There's a fine line between resistance and terrorism, and that's just one of the ideas explored in Robert Guédiguian's latest French pseudo-reality melodrama, The Army of Crime, the second French WWII film screening this week at Chicago's EUFF.
France in 1943 is a country rolling over. They have declared neutrality, but it's a declaration built on nice thoughts, meaningless words. Intimidated citizens are pushed into collaboration with the occupying regime, forced to aid in the transportation of Jews and minorities on cattle cars to Auschwitz. Even the police are involved in the capture and torture of civilians to obtain information about the resistance. It must have been a confusing time to know the right, moral way to resist -- if such a notion of resistance even existed. If you kill a countryman in order to save other countrymen, is the act considered allegiance to France or terrorism? If you throw a grenade into a roomful of Nazi soldiers with wives and other young girls present, have you served your country or only added to an already endless volume of innocent blood?
Like The Battle of Algiers, the 1966 masterpiece which flips the French from its neutral role in Guédiguian's film to the role of outright oppressor (and is even referenced quite a few times here, most notably in a scene where an escapee flees only to be tripped in the street), The Army of Crime explores the idea that resistance absolutely isn't futile, that it's a necessity, but a muddled affair. As Robert McNamara points out in The Fog of War, in order to do good, you may have to engage in acts of evil.
The resistance, represented here as a makeshift group of immigrants, are aware of the choices they make daily; the ramifications of their actions will be considered by some heroic, by others dangerous and degenerate. Whether they're a resistance force or a terrorist group isn't just based on the perspective of the side you're on, but often a question of how far you're willing to go for the sake of your own freedom -- the morality of immoral acts, so to speak -- and though I'm not crazy about this film, that's a theme I always find intriguing.
The group's leader is Armenian-born Missak Manouchian, a woodworker and political activist, a poet and a pacifist. At first a conscientious objector to the very idea of a war, he's not someone you might consider leading the laborer division of the Parisian Resistance. But after throwing a grenade into a group of marching SS soldiers, he lead the ragtag group on 30 brutal operations against the Nazis. He goes against his objections over killing because he's in a situation outside the laws of morality.
The operations become more and more elaborate, the group hoping for attention among the citizens and in the press. No matter what feats they boldly pull off, they'll have a harder time getting in with the press. The Germans are a little too smart for that. One of the best ways to understand the Germans' knowledge of the power of the media is to listen to the radio, often heard as a break between scenes:
"When a train derails or locomotives are destroyed, that isn't one less train for the Germans, it means the French will go without," the man on the radio announces. "When a power station or a dam is bombed, when saboteurs blow up a transformer or cut power cables, French workers go idle, French housewives lack electricity, French craftsmen have to down tools..."
The obvious point that these terrorist are really hurting the French.
Later: "Near Chalon-sur-Saône, 18 dead and 32 wounded in an attack. In Grenoble, a terrific explosion causes 1,500 casualties. In Bourg-en-Bresse, pillaging during General Dobenet's funeral. This is the work of foreign terrorists, nearly all Jews. Armenians, Polish Jews, Red Spaniards... We shall answer violence with fair but merciless repression..."
Although spoken in French and riding the airwaves over France, it's obvious where these words are coming from. The news has just reported, blamed, and planned an assaultive attack all at once.
I purposefully called the film a melodrama based on a part of the definition of the word, "emphasizing plot/action at the expense of characterization." It's not a film that is going to stick with me, but it wasn't the worst experience either. But where it attempts at characterization it clearly fails, and it loves to continuously ride along its repetitious plot.
Maybe it's a general feeling I have of being tired with WWII movies, but I found The Army of Crime long winded and lacking in interest. I barely made it through. After taking forty-five minutes to finally set the proper characters in place, the film becomes a basic "Spy vs Spy" routine. They plan, they bomb, the shoot, they plan more, they bomb and shoot more, they get caught, they get tortured, they make more plans and bomb and shoot more until getting caught finally, once and for all. The film tries to dip into the waters of a love story for a moment or two toward the end, but by the time it gets there we're too bored to care. And when the end credits roll and the director admits he had to alter certain events, that it was "necessary to recount this modern legend to help us live here and now," I kinda didn't get it and felt the whole thing was a giant waste of time.
WWII was a horror words cannot even express. The more we study it, we simply know it. We're glad it's no longer with us and we hope to never go back to that kind of a world. I understand that films like this are supposed to be a reminder to us of a world we hope to never go back to, but lately I feel like these films are done to death, that there's a new one on the market every month. And by "on the market," I mean just that. There are so many films that need to make money from these atrocities; they claim to want us to remember so that we never forget, but they feel like the same panhandler you see on the street every day.
The problem with The Army of Crime is that brings nothing new to the genre, and it is a genre that, unfortunately for this film, is beginning to look more mechanical than heartfelt. It's not a good or a bad film, in fact the intentions behind it may have been quite good. The timing, maybe not so much in a film world that is currently saturated with the same stories.