The young man was a collaborator. He had to die. He left the patriots no choice.
But how to do it? The country home where they've taken him has paper-thin walls, and the children next door are singing "Frère Jacques." There's no knife, and if there were, it would be horrifying, bloody. That leaves these first-time killers of an unarmed man only one alternative: their bare hands.
And so they strangle the young man. One patriot does the deed, and the others watch. One weeps after the body slumps forward. They cover him with a blanket, turn out the lights, and drive away to continue the fight against what one collaborator calls the "phony war."
This passage, from Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, is one of many that make his 1969 film so thoroughly compelling and rare. Made during a wave of change in world cinema, and just now being shown in the U.S., Melville's film is at once a throwback and very modern: From scene to scene, his direction recalls classic Hollywood, the art film, and very occasionally (but always very subtly), the visual panache of the French New Wave. It's an intimate film about French resistance to the Nazi occupation, and it builds each of its episodes to a ripping climax, absorbing you over and over.
Army of Shadows opens with a black screen and a somber thought that follows its protagonist, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), through this story of his life. "Bad memories," he tells us, "you are my lost youth." Then, Melville takes us briefly to the Arc de Triomphe in modern times as we watch a marching band of soldiers celebrate French freedom and independence. This reminds us that France will survive ... cold comfort as we witness all that follows.
We meet Philippe, a civil engineer, on the way to a bucolic camp for people suspected of participating in the Gaullist resistance. His cellmates ... lodged in a building designed by the French for German prisoners of war ... include a fellow who called Pétain a jackass ("at least you deserve to be here," Philippe says) and an unlucky guy who got himself arrested when he wandered through a protest against the Vichy government. Eventually they transfer Philippe to a palace occupied by some German interrogators. But in a swift act of hand-to-hand combat, he disarms a German soldier of his knife, sticks it in the man's throat, and escapes into a cold Paris night speckled with early snow.
He stops, nervously, for a shave. The barber's wall sports a poster praising the accomplishments of Pétain. Is this man truly a collaborator? As Philippe leaves, the barber gives him a new overcoat, a silent act of kinship. Philippe is an important man in the Resistance, so his comrades sneak him and a few others out of the country one night on a submarine. He does some business in London ... the British are too strapped to offer weapons, plus they don't trust the movement ... and during an air raid, he ducks into a dance hall, where the soldiers swing to big-band music and try to hook up. Soon, it's back to France: He has to parachute in, his small prop plane barely avoiding enemy fire.
This is all wonderful filmmaking ... tense and authentic, yet also dramatic and thrilling. Army of Shadows is more than two relentless hours of these snapshots of how people lived, fought and survived in France during the war. They became killers by necessity, not by nature or desire, and their missions are sometimes personal: When the Germans capture their colleague Felix, they have to rescue him ... or kill him to save him from torture. To anyone who would question the bravery and resourcefulness of the French, this film is the answer.
Army of Shadows is a French story ... when Germans speak, their words aren't translated in the subtitles ... which may account for why it never had a U.S. release in 1969, despite its quiet affection for American culture. (In London, after watching Gone with the Wind, a comrade tells Philippe, "The war will be over for the French when they can see this great movie.") Even the presence of the iconic Simone Signoret, as a sort of kinder, gentler, contemporary Mme. Defarge, didn't allow it to export. This wasn't the kind of French film that people wanted to see from a director (Bob le Flambeur) little-known in America.
In one of Melville's most poignant vignettes, a young member of the Resistance takes time out of a mission to visit his wealthy older brother, who lives in a cold mansion (no coal for heat), eating what little food his housekeeper can find. They spend a lovely afternoon together. But the young man can't tell his beloved sibling, whose allegiance he doesn't know for certain, why he's in town. He walks away from the reunion in a state of isolation and melancholy. It's a feeling that permeates Melville's extraordinary portrait of the myriad, often unseen, and usually unheralded casualties of war. In French, with subtitles.