At the (Great!) Movies
I saw Jean-Pierre Melville's epic Army of Shadows for the first time in the early 1970's in my "French period," that is, when I was for all practical purposes addicted to the French cinema (Godard, Truffaut, Louis Malles, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, etc). This is a very cool historical film noir has been newly restored and released in the U.S. for the first time and so I had an opportunity to see it again this week. What can I say? A stunning mastepiece by a master director (Le Cercle Rouge; Bob Le Flambeur; Le Samourai)and starring Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, and Claude Mann. It's about members of a Resistance cell in German-occupied France (it opens with a shot of German soldiers marching down the Champs-Elysees). Nick Schager in Slant magazine captures the central theme of the movie:
As with so many of Melville's noirs, doom lies in wait for those reckless or foolish enough to deviate from their prescribed obligations and loyalties, and Army of Shadows extends the director's pessimism even further than is customary, positing a corpse-lined cause fought for by people who, regardless of their actions, seem destined for the grave—a fact confirmed by both the misery-laced glance shared by Gerbier and Resistance matriarch Mathilde (Simone Signoret) before her unavoidable demise, as well as by the subsequent postscript detailing the revolutionary crew's fate. Melville's outlook, however, ultimately reflects the fundamentally ambiguous realities of war, wherein there can be found not only ethical and emotional degeneration, but honor as well. In the film's most harrowing scene, Gerbier and his men, unequipped with either guns or a knife, efficiently execute a traitorous informer by means of silent strangulation with a bath towel. Refusing to avert his camera's vigilant gaze from the horrifying undertaking, Melville captures the unbearable intimacy of murder and the terrible spiritual and psychological toll suffered by those mired in combat. And yet in this unremitting watchfulness, the director also locates the ascetic dignity in Gerbier's willingness to make, and carry out, the ugliest of choices and sacrifices—a stark reminder that, for better and worse, what war creates is not simple heroes or villains but, rather, warriors.read more
On a certain level if we watch the characters in this film outside the historical context and the moral considerations it presents, they are not very different from members of a criminal gang. But through our eyes and as part of our shared historical narrative of the WWII/anti-Nazi struggle they are not seen as villains but as heroes. On the other hand, in Munich which challanges the accepted historical Zionist/Israeli narrative a certain moral ambiguity is produced. Are the Israeli assassins and those who dispatch them, heroes or villains? There is no such sense of moral ambiguity in "Army of Shadows."