Bright Lights Film Journal

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows

“Whether alone or with others, you live with yourself.”

Like Jean-Pierre Melville, Albert Camus was a young man active in the French Resistance, during which he wrote editorials for the clandestine newspaper Combat. It was during that period, too, that Camus wrote the first of what were, after the war, published as his Letters to a German Friend. In them, Camus explained to his onetime friend what had made the French slow to oppose the Nazi onslaught. The German, in the full flower of his Nazi faith, was happily committed to what Goebbels called “total war.” Ironically for Camus, that made German military success a lesser accomplishment than the one he asserted the French, and all free people, would ultimately win, for “[i]t is a great deal,” he wrote, “… to accept losing everything while still preferring happiness.”1 What the French who resisted the Germans did was greater than what the Germans did, because their resistance arose out of no faith that imbued their violence with any inherent value. Rather: “[W]e had to draw on ourselves.”2 Such is the “army of shadows” of Melville’s film of that name, his late, great testament to the sacrifices of the men and women who fought in the Resistance during the Second World War. Released in France in 1969 to a mixed response (the French were then, post 1968, and with Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity that same year, engaged in much ambivalent soul searching about the breadth of the Resistance) the film has never been released in the U.S., until now, in a 35mm restoration supervised by its cinematographer Pierre Lhomme.

Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s contemporaneous 1943 novel of the same title, Melville’s film, though almost documentary in its emotional restraint, is no historical documentary. Melville called Kessel’s work, “the book about the Resistance: the greatest and the most comprehensive of all the documents about this tragic time in the history of humanity.” Yet, said Melville, “I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance. So with one exception — the German occupation — I excluded all realism.”3 This is odd, since elsewhere Melville makes plain that he had wanted to make the film ever since the war ended, that his own experience in the Resistance was a profound influence on his life, and that the film’s characters have their inspiration in many actual figures of the movement.4 What could Melville have meant when he said the film was not about the Resistance? What, then, did he imagine the film to be about?

One of the reasons for the filmmaker’s popularity among cineastes is his characters’ commitment, as characters, to the conventions, or world, of the genres they inhabit: “A man has no choice; if he’s in a gangster picture, he looks a certain way, behaves a certain way, and dies a certain way. Genre is destiny — and ethics”: one might call it “genre existentialism.”5 Interestingly, however, Army of Shadows (L’Armeé des ombres in the French) receives only minor attention in such discussions. This may be in part because it is a late film, in part because atypical in genre for Melville, and in part, most of all, because the film was only recently released in the U.S. Yet it is in Army of Shadows that Melville’s “genre existentialism” converges with the real thing.

Melville’s gangster films, through the expressive constraints of their genre, offer us existentialism as an aesthetic function: style as a moral position — in Bob Le Flambeur, for instance, in the cool reaction to betrayal, professional or romantic. Michael Mann, for one, in films such as Thief and Heat, has attempted to extend this stylistic stance into darker terrain, by substituting for Bob’s smooth cool the intense cool of those who do not so much masque the presence of feeling as refuse to reveal what it is that they feel. But emotion doesn’t, as the cliché has it, smolder; it chokes them, stops them up, is barely utterable, or it blows the top off. The dramatic implication has always been, in the inarticulable feeling, that it is somehow more profound, qualitatively deeper than the expressed emotion because literally deeper, inaccessible to the surface — the mystery of the hidden conferring magnitude, as if, in causal inversion, an iceberg’s underside is larger by virtue of its being concealed. Thus, feeling is an inexpressive constraint, as generic convention is a constraint, as the brute facticity of existence is a constraint, against all of which the individual endeavors to assert a self that is not merely a reductive consequence of these determinants. This is the existential condition of both Melville’s and Mann’s characters, though in contrast to Melville’s discursive reticence, Mann’s films — you can’t choke unless you’re trying to breathe — are nearly thirtysomething voluble.

Mann’s characters, as well, confront not just the demands of genre, but of the real world: what does an actual criminal do, for instance, as in Thief, when his enemy turns what he loves, and the meaning of his life, including his hope for the future, into a weapon against him? Why, he removes those things, so that there is no love, no meaning, no future. Just the individual purposed against the now, against circumstance. There is nothing else. But in Army of Shadows, this has already happened before the film begins. With two exceptions, one of them glaring and fatal, all of the characters have already, when we meet them, passed through their decisive and penultimate moment. War and oppressive, murderous occupation had come, in a manner previously unimaginable, the ultimate challenge to the course and very fact of one’s life having arrived unsought. People make choices then. One may cower and hope to survive. Another may cry pitiably. Others think, “This is it.” Now, life is what it is. There is no future. There is only what I do now. And if there is hope, it exists only in the act itself, because hope is for the future, and there is no future for me other than in the acts I perform. And even if there is no hope, I cannot be another way. This is what the passengers on United 93 decided. Camus said in his Nobel acceptance speech that he wrote for “those silent men, who throughout the world, endure the life that has been made for them.”6 But endurance does not mean passivity; it means accepting the demands of the world as you find it. And if the world as you find it demands of you — as you discover yourself, only then, to be — that you resist it, then that is what you do, and that is now your life. Indeed, what Melville made is not a film about the French Resistance, beneath all the obvious ways in which it is, but a film about resistance, and resistance not as a political act, but as an existential act.

In Army of Shadows, the characters not only have no future, but virtually no past. Those aspects of the past that do intrude are like sightings of the iceberg tip in the Titanic night, wondrous and beautiful, sustained in memory, and cataclysmic. One person was a civil engineer, another a soldier, a housewife, a logician. Lino Ventura’s impressively purposeful Philippe Gerbier, the engineer, speaks nothing of his past, indeed, seems not to think of it. He doesn’t talk of the future. The exigencies of the war and the present moment consume all of his concentration. There is the mission at hand. Then there is the next mission. There is just and necessary retribution to be meted out for betrayal. There is his or another’s life to be saved. Wherever Gerbier goes in his calm and deliberate manner, especially if he has been captured or there is the threat of capture, his eyes immediately and cautiously seek out the exits, a path of escape. And then he runs, he runs for his life in the most frighteningly unmelodramatic way, without music, on dark, empty streets, silent but for the sound of distant shots and the pavement slap of his own rapid footsteps. They are lonely streets, as is, in extremity, the matter of one’s own life and death. When Gerbier ducks into a barbershop, the roused barber shaves him in silence. There is praise of Petain on the wall in front of Gerbier: the barber appears a Vichy sympathizer. Wary eyes look back and forth. Then the shave is over, and the barber insists on providing change for Gerbier’s payment. He brings with it an overcoat to exchange with his customer, to better escape detection. It’s the best I have, are his only words. Gerbier nods his thanks.

Every stranger is a friend or foe, every friend by necessity a stranger, or it could kill you, and you never know for sure until the moment it may be too late.

There is no courage. The decision to die if necessary has already been made, so there is no playing it safe, merely not as a fool. There is only what needs to be done, if you have the wits and the daring to do it. Where do these qualities come from in people whose lives in no way prepared them? There is no answer, except that circumstance may demand it, and these people met the demand. Their bond is what they believe in, and what they are willing to do it for it, though there is talk of neither. Otherwise they know little of each other, and everyone else, who will have cause to thank them, will know even less. Felix (Paul Crauchet) and Jean François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) are two exceptions. They knew each as fellow pilots, and it is Felix who recruits Jean François into the Resistance. (Yet Jean François himself doesn’t even know that it is his refined, intellectual brother, Luc Jardie, a logician, who is “the chief” of the resistance operation to which he belongs, and of which Gerbier is the operational leader.) When Felix is captured by the Gestapo and tortured, an audacious operation to rescue him is launched and fails. Jean François, anticipating its failure, backs out of the operation in a letter in which he feigns a lack of courage and declares his intention to disappear in shame. At the same time, he fakes a letter to the Gestapo in which he anonymously exposes himself as a member of the resistance. The plan: to be arrested and jailed with Felix, so that he can deliver to his old friend the cyanide pill that will end his pain. Jean François, who is tortured himself, has only one pill.

None of Jean François’s colleagues, who are mystified by his desertion, know of his sacrifice, or will ever know. No one will ever know. Resistance against tyranny, Melville tells us, is not a glorious or romantic enterprise. It is not entered into for reward or recognition, which for most people, in most cases, will not come. Nor, as Camus said of his commitment to the powerless, is it entered into “through virtue…but through a sort of almost organic intolerance, which you feel or do not feel.”7

Resistance is lonely. Friendship is dangerous. Family is dangerous. Knowledge and the unburdened mind or heart are dangerous. Whether alone or with others, you live with yourself. This is why the emblematic image of the film is of a lone man, Felix or Jean François, tied to a chair in the middle of a room for interrogation and torture. In the end, you are alone, and you must know that.

No one lives with himself alone better than Gerbier, with the possible exception of Mathilde (Simone Signoret) the housewife who comes to match him in daring and calm. Their unspoken estimation of each other’s worth is the closest they can come to what in other times might have come to more. Indeed, Mathilde cannot quite match Gerbier in his suppression of an emotional life, though he has, himself, the slenderest of moments. In London on a secret mission, steady as he is, he is momentarily startled by an evening blitz, so different from his own dangerous encounters. For cover, he slips into a small nightclub, where despite the bombing and the falling ceiling dust, young British and American soldiers continue to dance and drink with their girlfriends, to look at each other with sad longing. Gerbier is only just visibly touched by this vision of brave endurance and normality. It is a moment that will stay with him, as will his walk in the woods with Mathilde, in which they talk of nothing but business and offer no look or gesture. But their admiration for each other, and the connection it affords, is in the air.

The second time Gerbier is captured, the SS line him and seven others up at one end of a very long tunnel. (The first thing Gerbier does on entering the tunnel is look down to the light at the other end for his means of escape.) The SS officer cruelly informs the Frenchmen that they will be given a chance to run to the other end of the tunnel before the machine guns open up. Anyone who reaches the far wall will have escaped execution — and be brought back to the tunnel the next day with another group. We learn, through the voice over that the film uses sparingly, that Gerbier, sensing he has finally reached the end of his line, without means of escape, is determined not to run. He is determined not give the Nazi’s satisfaction, but to stand his ground and make his death his own. What flashes through his mind then is the scene in the London nightclub, and the poignant faces of one young couple. Then there is a vision of Mathilde and him in the woods, what little bit of life and feeling he has allowed himself returning to remind him of why it is we live and fight. On the command, all run but Gerbier and one other man. Then, at a shot, the other man runs too, leaving Gerbier alone before the machine guns. The officer shouts at him, shoots at his feet. Shoots again. And against his will, Gerbier takes off. What follows is a stunning, almost miraculous rescue and escape engineered by Mathilde near the far end of the tunnel. As they race off in a getaway car, Gerbier, in the backseat with Mathilde, is more distressed than relieved. What if he hadn’t run? he asks. What disturbs him immeasurably — a man combating not only the Nazi’s, but circumstance and the world, in determining how he will live and die in it — is that his compatriots, no less than the Germans, knew he would run. Mathilde reaches to hold his hand, which he opens to her, in the film’s most tender moment. As strong as Gerbier has made himself, he has found himself human.

Gerbier is brought to a remote, rural apartment, where he hides out in darkness and the grey light that pervades the film even during the day. He is alone for a month. He writes, and he thumbs five volumes of logic — one on set theory — written by Luc Jardie before the war. They sustain him, he says — his devotion to the chief the focus of his devotion to the cause for which he fights, the books a symbol of that more just and ordered world for which we can always hope. “Nothing is given to men,” Camus wrote in the August 25, 1944 issue of Combat, echoing his Myth of Sisyphus on the day the Germans surrendered Paris to the Allies, “and the little they can conquer is paid for with unjust deaths. But man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition.”8

By the war’s end, in tragic and human ways — against Gerbier’s advice, Mathilde did not remove the photo of her daughter in her wallet — every character in Army of Shadows has been killed: Felix, Jean François, the chief, Mathilde, Gerbier. The chief, under torture, would reveal only one name — his own. Gerbier, we are told, chose, finally, to stop running. Melville said that he based Gerbier on several real people, and Luc Jardie, the chief, in part on Jean Moulin, who was charged by De Gaulle in 1943 with uniting the major resistance movements into what became known as the Maquis. However, Moulin seems to have been an inspiration for Gerbier too. Both the latter’s nighttime parachute drop back into France after a mission to London, and his ever present scarf (which Moulin wore to cover the scar from a suicide attempt the first time the Germans captured him) are drawn from the great Resistance leader, who was tortured to death by Klaus Barbie.

In obvious ways then, Army of Shadows is very much Melville’s film about the French Resistance. Yet he argued that other than the inclusion of the German occupation, the film was not realistic, by which I believe he meant not specifically about the Second World War. There is no talk of politics, of ideas, of various factions, or the world situation. It is a film about human beings in existential extremity. It is a film about resistance to oppression, not in the modern, political sense, but in a fundamental human sense. It is a film about the struggle to be human in a fundamental existential sense. That the film does homage to what we will recognize as the resistant heroes of a very specific political situation and time should argue without question its belief in the ideals for which those individuals fought, and against such corruptions of the spirit and the human idea as they gave their lives to oppose. We live in an age when political and moral values are often sophistically reduced to their principled forms, from which have been ideologically subtracted the substance of those forms, which confers upon them in the first place their worth — the elevation, for instance, of resistance in itself as a virtue, in casuistic disregard of those ideas and values of which the resistance is in support.

Army of Shadows does none of this. At once, it honors the elemental condition of our human existence and the sacrifices and values represented by the historical era to which it refers us. It is a film, like the people who inspired it, both masterful and noble.

  1. Albert Camus, “First Letter,” reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. Justin O’Brien, (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 6-7. []
  2. Camus, “First Letter,” 7. []
  3. Rui Nogueira, Melville on Melville, (New York: The Viking Press, 1971), translation revised and annotated by Bruce Goldstein (2005); quoted here (accessed May, 26 2006). []
  4. Nogueira, passim. []
  5. Stephen Schiff, “Bob le Flambeur (1955),” Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, ed. Kathy Schulz Huffhines, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991), 186; quoted in Adrian Danks, “Together Alone: The Outsider Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville,”Senses of Cinema, no. 22 (Sep.-Oct. 2002), (accessed May, 25 2006). []
  6. Albert Camus, “Nobel Banquet Speech,” (Stockholm, Sweden, December 10, 1957), quoted in Introduction to Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, v. []
  7. Albert Camus, “The Artist and His Time,” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), 150. []
  8. Albert Camus, reprinted as “The Night of Truth” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, 39. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Op cit, 90, Camus writes, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” []