Thursday, August 2, 2012

Army of Shadows

There's a certain degree of romanticism associated with an underground resistance. A secret network of brave fighters banding together to topple and drive out the hated occupiers, operating behind enemy lines in constant danger, and refusing to surrender is the type of tale told to swell patriotic fervor and inspire nations.

Army of Shadows (1969) is directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, himself a member of the French resistance during World War II. I don't know how much of his own experience is reflected in the film, but it is not a glamorized portrayal. Set in late 1942 in Nazi-occupied France, the movie shows us no explosions, midnight raids, firefights, or even a real sense of eventual triumph.We see the men and women of the Maquis, the name of the French resistance, engage in acts of subterfuge, relying on false identities, disguises, and forged paperwork and knowing they are probably going to be compromised, tortured, and killed. It is a bleak, lonely, and desolate life.

The tone is film opens with a long, unbroken shot of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris filling the screen. A line of German soldiers march from the background toward the front of the frame, steadily growing until the soldiers in front appear larger than the monument, symbolizing Nazi dominance of France. From there, we cut to a shot of a truck driving through the rain-swept French countryside, grinding through the mud under the cold, grey sky. I don't recall seeing any sunlight in this movie. Resistance members meet indoors with the curtains shut, conduct many of their activities at night, and if killed under assumed identities, die without anyone knowing who they were or what they did.

Looking back on the war 70 years later, it's easy to remember it as the last "good war," that Allied victory was inevitable, and the Nazis would be defeated. But to live in France in 1942 meant to live in a country that had surrendered and still years away from liberation; there was no end in sight, and for all anyone knew, this was it. France was no more, and anyone who held on that idea and resisted occupation faced certain death. At any moment, they could be betrayed, recognized, or brought down by dumb luck. They aren't commandos or trained secret agents, just everyday citizens doing what they believe is right.

The main character we follow is Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), the leader of a network of the Maquis operating out of Lyon who answers to an anonymous chief. He's not what you might envision a resistance leader to be like. He's not a young, dynamic military man; he's a civil engineer, kind of out of shape, and rather ordinary looking.  Phillipe displays little emotion, only quiet and detached rationality. Also of note is Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a middle-aged mother and very likely the best member of the group, a master organizer and of disguise, whose one weakness is to carry around a picture of her daughter. There are also two brothers, Jean Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Luc (Paul Meurisse), who work separately, unaware the other is involved. 

Melville draws out tension not through action or chases but by drawing out the potential for discovery. Any slip up can give them away, and the characters never which of the citizens they encounter will prove to be sympathetic or an informant. Early on, an escaping Phillipe ducks into a barber shop and requests a shave when found by the barber, and we witness the shave, knowing at any moment soldiers could show up or the barber might turn him in. Later, Mathilde and other cohorts disguise themselves to sneak into German stronghold to rescue a comrade; anything out of the ordinary will give them away. In one of the hardest scenes to watch, Phillipe and others take a traitor to a rented apartment to kill only to find neighbors have moved in unexpectedly next door. Shooting the traitor will give them away, and they have no knife, so they strangle him with a towel. Melville cuts between closeups of the men to convey how grueling the act is.

The movie also successfully conveys just how at the mercy of a captor a prisoner is, especially in Nazi-occupied France. We're so used to seeing action heroes make daring escapes by fighting through armies, but captured resistance members are completely under the power of the German military. Two captured resistance members are beaten, and we don't see the brutality, just the aftermath. "Always carry cyanide," Phillipe warns another member, not because the others are afraid they'll be betrayed but to spare the captive weeks of drawn-out torture.

Army of Shadows is one of the bleakest movies I've ever seen. It depicts unflinchingly the life of a resistance member, stripping away the sense of glory and adventure often associated with it. These people, in the face of an overwhelming enemy, for a country that had already given up still fight in any way they can, knowing they will likely die and their sacrifices will never be known. In a key moment, the group's anonymous chief decides to make himself known to a comprised member just before they kill her to prevent their exposure; it was the least he could for all she had done for them.

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