Army of Shadows

The film Army of Shadows, a French classic made in 1969 and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a rough and gritty look at the lives of members of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation and the Vichy government and operates with the same level of constant and pounding intensity as the German film Downfall.

The film follows Philippe Gerbier, a civil engineer, in a jail for enemies of the Vichy Government and through his trials and tribulations with the French Resistance as it were. It is important to note, to begin with and the film does a pretty good job of pointing this out, that after the defeat of France by Germany only about one million of the population, a very small population, engaged in the resistance or even stronly oppossed the Vichy regime; so while those who did resist the Nazis and the Vichy government were noble and courageous, in fact, they were few.

Prison life is dreary under any circumstances. Despair is in the air even at the newest and most modern of facilities. This film did a good job of capturing the despair of this wartime prison in occupied France and its Communists, intellectuals, Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and others. This prison, like a prison in the Iraq of today, is full of what the Vichy regime described as terrorists, and just those who have pissed someone off or appeared to be odd. These prisoners when they get out have either been further radicalized or have been defeated.

Like any prisoner of war who has the means, and has not lost his desire, Gerbier attempts to escape from prison and he is successful (this comes after killing a German guard at an occupied hotel). He escapes by running and ducks into a barbershop and out of breath he asks for a shave. The barber has posters of Vichy propaganda on the wall which Gerbier looks at nervously while getting his shave; but when he is leaving the barber gives him his coat to wear. This is what the Americans in Iraq would call material support to terrorism, but the resistance in any occupied country is fed by the sympathies of the locals and that sympathy can take the form of giving someone a jacket to giving someone a bowl of soup. This is the average citizens feeble way of supporting a cause that they may support; but cannot muster the courage or break the bonds of family duty to support.

Any underground movement has to deal with the issue of how to punish the collaborator. Punishing the collaborator and the compromiser achieves two goals; on the one hand it discourages a treasonous act and sends a message to the greater society and on the other hand it hardens the troops and separates the wheat from the chaff as the organization sees who is willing to commit the methodical and brutal act of killing someone they have known, and probably liked, for the sake of the higher cause. A powerful scene in this film is when Gerbier and two of his comrades are forced to kill a collaborator and it brings them to tears as they, rather incompetently, strangle him to death after not being able to come to terms with using a knife and not being able to find a quiet place to shoot him.

A key component to this movement, and to any operation of this sort in Europe in the 20th Century, was the radio and so many men and women died smuggling radios in and out of places they needed to be. Of course, in the world of today, the radio is not needed because we have the Internet and cell phones. Much of the success of the Iraqi insurgency, and other uprisings, can be traced to this new technology that the French resistance could have only dreamed of. In this film, and in real life, the French fighters had to be brought to London by submarine to ask for more munitions and funding and to catch some R and R and watch Gone With the Wind; in today’s world they could get the money and flick electronically.

It is in London, during the air raids, that Gerbier sees that life is going on as usual while the fight is being taken to the British and the Kingdom is organized to defeat its enemy as bombs shake the dance hall as male and female soldiers mildly get their freak on.

At this point, for some reason, my mind turns to French Muslims. How connected do they feel to the history of their Republic and to those who fought to defend the Republic? Do they see this as their history? Do they necessarily see the French as fighting for a just cause? Or is the German ideal more appealing to them? And for that matter what of the British and American Muslims? Our socities are pretty united in seeing the Allies as heroic savers of humanity; do most Muslims see it that way?

Leaving no soldier on the field Gerbier and the female fighter Mathilde attempt to rescue a comrade from the jail where he is being held only to find out that due to the brutal conditions that they are being held under he is dying and cannot be transported in their commandeered ambulance. The man is given a poison pill by a fellow prisoner. Conditions in GTMO and Abu Ghrab may be rough and un-American, which I have no doubt they are, but they are a far cry from the firing squads and torture of World War II and it shows us that humanity has evolved closer to the Islamic ideal regarding the treatment of prisoners

As the film is ending Gerbier is pondering life, death and his fear of it while he embraces his fate and his cause which is what many do, I suppose, who ride their cause to the end. This happens as Gerbier is used goods, and has outlived his usefulness, and sits like an old widow waiting to die after she has completed he life mission in serving her man. One last mission exists for Gerbier, and that is to kill his beloved and married Mahtilde who has been compromised after her real identity has been found and the Nazis threaten to send he daughter to a Polish whorehosue for soldiers on the Eastern front and with that the story ends and we find out that neither Gerbier or any of his close comrades live to see the liberation of France by the Allies.