Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


In Au revoir les enfants, Louis Malle recounts his days at a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France

This year, French movie director Louis Malle releases Au Revoir les Enfants, an autobiographical film based on childhood memories. the context is France during the second world war, and the stage is a Catholic school that was sheltering Jewish pupils.

Louis Malle was born in 1932 in Thumeries, near Lille in northern France. Malle’s story takes place in 1944, at a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. At the start of a new semester, three new students are enrolled. It soon becomes obvious that they are Jews who are attempting to hide from Nazi persecution by assuming new names and identities.

The story revolves around the friendship between one of these boys, Jean, and a French boy named Julien. Eventually Julien discovers that Jean is Jewish. The friends' lives are severely disrupted one day by the appearance of a Gestapo officer, obviously tipped off by an informer. Julien makes a tragic mistake which will haunt him for the rest of his life. The Jewish boy, along with the Catholic priests who have hidden him, is hauled away by the Nazis at the end of the film. In interviews Malle pointed out that the defining moment in Au Revoir les Enfants does not exactly parallel what happened in real life, but serves as a platform for the exploration of guilt, racism, and the regret of the consequences of an irretrievable unthinking moment. Au Revoir les Enfants has found its way into the curriculum of courses ranging in level from high schools to graduate film studies. The use of film as a teaching tool has grown dramatically since the release of Au Revoir les Enfants.

In this age of VCRs, DVDs, satellite dishes, and digital media the development of critical viewing skills has become as important as the development of critical reading skills. Dramatization in film can put a face on history and bring to life historical events and issues in a way that captures the imagination of learners of all ages and levels of literacy. Another advantage of using film in the classroom is that students generally like to watch them, considering them a departure from traditional teaching/learning methods.

The issues of racism and the holocaust, which are the main themes of Malle’s film, are among the most commonly dramatized in twentieth century film. In fact, our knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust today has been profoundly influenced by the ability of film and television to provide a visual recounting of the horrific events. The American television miniseries Holocaust, which aired in 1978, is credited with radically altering the opinions and attitudes of young Germans toward the events of World War II. Among those who saw the series, the number favoring the failed German-resistance plot of 20 July 1944 to assassinate Hitler rose dramatically. It was reported that 70% of those in the 14 to 19 age group declared that they had learned more from the shows about the horrors of the Nazi regime than they had learned in all their years of studying West German history. Such was the public response that West Germany promptly canceled the statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes, formerly scheduled to expire at the end of 1979.

Other powerful films exploring racism and the holocaust include Steven Speilberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997). Schindler’s List differs from Au Revoir les Enfants in that it graphically depicts the horrors of the German concentration camps. Malle’s film avoids such visuals and focuses on the complexities of the relationships between the boys as friendship, loyalty, and racism collide in the film’s climactic moments. One of the risks of using using film as a document of history is that, even if the story is based on real facts and if the director includes documentary footage, the public is seeing history through the eyes of one storyteller. This storyteller (the filmmaker) has great power to manipulate facts and incite emotions. Arguably the most famous propaganda film of the twentieth century was Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, a documentary of the Nuremberg Rallies of 1934. This film is credited with popularizing the myth of Hitler’s master race.

Au Revoir les Enfants can be used to explore themes of friendship, trust and betrayal among students and teachers’ silent acts of heroism, particularly in moments of real danger. It can also be helpful to discuss issues of separation, resistance, the role of women during war, and war itself. It is a valuable historically based document and resource for teachers and learners of all ages and academic levels.


Corbett, J.C. Au Revoir to Film Illiteracy: An Interdisciplinary Expolration of Au Revoir les Enfants. Copyright 1998 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Online. Available: 

Ebert, Roger. Au Revoir les Enfants, Review. Chicago Sun-Times, March 28, 1988. Online. Available:

Hornshøj-Møller, Stig.  Using authentic Nazi propaganda in teaching the Holocaust: Problems, possibilities, dangers and experiences. Paper presented at the 27th Annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA, March 2-4, 1997. Copenhagen, Denmark  Online, Available:

Morey, Anne.  Holocaust U.S. Miniseries. Review.Online. Available: 

Schwarz, Gretchen.Growing Up, Reaching Out: Multiculturalism through Young
Adult Literature and Films
in The Allen Review, Spring 1995, Volume 22, Number 3. Online. Available:

Prepared by Ian McLean, OISE/UT

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