When the Vichy police rounded up the members of the “Manouchian Group” in November, 1943, it provided both a tactical victory and an irresistible propaganda opportunity. The group was largely comprised of Communists, but to a Vichy regime eager to discredit the French Resistance—to claim, in effect, that the Resistance wasn’t French at all—this wasn’t nearly so significant as the fact that many of these young men and women were foreign-born and that some were Jewish. On top of that, they answered to an Armenian, the poet Missak Manouchian. The 23 “terrorists” were executed following a show trial in the early months of 1944. Shortly thereafter, the authorities posted red-splashed posters with ten mug shots, each labeled by name, ethnicity (“Polish Jew,” “Red Spaniard”) and criminal offense (“2 terrorist attacks,” “5 derailments”). The poster, known as the Affiche Rouge, flings its accusing finger in bold print: “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime!”
Here is the starting point of Robert Guédiguian’s sensitive historical recreation, Army of Crime, on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki. The film draws us into a politically nuanced mosaic of the different calls to resistance amidst the Manouchian Group, and in so doing eschews the reductive Manichean binaries of many Resistance dramas. For it’s inevitable that we consider Guédiguian’s film both as a representation of actual history and also as belonging to a recognizable narrative tradition; the director guaranteed as much in choosing his film’s title, drawn from the Affiche Rouge, but also signaling Jean-Pierre Melville’s monochrome masterpiece, Army of Shadows (1969). Guédiguian’s history functions as a corrective to the earlier work’s abstracted view of the Resistance. By structuring his film episodically, following several individual stories to their Affiche Rouge mug shots, Guédiguian emphasizes that even at its most heroic, the Resistance remained splintered—and not always French. The writer-director is interested in courage only insofar as it expresses something of the characters’ social alienation; as such, Army of Crime’s portraits in heroism remain admirably restrained, unlike so many Resistance fantasies.
In the broader scope, Guédiguian successfully avoids the overdetermined plotting that dooms most historical dramatizations. The pervasive and specifically French anti-semitism crucial to his version of events, for example, is effectively realized as a slow-spreading bilious cloud emanating from radio and muttered asides. Though Guédiguian relies on certain heist-film conventions—rallying the troops, plotting the raid—his study of the group’s loose-knit structure remains closely attuned to personal stakes. The attachments to family and lovers overshadow any macho-revolutionary posturing, and the group’s common ground remains tenuous throughout. Manouchian is an especially complex figure. His reluctance to take up the gun makes him heroic, though not necessarily an effective leader—the young men and women fighting under him are constantly disobeying orders in reckless displays of “partisan complex.” More significantly, Guédiguian emphasizes the ideological conflicts within the Resistance—several members feel no particular allegiance to the hard-line Stalinist and Russian emissary issuing commands, and the politicos in kind view the men as mere foot-soldiers.
The fact that the seemingly omnipotent Russian is as comically caricatured as his Nazi-Vichy counterparts is of course significant, since these figures are all primarily concerned with advantageous headlines rather than human dignity. Hours before his execution, Manouchian wrote to his wife Melinée that he bore no enmity for the German people, and that he wished only happiness for those who might “taste the freedom and peace of tomorrow.” Even after the war, when the question of French patriotism had flipped in favor of the Resistance, individual stories (especially those of non-natives) were often obscured for the sake of a clean ideological line. In Guédiguian’s film, however, the historical imagination is above all empathic.
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