Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Notice that the Germans are not presented as complete villains in this film. For example, they are shown as being gentle with the children and the German officer at the restaurant orders the French militia to leave the old Jewish gentleman alone. However, Frenchmen who cooperated with the Germans are always characterized as villains. But were the collaborators really worse than the occupiers? How does the ethical principle of loyalty and standing by your family, friends, and country relate to the manner in which collaborators were depicted in this film?
There is no one correct response to this question. It also depends upon what each person, each German occupier and each French collaborator actually did. It is clear, however, the Malle is angrier at the collaborators who betrayed their own than the Germans who were in France under orders from their superiors.
2. Joseph stole food from the school. Who would have eaten this food had he not stolen it? What were the consequences to the students of what Joseph did?
The students would have eaten the food and they needed it. The consequences to the students were that they did not have sufficient nourishment during an important period of growth.
3. After the war, what should have happened to Joseph, the informer, and to the Germans who took the children out of the school and arrested Father Jean? Answer separately for Joseph, the Gestapo official who led the raid, and the German soldiers (who undoubtedly would claim that they were “just carrying out orders”).
Each one of them engaged in criminal conduct, however, there is no one correct response as to whether or how much they should be punished. For the Germans, to one degree or another, their actions were compelled by their country’s law as well as by their obligations as members of the Gestapo and as soldiers. For example, individual soldiers were usually not punished for following orders, whereas officers might be prosecuted, depending on what they did and how they did it. Joseph was not compelled to do what he did, and so the French would have punished him. However, he only informed, he didn’t seize the children nor did he kill them. Therefore, his punishment would have been less than those who seized the children and sent them to a concentration camp and to their deaths.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
4. The rules required that the students share food sent from home with the other students. However, some students traded this food with Joseph for cigarettes and postcards. Did their actions in breaking the rules have consequences for other students at the school? What were they? If there had not been a shortage of food, would the students have been justified in breaking this rule?
The consequences of not sharing food were that the food available for all of the students was not sufficient for normal growth. As to the last question, there is no one correct answer. As a general matter, rules should be obeyed. If you disagree with them you should go to someone in authority and try to change the rules.
5. Did Joseph take responsibility for his actions in stealing and trading with the students? What was his response to being punished for these actions? If Joseph had taken responsibility for his actions, how would the lives of various people at the school have changed?
Joseph didn’t take responsibility. Instead, he struck back at Father Jean and, in the process, some of the students and priests were taken to concentration camps.
6. Julien unintentionally gave his friend Kipplestein (Bonnet) away by glancing at him. To what extent was Julien responsible for Jean Kipplestein’s death?
Julien is not responsible at all. He had no intention to hurt Jean or to give him away. It was the Nazis who killed Jean. However, because he set the process in motion by his inadvertent glance, Julien felt guilty about what happened to Jean.
7. In the film, did Julien take responsibility for his actions in unintentionally giving his friend Kipplestein (Bonnet) away? In real life, did Louis Malle take responsibility for what he did back in 1944? If you think he did, tell us how he did it. What are the different ways that people can take responsibility for their actions?
The character Julien tried to help Jean and put himself at risk to do this. However, there was little that he could really do for Jean. Malle took responsibility by acknowledging his role in Jean’s death and then by making the film.
8. Were Father Jean and the other priests who cooperated with him heroes or were they simply fulfilling their responsibilities as human beings? Would they have been doing something morally wrong if they had refused to take in Jewish children, an act which put their lives and the continued existence of the school at risk?
Sometimes just refusing to do something wrong is heroic, for example, when it could cost you your freedom or your life. Father Jean and the priests were heroes. They could have justified refusing to take Jewish children based on their responsibilities to the school and the other children in the school.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
9. Jean Kipplestein (Bonnet) forgave Julien for inadvertently betraying him. Should Kipplestein have done this? Should Julien have forgiven himself?
The answer to both questions is “yes.” Julien’s look that gave Jean away was not intentional.
10. Father Jean risked his own life and the continued existence of the school to try to save the three Jewish children. Was this the right thing to do? What conflicting values would have to be reconciled to make this decision?
It was the right thing to do because the children would have died without the safety of the school. The fact that Father Jean was not successful and the boys were caught makes no difference in the analysis. The question is one of risk. The competing values were that it was Father Jean’s responsibility to keep the school open and not to endanger the other children.
11. Can the crimes such as those committed by the Nazis against the people they murdered and placed into concentration camps be forgiven? What are the limits of forgiveness?
There is no one answer to this question. Certainly, low level or even intermediate players, if they seek forgiveness should be forgiven. Often even the leaders should be forgiven, so long as they admit their wrongdoing, apologize, return any ill-gotten gains, and seek forgiveness. Look at the results of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission for an example of the benefits of forgiveness.