The Shadows of War

Army of Shadows is the book about the Resistance: the greatest and the most comprehensive about this tragic period in the history of mankind. Nevertheless, I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance. So I removed all realism, with one exception: the German Occupation.”
– Melville on Melville by Rui Noguirea, 1971


The opening shot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is the very definition of a “grabber”: a direct cut to the Arc de Triomphe at the break of dawn, the static image is interrupted by the sound of offscreen marching, at which point a drum-and-bugle corps suddenly enters from the top right of the frame, followed by goose-stepping German soldiers in full Nazi regalia. Parading across the Champs-Elysees, the regiment sharply turns with full military precision and strides directly towards the camera, the standards and banners of Nazi Germany carried triumphantly forth, eventually filling the entire frame over the low-angle lens. Even before the narrative proper has begun, and the palettes of the film switch to rainy blue-gray with the opening credits, director Melville has established a mood of omnipresent dread, a feeling of tension that will not let up for the next 140 minutes. For the viewer, like those living in Nazi-occupied France, there is no escape.

army-of-shadows-3Fulfilling 25 years of ambition, dating from when the director first read Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel Army of Shadows, Resistance veteran Melville revisits his “long-lost youth”, as a quote attributed to Georges Courteline prefacing the film informs us, portraying the varied experiences of those living under the shadows of war. Or behind them, rather, as the film follows Resistance head Phillippe Gerbier (a screen-commanding Lino Ventura) through imprisonment, daring escapes, betrayals, and executions while struggling to maintain the cloak of anonymity that is his and his compatriots’ only weapon against the all-pervasive threat of exposure. From the covert activities of loyal Felix (Paul Crauchet) to cloak-and-dagger missions undertaken by field operatives “Le Masque” (Claude Mann) and “Le Bison” (Christian Barbier), even the ultimate leadership of Gerbier’s network of everyday spies and soldiers is shrouded in secrecy, where mastermind Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) maintains his public identity as a scholar and philosopher while concealing his private identity as chief of all Resistance operations from his own brother, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), himself a soldier in the Resistance. Indeed, that most of Gerbier’s most crucial intelligence is gathered and tactical decisions are made by an otherwise unassuming French housewife, the “remarkable” Mathilde (Simone Signoret), signifies the unusual character of this necessarily clandestine campaign.

As a “shadow war”, its participants wage battle not on the beaches, fields, and forests of the Allied-invading forces, but rather in more frighteningly nondescript store backrooms, safehouses, and office buildings-turned-torture chambers. The pre-1943 illusion of “Free France”, as the film is at visceral pains to show, co-opted hospitals, schools, businesses, and, yes, prisons to maintain precise continuity with French institutions and seats of power immediately preceding the war – only now, of course, the bureaucratic functionaries rubber-stamping official forms at “information” desks wear uniforms clasped at the collar by iron eagles perched over swastikas.


This disconcerting mix of the everyday with the terrifying is no more in evidence than in the scene of Gerbier’s first escape. Ducking into what appears to be an all-night barbershop(!), Gerbier, out-of-breath after fleeing down an empty street, gasps his request for a shave. The unnamed barber (Serge Reggiani) silently acquiesces, preparing his customer with towels and lotion – bells, alarms, and whistles screaming through the night – while Gerbier furtively looks around the shop for clues to his imminent fate: mirrors, certificates, a poster with a message from Marshal Petain (leader of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government). Will Gerbier be betrayed? Upon finishing, the barber suggests that Gerbier take the barber’s own coat – a dark blue coat to replace Gerbier’s own stand-out gray – before departing. Gratefully accepting, the tension of the sequence is momentarily abated with a glance of silent accord, underlining the terrible uncertainty of battles waged without uniforms (on one side, at least), and allegiances which can never be stated, but only implied. A quaint barbershop, then, may very well have been the scene of Gerbier’s demise, but instead, just as unexpectedly, has proved his salvation.

And it’s that ultimate “not knowing” that lies at the tension of every “Free France” sequence in Army of Shadows. (An almost cruelly idyllic sequence set in London, unbowed by constant aerial bomb attacks, stands in ironic counter-point to both what precedes and follows in the film.) Though Melville is a filmmaker best known for his equally minimalist, tension-filled crime dramas like Le Doulos (1962) and Le Deuxieme souffle (1966) – Army of Shadows pointedly shares similarities in terms of economy of narrative, style, and characterization with the earlier neo-noir Le Samourai (1967) and the later Le Circle Rouge (1970) [1] – Melville’s drama of the Resistance is not that far a departure for a director who had made the Occupation the subject of his very first film (1949’s allegorical chamber drama Le Silence de la mer) and to which he later returned as the setting for his first financially-successful film (the 1961 Jean-Paul Belmondo-starring Leon Morin, Priest). Particularly, it’s the almost unconscious melding of the desaturated, brooding atmosphere of the Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and 50s with the director’s own thematic and autobiographical concerns of life under constant fear of discovery, capture, torture, and perfunctory execution that gives this film – and, by extension, all of Melville’s thrillers – its unusual power [2]: only here, Melville’s trenchcoat-clad, derby-wearing co-conspirators plot the downfall of an occupying force as opposed to planning a bank heist or carrying out a nightclub raid. In effect, then, Army of Shadows turns out to be, amongst all of Melville’s previous thrillers, the film he had intended to make all along, with the life-or-death decisions of honor-bound outsiders gaining an extra dimension of stark immediacy and historical weight.


A French film somewhat contemporary to Army of Shadows, Francois Truffaut’s 1962 New Wave classic Jules and Jim, offered this epigram for life during wartime: “The tragedy of war is that it deprives a man of his own personal battle.” Whether matter-of-factly negotiating the killing of a weak young recruit (Alain Libolt) who has betrayed the cause, planning a doomed-to-failure rescue of a loyal friend and colleague who has gone above-and-beyond to uphold it, or arranging – in the film’s final, tragic coda – the execution of one of the cause’s most valued members, life behind, within, and beyond the shadow-soaked, morally-ambiguous complexities of war is laid in terms both stark and personal for every participant. In one of the film’s most celebrated passages, with a line of mounted machine guns trained on Gerbier and his fellow prisoners across a dank basement, the question of honor and personal integrity foremost in Gerbier’s mind – revealed in voice-over – is whether to run or defiantly stand still when an SS officer offers a humiliating and dehumanizing “head-start”. In contrast to being deprived of said “personal battle”, what Melville depicts in his great film of war – the looming shadow filling the frame that opens the film present in every scene that follows – is the struggle within each participant (both men AND women) to metaphorically run or defiantly stand still in the moment of greatest extremity; the greater tragedy is that that personal battle offers no victory, but only – at its best – a temporary escape, a transient reprieve, or a shared glance of silent accord at the instant of death.

Such were the thoughts racing through this viewer’s mind when he was fortunate enough to re-view the Criterion Collection’s sterling 2007 re-release of the film – since made re-available on Blu-Ray in 2011. As referenced above, from its very first frame the entire film is a “grabber”, made all the more astonishing in that Army of Shadows eluded these shores a full 35 years before receiving its belated restoration and initial US release in 2006! While one would be hard-pressed to imagine the circumstances under which a film of such quality and impact would fail to receive wide distribution outside its country of origin, the over 5 ½ hours of special features accompanying the film – including vintage French television interviews with Jean-Pierre Melville contemporary to the film’s stormy 1969 release, primary historical documentaries about the German Occupation and French Resistance, and an insightful and absorbing film-length commentary by Melville biographer Ginette Vincendeau – prove invaluable in negotiating the social and historical complexities of both the tragic epoch the film depicts and the controversies surrounding its release. Moreover, the fascinating delineation of a fearlessly independent and notoriously difficult director – Jean-Pierre Melville, himself – gives a reading of the film which in itself proves indispensable to understanding his characters, stylistic choices, and thematic concerns.

director Melville (left)

director Melville (left)

Finally, why Army of Shadows? Regarding, say, a movie in current release, a famous movie’s anniversary, or – as we are wont to do here at ZekeFilm – celebrating an iconic actor’s birth month, good discussion around a work of art should ideally derive from its relevancy. By that argument, one supposes, a particularly timeless movie – such as I’d argue Army of Shadows to be, and which consideration of the film’s release history and subsequent reception supports – is always worthy of discussion. (Or, in my case, as worthy of discussion directly related to the short lapse of time between when one has last seen it!) With the last four shots of the film – close-ups of war-hardened faces considering the gravity of the irrevocable act each has fully conspired to plan, enact, and execute; the ultimate fate of each participant revealed beneath their unreadable expressions – Army of Shadowssteps out from behind the shadows, transcends its historical moment, and stands defiantly still across the years in sharp relief to time itself.

[1] From the Ginette Vincendeau commentary accompanying 2007 DVD/2011 Blu-Ray release for the Criterion Collection.

[2] Ibid.