Louis Malle had for a long time wanted to make this film, which is partly autobiographical, having remained in his memory since the time of the events. Originally the title was to be in English: My Little Madeleine', alluding to Proust's famous epiphany, although 'Au revoir les enfants' was chosen in the end. This relates on a general level to a goodbye to the Jewish children lost to the Nazis, although more specifically to the final words of Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) as he's led out of the school with the three Jewish children by the Nazis. His next words, 'À bientôt', are obviously ironic because everyone present, including the most naive child in the school yard, knows that he won't see them soon, or ever again: Jean Kippelstein alias Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), Negus and Dupré will die in Auschwitz, Père Jean in Mauthausen.
Malle went to a religious school in Avon near Fontainebleu although the film is set in the Institution Sainte-Croix, Provins, Seine-et-Marne. Near the beginning we see the children coming from Mass singing the nursery rhyme 'À la claire fontaine', which is very significant: although the boys only appear to sing the first verse with its joy of bathing in the fountain, the chorus 'Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, jamais je ne t'oublierai' and following verses tell of sadness and loss: there are many versions of the song and it can be construed as depicting a loss of innocence or a revolutionary spirit, but a probable constant is regret. Although Malle to some extent is identifiable here as Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), he never befriended anyone Jewish at school, and the mention of 'Sherlock Holmes' in the film relates to the detective work that Malle did after the event.
What we have is an account of privileged schoolchildren during the war living with their fantasies, the amusements which they are allowed in such a fascist environment in which the head of the school 'illegally' harbours three Jewish children mixing freely with the Catholics under a false patronym. Certainly Jean and the other Jewish children live in constant fear, they have to bear such insults as words like 'youtres' ('yids') bandied around by the other children, they have to conceal their hatred of pork, and (most telling of all) they have to hide the fact that they don't have foreskins.
Julien's slow friendship with Jean is not an autobiographical mirror of Malle's friendship with a Jewish boy at the school, but an account not of false memory but fictional retrospection, a kind of idealised reconstruction. Not, though, that the film is in any way sentimental or polarising: the Germans are not always monsters and on one occasion return the lost Julian and (ironically) the lost Jean to the school. But on the other hand there are French people who collaborate with the fascists and the sacked kitchen helper Joseph (François Négret) informed on the Jews in the school.
In 1990, after the desecration of graves in Carpentras, Lionel Jospin recommended that teachers show this film to pupils, which is an indication of the power of this film, and of the cinema in general. Super stuff.