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Film Review

The Army of Crime

The German invasion of France in 1940, and the swift defeat of the British and French armies, traumatized the French. Paris was occupied, and the country divided into a German controlled area in the north, including Paris, and the southern area, called Vichy, which was nominally French governed. All French government entities actively collaborated with the Germans, to the extent that the round up and deportation of French and refugee Jews to Auschwitz were entirely French operations. The French Resistance began to be active in 1941, with increasing attacks on trains, buses, and German troops. Reprisals soon followed, and the Germans insisted that for every German soldier killed, ten French Resistance members were to be shot. Again, the French police and militia did most of the pursuit and torture of the Resistance. Public opinion was not initially supportive of the Resistance, and the public often gave tips to the police about Resistance members. It was only after the Allied invasion at Normandy in June, 1944, that public opinion shifted in support of the Resistance. But by then, hundreds of Resistance members had been captured and killed. The Communists were in the vanguard of the resistance, and certainly for the first two years, took the lead and supplied the most fighters.

After the liberation, De Gaulle and others were worried about the political strength of the Communists, so began to manufacture a great national myth that most of the French were either active resistance members or supported them in some fashion, minimizing the importance of Communist leadership and fighters. This myth that most of the French supported the resistance became accepted as fact, until films (i.e. The Sorry and the Pity, etc) and critical writing in the 1960's began to reveal the truth. These revelations of wide spread collaboration were not well received by the French government, and important films, such as Army of Shadows (1969, and now considered a masterpiece), were banned in France.

Now, Robert Guediguian has produced The Army of Crime, a riveting look at that terrible time, through the history of a short lived Resistance group in Paris, led by a communist Armenian poet, Missak Manouchian. The film's title comes from a propaganda poster that the French government produced. The group consisted of 22 men and one women, most communists, many immigrants Jews. After nearly two years of attacks on German troops, they were hunted, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and all but two killed. They were shot just a few months before the liberation of Paris. The film opens with a group of men and one women in a police van, with the camera looking through the grills at Parisian street scenes as the van is driving. They drive along the Seine, passing lovers holding hands, children playing, people going about their daily lives, none paying attention to the van. As the camera focuses on each of the prisoners' faces, a narrator says their name, then "mort pour la France".

The film then cuts back several years, before most of the group was participating in active resistance. Most were living somewhat normally during the occupation, wanting to resist the Germans in some fashion, but not really knowing how. Gradually each becomes radicalized as they witness the Germans mingling with the Parisians, and being welcomed by many. A few begin to actually shoot Germans, but not as an organized group. Senior Resistance officers realize that they must control some of the firebrands, and end up selecting Manouchian as the leader. Ironic, because Manouchian is a professed pacifist, having had his own parents and brother killed during the Armenian holocaust in Turkey. He is married, and his wife soon becomes a vital part of the organization, carrying messages, and in a very courageous act, brings food to her husband when he is first held at a secret prison. Manouchian refuses to sign a declaration swearing loyalty to the German controlled French state, but a fellow prisoner persuades him that a principled death does nothing for the cause. The film also focuses on four other members, each with interesting stories, and all very courageous, including the a woman who routinely smuggles weapons and explosives past patrols. They are receiving weapons from the British, and their attacks grow in sophistication. They make their share of mistakes, and sometimes their missions are a failure. But finally the police mount an intensive search and surveillance operation, with an older very savvy detective heading the effort.

Army of Crime, unlike many films about this subject, also looks at the attitudes of the French public, who were generally not supportive of the Resistance. We see a neighbor who thinks she smells sulfur from the apartment of one of the group. She goes to the police, who are initially skeptical, but the detective thinks this could be valuable tip. He begins to follow the man, which leads to the beginning of the unraveling of the group. Some, but only a few of the public, actively help, such as the woman who hides and feeds some of the group in her cellar, at great risk to herself and her family. But most of the French are indifferent and only want order, or worse, actively collaborate. Guediguian makes it clear that the national myth of an entire nation resisting, was a myth. The reality was much darker and more shameful, a shame that still haunts France today. This film is powerful, not because of the action scenes, but because of the depiction of the immense courage and faith of those who resisted. No one then could see into the future and know that soon France would be liberated. Many felt that the German hold on the continent would never be broken, and that ultimately even England would surrender. So "mort pour la France" was true on many levels. Their courage helped redeem French honor, even though only a few had that courage. This is a powerful yet understated film, masterful, with outstanding acting and accomplished cinematography. I loved The Army of Crime, and think it is one of the best films I have seen this year. Guediguian has made a great film, a semi documentary that will become a classic, and a fine remembrance to a group of very brave people. Opened at the Embarcadero but has just moved to the Balboa.

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