Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows unfolds between two opposing orientations of the will – the desire to live and the readiness to die. For a member of the French Resistance, the desire to live is something to be feared, as it can lead one to betray one’s comrades under harsh interrogation by the Gestapo. To avoid being placed in this situation, the résistant must be prepared either to withstand torture or to take his own life, if he has the opportunity. The traitor, Paul Dounat, who is executed in an early scene in the film, is someone who lacked the nerve to take his own life and turned against the Resistance not out of malice but out of the weakness of his character. The fact that he agrees to the fateful rendez-vous with his comrades that will end with his death implies that he still does not understand what he should have done. It seems not to have occurred to him that he should have tried to end his life when captured, nor does he appear to have grasped that he will pay for his betrayal with his death. This thoughtlessness surfaces when he weeps when he learns that, instead of being put on trial, he is to be killed.
The execution of Dounat shocks us by zeroing in on the reluctance of his captors to kill him – unable to do away with him by gunshot, they are forced to use their bare hands. The trio in the house – Félix, the Mask, and Gerbier – are not hardened killers, and are understandably unsettled by the task before them. The viewer cannot quite believe, along with the Mask, the most troubled of the group, that they will actually go through with strangling the young Dounat. But the mid-point of the film contains a surprise of a wholly different order. Félix has been arrested and is being tortured in a Gestapo prison. While Mathilde, the most inspired and capable member of the group, works out a plan to spring him from his prison cell, Jean-François, who was recruited by Félix to join them, decides to send the Gestapo an anonymous letter denouncing him of being involved in the Resistance. It is hard for us to believe that he is actually putting himself up for arrest, especially after a close-up of the bloodied face of Félix as he sits slumped against the back of a chair in front of the SS commandant’s desk. But Jean-François, though he has to endure the same vicious beatings, succeeds in his plan to be placed in the same room as Félix, so that he may help his friend out of the room when the rescuers arrive. Mathilde, dressed as a German nurse, succeeds in getting her group, sitting in a German truck, past the checkpoint, as the SS guards accept her paperwork requesting the transfer of Félix to Paris as legitimate. The plan however is thwarted when a doctor for the Gestapo discovers that Félix is too badly injured to be moved. As the truck pulls out of the building housing the prisoners, Jean-François removes his cyanide capsule and places it into Félix’s mouth, telling him the lie that he has brought several capsules with him. The film shows no more of Jean-François, who elects not only to give his life for the sake of his friend, but also to suffer an agonizing death at the hands of the SS. Such courage is almost terrifying, and we almost wish that he hadn’t gone to such arduous lengths to help his friend. But what else, if not such fearless sacrifice, deserves to be remembered and honored?
If Dounat appears to have been oblivious to the disposition demanded by his participation in the Resistance, in the case of Mathilde, the most heroic figure in the film, the desire to live exerts a kind of involuntary pull. Mathilde is the one member of the group who is capable of pulling off miracles. She saves Gerbier from the SS prison with smoke grenades that are dropped with perfect timing into the execution room where Gerbier and several other prisoners are forced to run to the opposite wall while the SS fire at them with their machine guns. Several weeks after Gerbier is safely dropped off at a lonely and desolate farmhouse, the chief of the Resistance, Luc Jardie, shows up with the news that Mathilde has been apprehended by the Gestapo. Finding a photograph of her daughter on her person, the SS threaten to send her daughter to a brothel on the Eastern Front unless Mathilde hands over her friends. When two agents, Mask and the killer named Bison, appear, Gerbier decodes their message announcing Mathilde’s capture and then orders the two to kill Mathilde. Bison resists, protesting that they have no right to kill Mathilde after all that she has done for them. “Let her turn us all in,” Bison declares. They are about to come to blows when Jardie surprises them by entering the room. He tells Bison that Mathilde wants them to kill her – she has probably bought time by insisting that she needs to meet up with her associates in order to give the Gestapo correct and up-to-date information. Denied the option of suicide, she is waiting for them to contact her so that they might kill her. Bison is persuaded and he departs with Mask. When Gerbier asks Jardie if he is certain about the truth of his explanation, Jardie replies, “It is possible that my hypothesis is true. But it’s also possible that Mathilde wanted to see her daughter, making it more difficult for her to die – that is what I would like to find out.” Jardie accompanies the group to the rendez-vous point, showing his face to her in a gesture of gratitude for her service and commitment, before Bison guns her down.
The title cards reveal the fates of the four passengers – none of them will survive the war. It is as though in killing Mathilde, they have renounced their own desires to live. The description of Gerbier’s death is particularly haunting, as it is revealed that, placed once again on the execution ground, he chose not to run, realizing that Mathilde is no longer around to bring about a miraculous rescue. Jardie persuades Bison to shoot the person they respect and admire most, but in the end, the obligation to Mathilde that the foot soldier, whose real name is Guillaume Vermersch, insists that they honor is fulfilled another way. Mathilde is the only one who has the ability and talent to save any one of them were he captured, but the men lack her genius, and their tribute takes the form of giving up their own lives as a testament to her memory.
This film about the French Resistance spans the period from October 1942 to February 1943. It has been more than two years since the France fell to the military might of Nazi Germany, and much of the country has become resigned to its fate as a conquered country. Only roughly six hundred individuals carry on the fight against Nazi occupation. Army of Shadows, in focusing on a group of resistance fighters during the darkest months of the Occupation, is divided into ten episodes. In this post I discuss the first three.
1. The Prison Camp
A civil engineer named Philippe Gerbier is being transported by a pair of gendarmes to a prison camp, which had originally been built by the French to house German officers. Gerbier is suspected of being involved in resistance activities. The Commandant of the camp eyes him warily, sensing that Gerbier is an intelligent and capable person with important social connections. He assigns him to a cabin in which a pompous retired colonel, a clueless salesman, and a pedantic pharmacist are being held, along with an earnest young communist, barely out of his teens, and a Catholic teacher who lies ailing on his cot. In voiceover, Gerbier praises the canniness of the Commandant for “sandwiching” him between “three imbeciles and two lost children.” The communist, Legrain, is allowed to work on the electrical switchboards, and, sensing that Gerbier is an important figure in the resistance, he approaches Gerbier with a plan for escape by causing a blackout to give him the opportunity to slip past the guards. But the very next scene has the Commandant and his men show up at the door of the cabin to hand Gerbier over to the Gestapo. The film does not reveal how they got the information, but the audience is led to believe that the prison guards tortured it out of Legrain. Gerbier never sees Legrain again, and the audience is left wondering what happened to the young electrician. But the sudden disappearance of lives, without explanation and without apparent cause, becomes a pattern in the film. What is also noteworthy about this episode is the steady gaze with which the Commandant studies Gerbier when he is first brought into the prison camp. The audience is given access to his thoughts as he weighs whether to treat him leniently or harshly. The Commandant is not seen again after he delivers Gerbier to the Nazis. The intelligence and discernment of the collaborator leaves an unnerving impression, as it reveals that the Nazis are enjoying the benefits of his formidable talents and impressive professionalism.
2. In the Hands of the Gestapo
Gerbier is taken the hotel where the Gestapo have their headquarters. He is brought into a room and seated next to another Frenchman who has been arrested. The two exchange long silent looks, with what looks like anger appearing on the face of the other prisoner. An interminable period, several hours, passes during which the only sounds are that of the switchboard operator routing calls in German. Working late into the night, the operator yawns and stretches his arms. During a brief moment when the guard watching over them speaks to a superior, Gerbier tells his companion that time is running out for them and that he will create a distraction so as to enable the latter to run out of the hotel. In a scene that shocks the viewer with its sudden violence, Gerbier asks the guard for a cigarette, but when the guard makes a gesture to him to sit back down, Gerbier takes out the guard’s knife and stabs him in the throat. The camera lingers over the image of the two in a fatal embrace, as Gerbier seems to be propping up the dying guard’s body when in fact he is thrusting the knife more deeply into his neck. The other prisoner races out of the hotel past two guards with machine guns, who fire in his direction. Gerbier runs in the direction opposite of the guards and, after sprinting down several blocks, enters a barber shop, panting and out of breath. He requests a shave from the surprised barber, and while the razor passes over his face, Gerbier notices with dismay and fear a poster in support of the collaborationist Vichy government on the barber’s wall. The film heightens the tension by cutting between close-ups of Gerbier sitting in the barber’s chair, with his eyes fixed firmly on the barber, and the barber, with a nonchalant expression, lathering and then shaving his face multiple times. Whereas the barber initially greeted Gerbier with a surprised and suspicious look, he now appears wholly absorbed in his task. As the mood turns from suspense to relief, Gerbier rises to pay the man and retrieve his coat. The barber insists on giving him his change, and returns with his own overcoat, which is of a different color from that of Gerbier. The resistance fighter gladly accepts the man’s coat, and walks back out into the darkness.
3. The Execution of the Traitor
The scene following Gerbier’s dramatic escape from Gestapo headquarters begins on a confusing note. In the only instance where the voiceover narration does not belong to any of the characters in the film, the audience is told a certain “Paul Dounat,” who also goes by the name of “Vincent Henry,” has arrived at a courthouse in Marseilles to meet with a fellow member of the resistance organization to which he belongs. He is met by his contact, a middle-aged man named Félix Cachat, who escorts him to a car, in which Philippe Gerbier sits waiting. Dounat, as it turns out, was the one who betrayed Gerbier and several others to the authorities. Gerbier tells Dounat that it is futile for him to protest his innocence as they take him to a rented house in a remote neighborhood. Gerbier, Félix, and Dounat are met by a resistance fighter who goes by the name of the Mask. The Mask prevents Gerbier from executing Dounat with a pistol by revealing that the house next door has become occupied by a family, who are certain to hear the noise of the gunshot. Rather than postpone the execution, Gerbier presses ahead with it, reminding the other two of all the other work they must do for the Resistance. But Félix and the Mask are shocked when Gerbier decides to have Dounat strangled.
This scene is one of the most powerful in the film, and perhaps unique in world cinema, for it reveals that almost every other film about killing is pornographic. None of the three men want to go through with the killing. When the Mask, reeling from the shock, tells Gerbier that he has never done anything like this before, Gerbier forcefully tells him that such an action is new for him and Félix as well. Félix, who had maintained a Stoic facade about the “dirty job” they have to do, throws a look of shock at Gerbier when the latter gives the order to kill Dounat with their bare hands. Grabbing the sobbing Dounat by the limbs, Gerbier looks directly into the eyes of the young traitor, while the Mask faces downward in anguish. A sickened look passes over the face of Félix while he uses a cloth to strangle Dounat. Tears stream from the young man’s face as he dies, as it becomes clear that he betrayed his comrades not out of malice but out of fear and weakness. What Dounat had been too weak to do was to commit suicide when he was captured by the Gestapo.