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.