This film is better than it looks

The Army of Crime 2009

Dir Robert Guédiguian

By Peter Hulm

It’s hard to imagine future critics giving The Army of Crime the high rating it is currently accorded (76% from critics, see also wikipedia).

It’s a bog-standard resistance epic in its story: heroic resistance fighters tracked down by nasty fascists in France. Worse, it's pedestrian and clichéd in its treatment and filming.

Yet it is a much better film than it looks (apologies to Mark Twain for stealing and distorting his bon mot about Wagner's music).

The film bombed with audiences in France, perhaps because of its theme: a homage to the foreigners who filled the ranks of the Resistance. Many were also Communist. And ordinary French citizens, the film makes clear, ignored the deportations going on before their eyes. We see buses carrying Jews through the streets to Drancy and the Vel d'Hiver without any signs of agitation from people in the street.

The Resistance fighters, too, are mainly young, while their parents try to temporize or tell themselves they’ll be all right since they are French.

Glorius Basterds

In the era of Sarkozy and Le Pen, this may not be palatable. Based on a much more interesting true story (one of the participants was protected by the Aznavour family), it has been compared favorably with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorius Basterds and Jean-Pierre Melville’s much more serious l'Armée de l'Ombre (The Shadow Army).

Melville’s film revolves around an issue which The Army of Crime skirts over: the vulnerability of almost all the Resistance fighters to blackmail. In this film, none of the tortured betray their comrades (this may be factually correct, but it does appear unlikely).

The director Robert Guédiguian, son of a German mother and Armenian father, identifies himself as working class and was “involved” with the Communist Party.

He does not spare the Communists in the most original twist to the film: the Stalinist leaders put the Resistance group leader under pressure to stage something spectacular, not just to create havoc, but to ensure the Germans execute a large number of hostages.

Not just a question of ideology

The Armenian leader, a poet (Simon Abkarian), points out to a Jewish colleague that Hitler thought he could get away with attacking Jews because the world did not act on massacres of Armenians 25 years before. The poet also refuses to kill at first, because he considers it unethical.

In this group, too, ideology and solidarity are not the reasons for resistance. The young assassin who is most personally violent kills simply out of reaction to recognizing immediately, as his mother does not, that his father will never return from deportation.

The other main assassin is a Communist from Hungary, hiding a bomb in Karl Marx’s Capital, but the Party leader considers him an uncontrollable hothead.

The good French

The film is not completely one sided against the inactive French. A perfectly ordinary French woman saves a family by hiding its members simply because they are good neighbours. The wife of the hero (as in life) makes her way to the prison camp where her husband is being held (she was helped by an Aznavour) to deliver him food. A German officer admires her courage and passes on the packages.

It is obvious that for many German soldiers, Paris is a non-militaristic heaven. The Nazis praise the French for having instituted a fascist state without any German involvement. Throughout the film the Resistance fighters complain that the British will not deliver them powerful enough arms to be effective (a plausible allegation, given British chauvinism towards General de Gaulle and more suspect resistance groups).

An age of indifference

The title comes from a poster the Germans produced when they executed the group, thinking this would arouse French citizens against their “liberators”. It is not insisted on, but when we see the group being driven to execution through the streets of Paris, everything seems normal as people go about their daily lives.

In fact, it demonstrates the indifference of most French to the Resistance, which is definitely one of the points Guédiguian is making, but since we are not sure at what stage the resistance fighters are being shown (have they just been arrested?). the point is lost, perhaps in the editing.

Its length suggests he might have planned to repeat the sequence to make two points – the despair of capture the first time, and the self-deluding ignorance of the ordinary Parisian in the second.

Instead we concentrate more on the intoning of the resistance group’s names with the epithet for each “mort pour la France”.

I found myself listening to the stumbles and hesitations of the speaker rather than taking in the images. If anything, its dullness seems to come from its fidelity to history: the French anti-terrorist unit played a waiting game and the Stalinist spilled all immediately he was captured.