turn themselves in.
The field officers know the drill, but struggle to keep their conscripts in line and bucked up for the “orders” at hand. Some of the infantry can’t keep them from weeping or throwing up.
The victims are a whole range of defiances, from numbed with shock to spitting at their French collaborator guards to “Vive la France, vive la liberte, vive la Revolution!”
But for a film about an infamous war crime, the entire affair is too bloodless, literally and figuratively. The acting is good, but almost every performance is dry and dry-eyed. The murders are awful, but the emotional impact is muted thanks to the film’s drift away from the martyred Guy Môquet, still celebrated in France but really just a kid who misread the times and placed himself in harm’s way.
For all that, “Calm at Sea” is still a fascinating deep dive into the psychology, bureaucracy and endless miscalculations — especially by the murderous Germans — that led to a massacre that became a policy that stiffened a lot more of the French to find ways to resist the barbaric soldiers as butchers watching over them.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Léo-Paul Salmain, Marc Barbé, Ulrich Matthes, Sébastien Accart, André Jung, Victoire Du Bois, Arielle Dombasle
Credits: Scripted and directed by Volker Schlöndorff. A Corinth release.
Running time: 1:36