‘Heroic’ is a label usually granted to a person’s actions posthumously. In the years immediately following the end of World War II, the actions of the French Resistance was characterised as such. The view of these men and women as unambiguously heroic provided comforting myths for a nation reeling from the German occupation (1940-44). It’s an interpretation that promoted the idea that all French people stoically resisted Nazi rule. This perspective was definitively exhausted by Marcel Ophüls 4-hour documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), which exposed the extent of French anti-Semitism and collaboration.
With distance, a more complete view of the French Resistance has emerged. First released in 1969, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is an austere film that offers bleaker insight into the period. While World War II presents an incontrovertible image of evil in the form of Nazism, Melville’s film contains multiple shades of grey around those who resisted them. His Resistance fighters are not presented as cartoonish heroes, but anti-heroes, burdened by existential dilemmas. Melville depicts men and women who grapple with the enormous moral difficulty of their mission. They do not act for future glory, but to survive today.
Based on Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name, Army of Shadows was Melville’s third film to address the German occupation of France. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris in 1917, he took the name Melville in tribute to his favourite American author and to conceal his Jewish heritage. After being drafted into the army in 1937 he joined the Resistance in 1940, later escaping to London. Like most in his generation, World War II was the defining experience of his life.
Melville made his first film in 1949. La silence de la mer featured a niece and her uncle forced to house a German soldier, and choosing silence as their weapon of resistance. Léon Morin, Priest (1961) saw him return to the occupation, this time in a small town in the Alps where a priest and a widow have intellectual discussions about the nature of moral courage. Alongside these, Melville made many of the cool, gangster films he is now best known for, including Bob le flambeur (1956), Le deuxième souffle (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). Army of Shadows fuses both of these facets of his career into a signature work of art.
The formative influence of the French Resistance on Melville’s career is evident in Army of Shadows. It’s his most personal film – once viewed it informs your understanding of everything he made before it. It’s sad, then, that Melville (who died in 1973 from a heart attack at the age of 55) didn’t live to see it garner respect and admiration. Upon its release, the influential group of critics at Cahiers du cinéma attacked the film for celebrating Charles De Gaulle (it doesn’t), who was now seen as an enemy of the May 1968 generation. A reconsideration by the magazine in the mid-1990s led to the film’s restoration in 2004. It was released for the first time in the US in 2006 and received with reverence around the world, topping many critics’ end of year lists.
"Melville’s film is a fatalistic view of the world born out of his own experience of war. Within this dynamic, resistance becomes a futile act – the path of history already predetermined, with people powerless to change it."
Army of Shadows’ greatest strength is its profound sense of unease. It’s there in the film’s very first shot, as a Nazi marching band aggressively thrusts itself before the Arc de Triomphe like animals marking their territory. As they goose-step towards the static camera it’s as if they are coming straight for us in the audience. It’s a shot that provides the necessary disturbing historical context about the terror of life in occupied France. From here, Melville’s focus is on Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and his group of fighters, including Félix (Paul Crauchet), Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and Mathilde (Simone Signoret), in a series of self-contained sequences. Each shares an air of doom and their resistance takes its toll as the narrative creeps towards its chilling end.
Much of the discourse about the French Resistance emphasises the solidarity and fraternity at its core. While this sense of brotherhood is evident in Army of Shadows, the film ultimately demonstrates that in the Resistance every man and woman stood alone. There was always the risk of disloyalty or betrayal. As Gerbier explains, “All debts will be paid in time.” Melville’s film is a fatalistic view of the world born out of his own experience of war. Within this dynamic, resistance becomes a futile act – the path of history already predetermined, with people powerless to change it.
While the film draws on the moody modes of the crime thrillers Melville was expert at, its unease is of a very specific kind. The atmosphere is oppressively claustrophobic. Melville harnesses the unease into a minimalist aesthetic – lean action, long, wordless sequences, and shots framed to emphasise the characters’ isolation. Whether it’s a car cutting across an empty road, or a solitary figure walking the street, everything is pared back, giving the effect of a nervous intensity. Melville, and is cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, employ a sombre colour palette of blues and greys, to create a depleted world perpetually shrouded in fog. It’s a landscape that houses not only an army of shadows, but of ghosts.
There’s no denying the magnitude of the risks that Resistance fighters took, especially with their own lives. They faced extreme dangers, the threat of capture and torture, and often had to make impossible moral choices in desperate circumstances. Melville doesn’t shy away from this dark reality. An early scene, in which a traitor must be eliminated, leads to a long consideration of the most appropriate mode of punishment. None of the fighters are experienced killers, but will do what’s required in order to survive.
Army of Shadows is a tragedy. It deflates the concept of heroism by highlighting the essential abnormality of life during wartime. Sacrifices are made. Values are challenged. Friends must kill friends. “Nothing in this world is sacred anymore,” Gerbier pessimistically points out. Like all Melville’s films, Army of Shadows is cool, but it’s never emotionally aloof. Melville neither romanticises, nor condemns the Resistance fighters and their missions. But he complicates the idea that even when good men and women fight on the side of what is right and moral, they inevitably betray their humanity for the struggle. Each lives in the shadow of death. For every killing there is a price to be paid. In wartime, no one gets out with clean hands or a clean soul.
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