With the images from Robert Guediguian’s Army of Crime recurring in my dreams several weeks after I first saw it, it is time to write a review.
Guediguian, son of a German mother and an Armenian father, is best known for his gritty films depicting working class and immigrant life in Marseille, where he was born in 1953.
He grew up hearing the story of Manouchian the Armenian, one of the principal characters in Army of Crime. So it is perhaps not surprising that he turned his gaze on the wartime French underground movement, a group of foreign partisans which became known as the Army of Crime.
The film opens with dozens of prisoners being carted to their execution in 1944, while a voice on the soundtrack reads out a long list of names each followed by: “Mort pour la France.” What is striking is that hardly any of the names are French.
Then we go back a few years to June 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. It turns out most of the characters – Poles, Italians, Hungarians, Armenians and others – live in the same street in sunny Paris where they go about their everyday lives. Several of them are Jewish.
Despite the sombre subject matter, the film is brightly lit to reflect the “light that only these young people glimpse in a world going through the darkest period of its history”, Guediguian has said.
We see Missak Manouchian, an Armenian poet who is married to a Frenchwoman, get arrested as a suspected communist and released again after denying his political affiliations. He is then recruited to lead a cell of the communist resistance group FTP-MOI, which is made up of immigrant workers.
He persuades several youngsters – many are under 20 – to abandon their guerrilla activities, including the young Hungarian communist and idealist Thomas Elek, and the Polish Jew Marcel Rayman who after his father’s deportation starts shooting German officers in the street (having approached them under the pretext of wanting a light). They join Manouchian’s resistance group and we see how it develops into a potent force, led by a man who is initially reluctant to kill. At regular intervals, we hear pro-Nazi propaganda broadcasts from the Vichy regime.
There are some humorous moments when one of the young resistants can’t bring himself to blow up a brothel frequented by German soldiers because there are too many young, pretty girls. He drops the pin of the grenade in the street and the group spend a long time looking for it, before replacing it with a pin from Manouchian’s wife’s sewing kit.
Inevitably, the group is betrayed by a French concierge and Marcel’s Jewish girl-friend Monique, who tries in vain to help her deported parents by sleeping with a local French police inspector, who gets promoted for uncovering the group. The partisans undergo unspeakable torture but, apart from one leader, give nothing away. At the end, before they face the firing squad, they are paraded to be photographed for the Affiche Rouge, the red poster that denounced them as an Army of Crime.
I later found out that the only woman in the group, the Romanian communist Olga Bancic, was deported to Stuttgart and beheaded with an axe, because of a French law that banned female executions on French soil.
Convincingly played by its large, young cast, the film delivers a gripping account of a true story and reminds us of the apathy or even collaborationist stance of many French people during the German occupation. The writer-director says he can’t make a film that doesn’t stem from a vision of the world, a moral that needs passing on. He has created a powerful film to achieve this, and the images still linger in my mind.