Army of Shadows (1969)
Dir. - Jean-Pierre Melville
Viewed: From the Couch
In 2006, the Criterion Collection re-released Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, a stunning and saddening account of a group of French resistance fighters during the period of German occupation during World War II.
You should see it. Netflix has it. Put it on the queue, and watch it by yourself.
Melville, who served in the Resistance to both German occupiers and their French collaborators (Vichy), is a master of suspense and terror, and his talents are well suited for the subject matter. The action begins in October of 1942 after the French "Phony War" against Germany, which consisted of uncontested German expansion to the East and West despite formal declarations of war by both Britain and France. So dominant was the German victory that the French were left with empty interment camps, intended for German P.O.W.s, but converted by the Nazis to house political prisoners, Jews, and Gypsies.
In these camps we meet one of the head Resistance organizers, Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), who is obviously brilliant, well-connected, and ruthless. After managing to escape at the cost of another prisoner's life, he meets up with two of his fellow rebels in order to kill the man who turned him in. While they had planned to shoot the man in an empty flat, a family has recently moved in next door and the gunshot would be too loud. Instead, the three men debate how best to kill the traitor: stabbing, pills, pistol whipping...all while the poor victim stands silent against the wall. The resolution of this problem is of course violent, but early on, Melville has established his leads as men who will stop at nothing to accomplish their mission.
And while "ruthless" is the best way to describe these fighters, they are also completely out of their element, ordinary citizens faced with extraordinary circumstances. The "ordinary man put to the test" trope is quite common in film, but instead of seeing schlumps transformed into action heroes, the circumstances of Vichy make the Resistance fighters less into heroes than into resigned opposition figures; dutifully carrying out tasks that no one has asked them to perform. Among the Allied powers, there was little support for the resistance fighters, and as the movie progresses, you get the sense that this small band of rebels are fighting more for their own continued existence as a unit rather than for any achievable military or political goals. In fact, not once is there an operation directed against the occupiers themselves, but only mission after mission to rescue their own members after repeated arrests.
So what's the point? Jean-Paul Sartre (also a member of Resistance) believed that freedom and "authenticity" of a person could only be achieved under duress; that the normal circumstances of everyday life were too mundane to lead to any genuine experience. While Sartre certainly wanted the Resistance to win, it's likely he cared more about the fight than the victory. As Army of Shadows demonstrates, even the fight itself is not glorious, rewarding, or even noble: friends will be betrayed, abandoned, and forgotten; family ties cut off; intense physical and emotional pain, and for what? I'm not sure Melville has an answer, and he certainly doesn't provide one in the film. However, the movie itself can serve as an answer: if an incredible film like Army of Shadows can be made from the experience of the Resistance movement, then there must be something to be said for suffering and endurance for the sake of art. Whether the art is worth the suffering, however, I don't know if even Melville could answer.
Sean sermonizes no more:
A great film, without doubt. After seeing the previous Jean-Pierre Melville Criterion releases: Le Cercle Rouge, Bob the Gambler and Le Samourai; this is easily Melville's most personal film of the bunch, you can tell that with or without knowing the director's own life's history. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the better of these films. In fact, I do feel his style is suited better to a story like Le Cercle Rouge or Le Samourai.
It's hard to review classics, which is why I'd rather not if given my druthers (damn you, druthers!). It's obvious this is a good movie -- it's Jean-Pierre Melville at the height of his powers and a Criterion Collection DVD. It has a 99% chance of being perfectly acted, shot, wonderfully told story. Anyone with any interest in cinema knows it's going to be worthwhile to watch especially since it came on the scene with the "never before seen in the U.S." tag. But perhaps because of that tag it deserves to get as much attention as possible.
For me, the enjoyment of looking at this movie with an eye towards writing about it came out of putting this story into today's light. This is a story of unflinching nationalism. A story of people willing to die and kill for their country no matter what the cost. It's definitely interesting to look at that kind of story in a world where even Gore Vidal calls our president akin to Hitler. While much of the action in Army of Shadows comes with a certain futility and bleakness, there's a definite romanticism present as well. I don't think Melville can help but make his main characters stuff of machismo fantasy. I doubt there's a man alive, hetero or not, who wouldn't want to go about his business like Alain Delon, or in this case Lino Ventura. They're as cool as customers get and yet also as tragic. But we know whether it be yesterday or today it's still the legacy you leave that defines you... Martyrs and what they stand for... It's something that no matter how far you think society will progress, you have to admit, will always be there. How you die is as equally important as why you die. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie and possibly the very point of the movie judging from the last scene. So what separates the good from the bad in the eyes of history?
Army of Shadows was released in 1969 and buried because of it. People didn't want to relive this part of history at that time. Things were pretty good in France, even though they had a small stake in that Vietnam thing. Yet here we are today dealing with the psychology of resistance fighters all over again. People plotting uprisings, hoping for proper funding to get their plans in action. Of course this is not necessarily the nationalism that you're thinking of today, is it? How far does it take to draw a line from nationalism to religious extremism? Does the unblinking nationalism of the French Resistance parallel the IRA? Does the French Resistance leader, in this movie, lying to his followers in order to kill someone, match what the Bush administration told it's flagging supporters what they wanted to hear in order to get the job done? This was the beauty I found in this movie: many avenues of unanswerable tangents.
I think our reasons of approval are close enough, Padraic, but I don't subscribe to that Sartre stuff. There's plenty of duress found in everyday life to show what a person's true colors are. I think maybe Sartre was talking about the elite or didn't get out enough.
Before I wrap up, I do want to give an award to Michel Fretault for giving one of the best performances for a bit part, non-speaking role in a movie. His non-verbal back and forth with Lino Ventura as they plot their escape from the clutches of the Gestapo is movie magic. To bad he was only in one other movie. But since that other movie is Un flic (only #339 in the Q), Melville's last movie, maybe he isn't complaining. Also, Eric De Marsan deserves notice -- there is music in this film (which upon first viewing may be missed) which De Marsan crafted, it is sparingly used to make maximum impact yet not detract. Beautiful, subliminal stuff.
Good call on the score; I didn't even notice it, which is probably best.
I'll address the Sartre point in a moment, but let me say I agree completely on the point about the fuzzy line between freedom fighter and terrorist. This is hardly a new observation, but the way in which Melville presents the compromises, duplicity, and lies that are necessary for an underground movement is wonderful. This is not the hedonistic underground of the Matrix, but a stuffy, claustrophobic underground in which no one can ever be trusted, friends are few and troublesome, and alliances always contingent; in a way, the Resistance (and the movie itself) operate more like the mafia in The Godfather than our usual picture of rebels as a band of long-haired and tattooed outsiders.
Again, it seems astonishing to ask the question in light of what they were fighting, but was the resistance worth it?
Okay, now the "Sartre Stuff," which I think you dismiss far too quickly and flippantly (again, Sartre was in the resistance himself, so I think he got out plenty). While people do deal with adversity in their everyday lives - from family problems and work to navigating Storrow Drive on a holiday Friday - I don't think it's "elitist" to suggest that most people do not have a trying experience similar to fighting the Nazis for the liberation of their country.
As a test case, look at the surveys of military recruits, which almost all confirm that the reason why most people volunteer for military service is a sense of adventure. Put simply, people join the military because they are want to test themselves. The idea that people need to push themselves to their limits is one of the central ideas of Western culture, found in everything from our next review (The Passenger) to the new "it" movie Into the Wild.
You even admit as much Sean when you say that "who wouldn't want to go about his business like Alain Delon." The point of the film isn't that Delon is intrinsically better or different than anyone else, but that he is made so by the circumstances of the occupation; we can't be Delon because we have no opportunity be Delon. One reason (among many) that we cannot "go about our business" is that we have no occasion to, no experience in our lives even remotely comparable to the situation in Army of Shadows. Just think how different circumstances would have to be for either one of us to contemplate killing the other one in order to protect a movement or cause; it is so far from our lived reality that it's hardly conceivable.
One final point, which I can't help making: Things were not "pretty good" in France in 1969! Take the social revolutions that were happening in America at the end of the sixties and early seventies, multiply them by a factor of five, and you get an understanding of the tumultuous and fractured state of the French psyche at the time.