“Bad memories! I welcome you anyway. You are my long-lost youth.”
- Army of Shadows
At a time when the protracted war in Iraq, and the growing public furor surrounding it, has completely dominated the US’ national debate, it seems any movie about the violence of warfare is automatically drafted into its culture wars and dissected for its political leanings. Even a subtext-free spectacle like 300 has the film intelligentsia worked into a lather trying to decode its hidden meanings – is the George W. Bush stand-in the hypermasculine warrior-king Leonidas or the short-sighted conqueror Xerxes? – as if everything in art can be reduced to an analogy of current events.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s haunting, claustrophobic film, Army of Shadows, was a victim of the same tunnel vision mentality when it was first released in France. The legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinema attacked Melville for glorifying the French resistance and particularly its exiled leader Charles de Gaulle, who by 1969 represented the repressive government that the youth of France had rioted against only a year earlier. Army of Shadows was denounced as a flag-waving exercise in empty nationalism, abandoned by the country that produced it, and never officially released in the US. By the time it was rediscovered over 35 years later, it had been so forgotten that the only surviving print of the film had turned pink from neglect.
And now the restored Army of Shadows has become eerily relevant once again, as the war in Iraq has forced us to examine the mindset and determination of those who would fight a seemingly endless war against an invading force in their home country. Indeed, the brilliance of the film is that it’s not particularly specific to the time of World War II or the cause of overthrowing the Nazis and liberating France. Indeed, there is very little on-screen action in Army of Shadows. In the span of almost two and a half hours, only one enemy solider is killed in a sudden burst of violence that lasts a split second.
There are no larger-than-life missions that promise to deal a crushing blow to the Vichy government; the only major operation we see the Resistance undertake is a trip escorting their leader to Charles de Gaulle’s apartment in London for a meaningless ceremony. Meanwhile, the second-in-command of the Resistance meets with a British liaison who regrets to inform him that he can’t provide many resources – a few more guns and men, perhaps, but nothing more.
The film is slow-placed and surprisingly episodic, focusing on the desultory nature of everyday living to capture the lonely, paranoid mood of its protagonists. Their suffering is seen in the mundane details: when it comes time to execute a member of their resistance cell who has given information to the enemy, the men are frustrated to learn that a family has moved in next door to their safe house and a gunshot would certainly be heard. They continue to debate the merits of using a knife or finding another location while the doomed collaborator, only a frightened young man who barely looks like he’s beyond his teenage years, listens to every bloody possibility of his demise.
What Army of Shadows understands perfectly is that being a hero in the midst of war, no matter where the battlefield, is a matter of enormous sacrifice. There is no glory or honor waiting for these men who fight out of a sense of deep patriotism and loyalty to those who feel the same way. The most that any of them can hope for is time enough to swallow their cyanide capsule if they’re captured.
The film’s main hero, if that is the correct term, is Philippe Gerbier, who winds up in prison twice; the second time after he is recognized while dining at a restaurant that is raided for disobeying the food rationing. As he is taken to be executed, we hear his thoughts in voice-over, a frantic jumble of philosophy in which he tries to convince himself that he will live forever. Once he’s brought before a firing squad, the Nazi commander offers the prisoners a cruel shred of hope for his own amusement: his men will give everyone a few seconds to run before opening fire, and anyone who makes it to the far wall without being shot will be spared until the next race. The scene could represent the entire film in microcosm, where victory represents not survival, but merely the chance to die a short while later.
Gerbier’s face is a fascinating study in contradictions: you can almost see the quick flashes of calculation in his eyes that allow him to stay alive, but they’re hidden behind a circular pair of glasses that make him look vaguely owl-like. We can never be truly sure of what he’s thinking, of the cost that this bloodshed is taking on his soul, but the clues that the movie does give us are heartbreaking enough. In a cryptic scene during the brief time while Gerbier is staying in London, he wanders into a dance hall where he sees British soldiers flirting with young women as the blitz rages on around them, shaking the foundation of the building. He looks around the room with an air of almost clinical detachment, and just as soon leaves and wanders off into the night.
What is he thinking as he surveyed the room? Pride at the courage of these young men and women who refuse to let the bombing interfere with a night out on the town? Envy over the way the British have chosen to fight while the French have surrendered to the Nazis? Nostalgia for the frivolous times of his own youth, which now seem impossibly far away in the endless cycle of sudden violence and paranoid hiding?
From its melancholy, regretful musical score (by composer Eric De Marsan) to the ruthlessness of its ending (I won’t dare give it away), Army of Shadows is a decidedly sober look at violence during wartime. Melville asks us if we are capable of making the same sacrifices as Gerbier and his compatriots, right up to the ultimate sacrifice of an anonymous death under torture on the behalf of protecting our country. Even if we hope that we, too, could find the courage to fight back if we had to, the film suggests we’re truly blessed if we never have to make that choice at all.
As with all of the Criterion Collection’s DVD releases, the extras are superb; they provide the sort of insightful analysis possible when a film such as this has been around (if not widely seen) for over 30 years. In addition to the beautifully restored transfer and improved subtitles, the package also boasts an audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, interviews with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme and editor Francoise Bonnot, archival footage of French television specials on the film, a documentary on the final days of the French Resistance from 1944, a documentary on Army of Shadows from 2006 interviewing surviving members of the cast and crew, and a color booklet that includes two essays on the film and an interview with Melville himself.