Jean-Pierre Melville’s psychological action thriller reveals the desperation and sacrifice made by ordinary individuals in their resistance to the Nazis
The image of a resistance fighter’s body slumped in a chair after a long cycle of torture and interrogations is perhaps the one that marks Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows. A bleak and brutal film that tells the true story of members of the French Resistance who secretly fought against their country’s Nazi occupiers.
Army of Shadows is about desperate and scared men and women who got about their way fighting the Nazi occupation of France in an effort to defeat this rising evil. It is not an action film, although there is violence action in it. Army of Shadows deals more with the inner struggle within the Resistance membership; this is an army of false names, fraudulent addresses, in constant fear of betrayal, either accidental or through human weakness. It is that and about the persistence to continue a fight in the face of bounding despair.
Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s account of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation, Army of Shadows opens with a shot of a regiment of German soldiers, headed by a drum and bugle corps as they march onto the empty Champs-Elysee, looking less like men and more like an imposing tank. The film is set in October 1942 in Nazi occupied France. Philippe Gerbier (played by the fantastic Lino Ventura), is a distinguished civil engineer and now the head of a Resistance network. Gerbier is arrested and while at the prison camp he meets a young Communist inside who asks if he is one too. Gerbier’s cool reply is, "No! But I do have comrades."
This sets the world of Army of Shadows. There are no liberals or conservatives, Communists or individualists here; there are only the tyrants and everyone else. The film is made of many such scenes which present moral conundrums. Is suicide the way to go when fighting against a torturous dictatorship? Does one betray allies for a momentary respite? What does a resistance force do against spies within?
One such scene is when Gerbier escapes from the Gestapo headquarters. He walks into a barber shop to have his moustache removed. A pensive man at a barber shop after sundown looks suspect. As Gerbier pays and readies to leave, the barber simply hands him an overcoat of another colour. Not a word is said between the two men but the message is loud.
In another moment, Mathilde (essayed by French actress Simone Signoret), is captured and informs on her colleagues to prevent her daughter from being sent to a military brothel. The resistance splits over whether or not Mathilde must be assassinated. The resistance leaders finally reason that Mathilde’s actions - convincing the Nazis to release her so that she could ‘lead them’ to her network - was to allow the Resistance one opportunity to kill her, thus sparing both them and her daughter.
This is a philosophically existentialist piece of filmmaking. Were Melville to condense the message of the Resistance poetically he might have chosen, Tennyson’s lines: ‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die’, or quoted from the Bhagvad Gita: ‘Death in (performance of) one's own duty is preferable.’
Melville was the most apt director for a story of such a resistance, having been its member in his youth. Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach was involved in the French Resistance between 1941 and 1943, was jailed in Spain and his brother was killed trying to reach him. From such hardened life experiences is born Army of Shadows where a low-key tone emphasises the undramatic nature of heroism. Balancing nerve-racking tension with abject boredom involved in the many life-and-death decisions being made, often leading to extraordinary sacrifices that sometimes accomplishes nothing at all.
While the story has some of the accessories of Melville’s more commercial thrillers (secret meetings, characters who are cool under pressure, fast cars and the like) it is also a meditation on the nature of underground resistance and the high price of courage. It is not that Melville does not believe his protagonists to be heroes but that his presentation of their valour is without superficiality.
Army of Shadows gives the viewer a sense of how savage and unrelenting the demands of an underground wartime resistance can be. History may glorify them but while they are at it these individuals despaired and worried they were not doing enough.
This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films. Also read: Waking Life: A reviewAlso read: The Sacrifice review: A cinematic offering Also read: The Passion of Joan of Arc review: An impassioned filmAlso read: Agantuk: Strange notions!Also read: Maborosi: A cinematic phantom Also read: High Noon: Lonely are the braveAlso read: Party: The discrete charm of the literatiAlso read: Khandhar: Love amidst the ruins of life Also read: Once: A blue-collar melody Also read: Sans Soleil: If films were archaeology of the mind Also read: Satyakam: The truth shall set you freeAlso read: For All Mankind: From the Earth to the Moon