Though Jean-Pierre Melville directed a few early films set during WWII—such as his pensive debut, Le silence de mer (1949), about a Nazi soldier lodging in the country home of a reticent French family, and Léon Morin, prêtre (1961), about the budding yet repressed relationship between an atheistic communist and a country priest—the crowning achievement of his career is perhaps L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969). This loosely biographical film was based on a 1943 book by Joseph Kessel, but touches on Melville’s own experiences in the French Resistance and follows Philippe Gerbier (Melville regular Lino Ventura), a Resistance commander. His various grim adventures include a stint in a prisoner of war camp, escape, the execution of an informant, and a dramatic rescue mission.
This unrelentingly bleak film—shot in muted gray, black, and blue tones by Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz—is marked by its sense of bitterness and moral ambiguity. While most WWII films present combat in a moral scale of black and white, here there is only nebulous gray. It’s a film about the realities of survival in wartime and one that, above all, depicts the French Resistance in its formative months and specifically examines the myth versus the reality of the Resistance. Melville himself said, “Don’t forget that there are more people who didn’t work for the Resistance than people who did,” though it was popular for several decades after the war to claim involvement with the Resistance. Coincidentally, Melville’s film was released the same year as Marcel Ophüls’s scathing documentary, Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), which exposed the level of complicity and collaboration among the French during the Nazi occupation.
In Charles De Gaulle’s famous speech marking the liberation of Paris in 1944, he described the country’s capital as, “Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris, but liberated Paris!” This conflicting sense of broken yet liberated bodies ties into the mythic reimagining of the Resistance itself, a vision that both Ophüls and Melville sought to destroy. Particularly in Melville’s film, there is no united French brotherhood of resistors, no courage, no bravery, no glory, only inevitable failure: collaboration, betrayal, loss, psychological torment, physical torture, death. Melville portrays resistance as merely an act of treading water—attempting to survive in the face of insurmountable odds and almost certain death. Like many of the best WWII-themed films to come after it, particularly from the ‘70s, L’armée des ombres blurs the lines between victim and perpetrator, between resistance fighter, collaborator, and every day citizen, making it clear that in this fatal battle for survival, there are no clear cut lines between right and wrong.
Born as Jean-Pierre Grumbach, the director changed his name to Melville to avoid raising suspicion about his Jewish background and his time in hiding, in prison, and in the army must have informed his depiction of men suspicious and untrusting to the point of paranoia. The death of a young suspected traitor, which comes early in the film, is sickening. Later, the execution of the film’s only main female character (Simone Signoret) is inevitable, yet tragic; it is obvious she has agreed to talk to the Gestapo to prevent the torture and death of her teenage daughter, but the Resistance members cannot allow her life to be spared. Real life Resistance member and philosopher Albert Camus wrote in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, “The seas, rains, necessity, desire, the struggle against death–these are things that unite us all. We resemble one another in what we see together, in what we suffer together.” The characters of L’armée des ombres are largely united by this sense of suffering.
In general, Melville’s films are defined by operatic if unsentimental violence, rituals of masculinity, and the operations of underground societies. In this way, L’armée des ombres bears much in common with Melville’s crime films and can be seen as an existential thriller, much like Joseph Losey’s later WWII film, Mr. Klein (1976), which shares its themes of sacrifice and martyrdom. L’armée des ombres also evokes the earlier resistance thrillers Fritz Lang made during his exile in England and America during the war: Man Hunt (1941), about a British aristocrat who “hunts” Hitler for sport and is in turn pursued by the Gestapo; Ministry of Fear (1944), about a man released from a mental institution who accidentally comes into the possession of microfilm the Nazis want; and Hangmen Also Die! (1943), inspired by the murder of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech Resistance. Like L’armée des ombres, Hangmen Also Die is unsentimental and often grim in its portrayal of justice, violence, and retribution.
Originally known as “437” or “Never Surrender” (the title of a moving poem written within the film), Hangmen Also Die portrays not just Nazis as villains; mobs of citizens and opportunistic capitalists are equally suspect. A particularly nihilistic scene eventually cut from the end of the film apparently involved the execution of hostages (as revenge for Heydrich’s assassination) above a mass grave. Melville also seems to have been influenced by Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946). Generally considered one of Lang’s minor efforts, its portrayal of violence has a chilling inevitability. One scene of the film was lifted almost directly for Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller Torn Curtain (1966), where a member of the Resistance engages in a silent fight to the death with a Gestapo agent that is bloodless but no less shocking—and evokes the murder of a young Nazi guard early in L’armée des ombres.
Like Lang’s war-themed thrillers, L’armée des ombres is so effective because it unexpectedly follows the pattern established by Melville’s crime films and embraces the cynicism and utter lack of sentimentalism about violence found throughout them. The harsh, overwhelmingly masculine world of crime, violence, and revenge that began with Le doulos (1962)—the first of several of Melville’s crime films where any notion of black and white morality is quickly abolished—continued in films like Le deuxième souffle (1966), Le samouraï (1967), Le cercle rouge (1970), and Un flic (1972). While many of these are fatalistic in nature—for example, most of his films end with the deaths of all major characters—none are quite as bleak and unforgiving as L’armée des ombres. It asserts that resistance against a totalitarian regime almost always means torture and death for those involved (something later proved by Ophüls in his 1988 war documentary, Hôtel Terminus, where numerous women give testimony about their treatment at the hands of the Gestapo) because it isn’t about the survival of an individual, but the survival of a society, the preservation of a very way of life, one that necessarily entails unimaginable sacrifice. As Camus wrote, “Men like you and me who in the morning patted children on the head would a few hours later become meticulous executioners.”