[I was fortunate enough to catch this on the big screen here in Dallas. I for one am glad to see a recent spate of older films being scheduled at the Angelika. Good for them. I hope they continue it through the fall.]
From its opening printed line, which welcomes bad memories because they are reminders of one’s youth, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows brings its audience into the horrors and exhilaration of war. These horrors though are not primarily related to physical violence, but rather the violence done to one’s soul.
On its surface, the film tells the story of a segment of the French resistance in WWII, using a stripped down, minimalist style. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a former engineer, plays a pivotal role in the resistance as an organizer and liaison to the leader of the anti-Nazi faction. Generally stone faced, but not without his own fears, Gerbier understands that certain things simply must be done, no matter how unpleasant or dangerous. Whether it’s jumping from an airplane, distracting a German soldier, or even killing a man, he continues to influence the resistance for good because of his willingness to act. Not all follow through like Philippe. Not all have his courage. And it isn’t easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Melville’s style, which is pulled back, offers most scenes in medium or wide shots, the camera generally keeping multiple characters in the frame at all times. The actors underplay their scenes, only occasionally emoting. By removing these visual and emotional cues, Melville places his audience in the position of these resistance fighters. No one is really sure what anyone else will or won’t do. Neither can the characters be sure of anyone’s trust. This uncertainty is one of the dehumanizing effects of war. The characters become isolated from one another. They may work well together on this mission or that, but the nature of their relationships are skewed because of their circumstances. This is poignantly illustrated in a scene between Philippe and Mathilde, when, after having narrowly avoided disaster, have a quiet moment of connection. After a few brief seconds, they return to their harder, military selves, leaving the moment in a haze behind them.
Another disturbing effect of the war can be seen in the code these resistance fighters are compelled to keep. When a friend gives names to the Nazis, the penalty is death. When captured, the only option is to attempt suicide or escape. When a German stands between you and freedom, they must die. This harsh, tense existence wears on the freedom fighters. Each new friend that is captured, dies, or becomes a traitor is a deeper blow to the cause, and just as significantly, to themselves. Each person they are forced to kill steals a bit more of their humanity from them. Constantly living on the edge of life and death, being forced to place an ultimate trust in people you hardly know, and never being quite sure how much good you are doing leaves these fighters in a constant state of flux, becoming shadows of their former selves.
Finally, while these people are all part of the resistance, Melville significantly never actually shows them at work against the Nazis. Sure, someone delivers an illegal transmitter or provides a safe house for another fighter, but what are they really doing outside of perpetuating their lives? They make rescue attempts for imprisoned fighters, travel to England for aid, and eliminate their own when they betray the group. Thus, this shadow army, at least in terms of action, is invisible to all. And the longer they are part of it, the more they become shadows themselves.