New German Cinema vet Volker Schloendorff broke out in 1979 with “The Tin Drum,” a formally brazen metaphorical vision of WWII horrors. Thirty-three years later, his politely compelling true-life French Resistance drama “Calm at Sea” revisits the war, but with most of the director’s stylistic kinks safely ironed out. Solemnly monitoring the 1941 execution of 27 French POWs at the Choiseul internment camp, this resolutely old-fashioned film is both stately and compact, drawing the desired emotional responses even through some inelegant dramaturgy. Slated for a French television premiere, carefully crafted pic shouldn’t have trouble reaching the arthouse auds who routinely turn up for deferential studies of this era.
Though it takes some time for the dramatic locus of this scrupulously even-handed ensemble piece to establish itself, a pivotal character emerges in the apple-cheeked form of Guy Moquet (Leo-Paul Salmain), a handsome, poetry-scribbling 17-year-old Communist who, in death, became a famed symbolic martyr for the Resistance; a Paris subway station was named after him only a few years afterward.
Introduced to us sweetly flirting with a local lass through the fence of the Nazi internment camp where he has been detained, Moquet doesn’t appear particularly heroic at first blush, but that’s rather the point. When the Nazis, spurred by the assassination of one of their officers by three Resistance rebels, order the execution of 150 French prisoners as recompense, the selection of Moquet, less of a threat to authority than many of his more militant elders, is as randomly wasteful as it is politically spiteful.
Intentionally or otherwise, proceedings will be considerably more suspenseful for viewers unfamiliar with Moquet and his fate: Schloendorff’s script (inspired largely by journalist Pierre-Louis Basse’s book on the events) unfolds linearly, avoiding pompous foreshadowing and teasing out possibilities of escape as bureaucrats tussle over the whys and whos of the death list. Among the cruellest details is that Moquet’s young, married friend Claude (Martin Loizillon) receives the sentence just one day before his scheduled release from the camp. Appropriately enough, this French-German co-production isn’t overly partial in assigning blame: key players in the ensemble include a gentle German soldier (Jacob Matschenz), who balks at carrying out his execution duties, and a weak-willed French administrator (Sebastien Accart), who caves all too meekly to the Nazis’ orders. The trio of Resistance fighters who caused all the trouble have their own underdeveloped, and abruptly discarded, narrative strand.
The film cuts back and forth between the plush, pastel-shaded command headquarters in Paris, where officers consider the situation from an intellectual distance, and the bare-bones camp in scenic Brittany, where collective spirits are reasonably high until the grim news lands. The former scenes are the film’s stodgiest and most expository, while the interaction between the prisoners is more affecting and even playful – a scene of the men playing music and miming matador dances in the dormitory is a brief, welcome flash of joy amid the overriding stoicism. Later, Schloendorff’s decision to have extracts from the men’s final letters home read in voiceover as they face their doom, at one point in a barrage of overlapping murmurs, is a sentimental but effective tactic.
Performances are mostly adequate without being inspired, with Salmain an appropriately pretty, guileless presence and Jean-Pierre Darroussin providing mellowed gravitas as the aggrieved priest charged with reading the prisoners their last rites.
Technically, pic is a modestly handsome package: the unblemished HD lensing will bother some viewers who might prefer a little more period-serving visual texture, but the film’s brightly sunlit feel stands in pleasing opposition to the tragic events at hand. Bruno Coulais’s string-heavy score is a dignified if conservative asset, while Agnes Noden’s costumes, while authentically detailed, look a touch unworn: if Moquet’s pristine white vests and bobble-free sweaters suggest he has secret access to a good dry-cleaner in the camp, perhaps that’s part and parcel of his saintly status in France.