The truth of their Occupation during World War Two has always been, and remains, a bitter pill to swallow for the French. The treatment of the most shameful period in their history in the films of some of France’s great directors (Melville, Malle, Ophuls) has been subject to extensive criticism and controversy as well as acclaim and recognition.
The Army of Crime, directed by Marseille-born director Robert Guédiguian, premiered at a special screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film revolves around the Resistance activities of the Manouchian group, a band of fervently communist, eastern European immigrants who formed to fight the oppression of the Nazi Occupation of Paris.
Few of the faces in the line-up are well known. Virginie Ledoyen (The Beach), the wife of the group’s Armenian leader Missak, played by Simon Abkarian (Rendition, Persepolis, Casino Royale) are the stars but form part of an impressive ensemble. Abkarian’s Missak is developed to a greater degree than other characters – possibly given that Guédiguian himself is of Armenian descent. Haunted by the murder of his brother he is initially opposed to the use of guns and killing the enemy due to his strict moral code which adds an interesting dimension to his character. The largely unknown cast allows for a greater connection with an engaging, layered narrative without the distraction of big names such as in the recent Valkyrie or the absurdly altered history of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
As a well documented and much filmed subject the challenge for Guédiguian was to say something new with his portrayal of the Resistance. He certainly achieves this by giving a truthful, hard-hitting and historically detailed account of the period and his film stands up well to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Resistance film Army in the Shadows to which the title of this film certainly gives a reverent nod, as well as being the name the group were given upon their arrest and execution in 1944. Indeed, the film begins at its end. In a barred prison van being driven along the Seine we see the faces of the condemned whilst the matter-of-fact voiceover recounts their (significantly non-French) names and tells of their fate, ‘Mort pour la France’. The use of this technique is frustrating in the sense that it prevents us from ever really associating or sympathising closely with any of the characters but at the same time is effective in elevating their acts of bravery to a higher plain given that we know they are to die for their cause.
The Paris in which the film is set is not one that a viewer will be familiar with. The Eiffel Tower is seen only once and on it is the proclamation, ‘Germany winning on all fronts’, certainly not the picture postcard known today. The back alleys, side streets, underpasses and dimly-lit rooms in which meetings take place, people hide and are pursued create a genuine visual aesthetic which adds to the realism of all that the film shows.
Despite the images of everyday life and intermittent moments of happiness it is impossible to feel comfortable when watching this film. An overwhelming tension and unease simmers just below the surface at all times due to the risk of capture, discovery or denunciation to the authorities. Two parties are notably interrupted by unexpected knocks at the door, one is a fellow comrade but the second sees the entrance of two French policemen into a celebration after a successful mission wipes out a German patrol.
Perhaps the greatest departure from other films on this subject and the boldest move that Guédiguian makes is his very candid representation of French collaboration. In most war films we try to pick out the one ‘Good German’ character but here we are forced to accept that the occupiers are efficient administrators and are polite, cultured and in some instances even likeable. They buy flowers for young Parisiennes, perform classical music and play football in the park whilst life goes on quite happily around them.
Although we hear reports of Nazi atrocities, the execution of a handful of Resistance members by firing squad is the only violence they are seen to commit and this is thanks only to the hard work and arrests made by the French police. The true evil in this film, normally reserved to the Gestapo or SS, is home-grown. It is the French that put up a sign on the restaurant of the Jewish Elek family, who are zealous in their round-up of Jews into French camps, who assert themselves above and beyond what the Germans expect and in more than one sequence of the film commit shocking acts of torture. Seen in medium close-up a detainee is held to chair and a blow-torch is fired across his stomach. Such brutality is almost unbearable to watch but the limited instances of strong violence are well spaced throughout the film so that each has its own impact. Guédiguian in no way shies away from the truth and his film tackles issues which others have not.
The run time of two hours twenty will certainly concern some viewers but at no point does the pacing of the film drag, as time in between attacks and moments of action is filled with evading capture, survival and preparation for the next. Sustaining the action to any greater extent would have seemed false and is another of the film’s many successes.
As The Army of Crime draws to a close the group of Romanian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Spanish and Italian fighters are lined up and photographed and their names are again listed as they are led into the prison van. Guédiguian’s film tells a very worthwhile and engaging story and does so in a way that builds on its precedents. It exposes the truth of events that for many years was pushed to the back of French minds but did not go away and that is still being dealt with today.
(Rating – 3 out of 5)