Sometimes in war, humanity breaks through

The literature and legends of wars occasionally include those moments when foes who encounter one another on the battlefield are seized by an instant of empathy. Soldiers have been trained to kill the enemy, because that is all he really is. Nevertheless, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the hero, to escape the shelling, tumbles into a bomb crater where his companion is the corpse of a German soldier whom he comes to respect. In the film “Joyeux Noel,” soldiers on both sides stopped fighting and fraternized on Christmas 1914. During the same war, my father, having wiped out a German machine gun nest, was bringing back a German prisoner when the two huddled in a crater as the shells roared by overhead and, though neither spoke the other’s language, became friends exchanging photos of their sisters.

There are moments like this in “Come What May,” a French film directed by Christian Carion, opening on September 8, based on reminiscences of participants in the “exodus” in which eight million people, the whole populations of small Northern French towns, packed their possessions and hit the back roads to escape the German army. Nine months earlier Britain and France had declared war against Germany, but the “phony war” ended when they crossed the border into France on May 10, 1940.

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Led by their mayor Paul (Olivier Gourmet), and helped by the school teacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz), with their horses and wagons, bikes and a truck, they set their winding way from the little village of Pas-de-Calais through golden wheat fields and dark green forests toward Dieppe on the northern coast of the English Channel. They are joined by Hans (August Diehl), a German fleeing the Nazis and posing as a Belgian, with his 8-year-old son Max (Joshio Marlon). He had been arrested and jailed in Arras by the Gestapo but escaped when the prisoners were freed during an air raid. He slipped into an underground tunnel where he suddenly encountered a platoon of British soldiers who had been separated from their unit. The Germans find them and kill all but Hans and a Scottish officer Percy (Matthew Rhys).

The Germans bomb the long winding column of fleeing French, killing many, and by the time Hans arrives at the scene, the survivors have moved on and he must search among the graves for his lost son. (During the exodus 90,000 children were separated from their parents.)

Though Hans’s search for little Max, who has left chalk messages for his father on the blackboards of village schools as the column passed through, is one plot line, director Carion, whose own family survived the experience, has several goals. The horrors of World War One hover in the background. After working in a wheat field, Hans and Max rest in a nearby cemetery where “1914-1918” is inscribed on a wall; these are the graves of the war dead. “Military graves are all the same,” he says to his son; but we know that the film’s message is more than that. Indeed, Carion knew he was making this while millions of refugees have been pouring out of the Middle East, many desperately knocking at the doors of Europe, including France, terrified and hungry.

For the most part, the Nazis appear like they do in all Nazi movies. In the first minutes of the film, Hans is startled by a phone ring. It means they have found him. By the time they arrive, he and Max have fled. When an ominous cloud hovers over the caravan and a roar rises from over the hill, it’s the air force sent to bomb them, slaughtering women and children. Somehow, though presumed dead, Max had survived. Wandering through the fields he discovers a dying young German soldier who pleads with him to deliver his papers to the German authorities. Max accepts them and the soldier dies. Carion tells us that this is based on an incident where a group of children discover a dying German who asked them to help him die.

The film’s overall impact is not overwhelming; but, like all subtle art, it leads us to share the sufferings and admire the courage of those who, unlike their graves, are not all the same.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is literary editor of America.

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