Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is one of the most emotionally brutal movies I’ve ever seen — not physical, but emotional. In a medium that usually communicates through visceral images and sensations, Melville's film from 1969 is a masterpiece of the internal.
The film is set in the world of De Gaulle’s French resistance fighters attempting to overthrow the Nazi occupation of France. But it is not a David vs. Goliath story about war and Melville himself said that he did not want to necessarily make a movie about the resistance. In fact, there is just one astonishing opening shot that solely but firmly establishes the German occupation of France, as we see the troops marching across the Champs-Elysees closer and closer to the screen.
Instead, the movie is really a study of fatalism. The resistance fighters in the film fear that they may easily be captured and tortured by the Nazis. The emotional agony comes from watching these people attempt to persevere and stick to their own ideals despite their knowledge of probable doom.
We first meet Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), the commander of the resistance fighters who is initially captured by the French police. He narrowly escapes, however, and he meets with his other fellow members such as Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Le Masque (Claude Mann), Le Bison (Christian Barbier), Felix (Paul Crauchet), and Mathilde (Simone Signoret), all of whom use false names as cover to spy on the Germans. They are led by Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), who only communicates through Gerbier and rarely meets any other group member in person.
An early chilling scene sets the theme and tone of the entire film when a traitor is caught after having sold information to the Germans. The team moves into a dilapidated house where they typically carry out their executions but then realize that some new neighbors have actually moved in next door. Gerbier suggests a gun but Le Masque says it’s too noisy. One suggests a knife but they don't have one. Gerbier finally says, “Get the towel in the kitchen," and this execution scene is simultaneously one of the most understated (the act is done just off-camera) and merciless of its kind ever put on film.
The whole movie is like that, shot in atmospheric, chilling blue colors, and Melville avoids every temptation to show anything explicit or rev up the action. There are tortures at the hands of Nazis but we only see the results. When Gerbier escapes, he takes out an officer so swiftly that we can hardly believe it when it happens. And there is no grand ensuing chase but just him running haphazardly, which only adds to our apprehension that he may be captured.
All of these strands lead to two scenes where people make crucial existential life or death decisions. One involves a captured fighter being given the choice by the Nazis to stand and be shot by machine gun or try to make a run for it to climb up a far wall and stay their execution. What crueler hangman is there than one who gives the choice to die or simply stay another day to die?
The other I won’t reveal other than to say that it raises crucial moral and political questions. Should rigid ideals be made so lofty that they supersede all human compassion and empathy? Must resistance against a political regime involve compromising one's own ethical values and principles? We feel excruciating pain for these characters as they decide these questions for the security of their small resistance group within their losing battle against a larger enemy and a government that has officially surrendered to it.
Army of Shadows, which Melville adapted from a novel by Joseph Kessel, marked one of the last movies to come out of the French New Wave movement. The film was lambasted upon its release because it was considered Gaullist at a time where animosity against De Gaulle was at its peak. It is only now that Melville’s works are gradually being ranked as some of the greatest films in world cinema and that he is duly recognized with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Louis Malle.
In an age where movies are all about putting money and visual effects on the screen, I would like to think that modern day audiences still have the patience for a resonant movie like Army of Shadows. The most brilliant quality of the movie is its ability to wait. Wait and wait with the increasing realization that there may be no rewards to reap within the fighters’ efforts. We the viewers, as powerless witnesses, simply hope that we never face the dire situations the characters face. But sadly there are some who still do.