At a crucial point in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 ode to the French Resistance, Army of Shadows (L'armée des Ombres), his hero, Gerbier (played with a sober, contemplative gait by Lino Ventura), has been captured by the Nazis and is marked for execution. In a twist of cruelty, the Germans line up their prisoners and tell them to run. If they can reach the far wall of the rather large room they are in, they will live to be shot a different day. If they are gunned down before they get to the other side, well, c'est la vie.
When the head Nazi starts the race, Gerbier is convinced he will not run, but once the bullets begin to fly, his legs start pumping and he's beating feet just like the rest of them. He's not happy with himself for doing so, but it's not out of any self-loathing or recriminations for being a coward. What bothers him is that everyone thought he would run, and they turned out to be right. How did they know?
There is not a lot of self-reflection in Army of Shadows. Melville, who also adapted the screenplay from a novel by Joseph Kessel, doesn't spend much time building up his heroes or explaining the mechanics of the resistance movement. By the time he plops us down into the middle of the campaign to liberate France from the Nazi invaders, the action is already underway. So, this scene comes off less as an object lesson in German cruelty and more as an existential parable. Why indeed would they think Gerbier would run from their gunfire? It's a stand-in for the bigger question: why did they think the French would lay down and die? Gerbier's run for self-preservation is a sprint for his country.
As portraits of patriotism go, Army of Shadows is a strange, wonderful beast. There are no rah-rah moments where defiant Frenchmen stand and wave the French flag and sing "La Marseillaise." To speak is a sin. You can be locked up just for publicly referring to a Nazi official as a "jackass." Instead, the men and women who work with Gerbier operate as a silent pocket universe, separate from the rest of France, and even separate from the rest of the Resistance movement. It is implied that there is a more extensive network of freedom fighters--and indeed, they even have a great leader who unites them all (Paul Meurisse)--but any contact we see between this group and their comrades is rare. They exist out of time, out of space.
Really, Melville infuses his entire film with this surreal, almost Kafka-esque quality. The movie proper opens with Gerbier in the back of a truck, being driven out to a remote, countryside prison. Were you to stumble into Army of Shadows with no context, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a No Exit-style tale about lost men in a nonexistent world, prisoners of a made-up war. The gendarme that escorts Gerbier even refers to it as the "Phony War," a rarely used term for the German takeover. None of it feels quite real.
Which is Melville's stroke of genius. He doesn't let Army of Shadows get tangled up in the larger picture. Rather, his film is about a handful of people, how individuals refused to accept fate and instead chose to run. At times, their efforts seem futile, like spitting into the ocean. Gerbier and crew don't blow up Gestapo headquarters, we don't see them liberate rations from supply trucks. Really, we end up seeing them simply avoiding getting caught more than anything. Like Robert De Niro's secret agents in The Good Shepherd, after a while they start to appear like they are doing what they are doing just to be doing it, an organization feeding on itself just as it perpetuates its own reason for being. But that's the true existential conflict, the mark of the philosophical warrior, to keep acting--because not to act, not to run, equals death. For instance, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), one of Gerbier's top agents, makes the ultimate sacrificial gesture, and he does so knowing full well that no one will know he has done it. He even obscures the action himself, throwing a curtain over it by making his cohorts think he's chickened out.
It's rare to see a celebration of stoicism that remains stoic right to the end, but Melville is praising the sacrifice of people who did what they did with no expectation of praise. The full price of that sacrifice is apparent in the carefully chosen moments when they have to accept actions they would have never undertaken were circumstances different, such as Gerbier having to conduct his first murder of a traitor (and how much more easy it is later), or the excellent Simone Signoret, playing the formidable Mathilde, seeing her resolution coming and knowing that this time it's better if she doesn't run. The conclusion of Army of Shadows is fatalistic and almost melancholy, and yet Melville and his characters clench their jaws for it, never crumbling. Anything less, though, and we wouldn't understand the full consequence. In these moments, in the crisis of conscious Gerbier experiences after the Nazi death game, everyone must ask how far they would go, and if sometimes going too far means coming full circle and betraying your own ideals. Only then, when you keep pushing despite the doubts, is true heroism achieved, be it heroic or not. It's the director's final tribute, staying true to the strength that kept his countrymen going.
Originally written May 15, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.