Army of Crime may suffer from the usual inadequacies and questionable strategies of WWII-era films (an over-reliance on elements of conventional melodrama, a brownish, nostalgic color scheme) which serve to normalize the historical situation and make it seem, well, historical, but unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, objectively superior from a cinematic standpoint, Robert Guédiguian’s French resistance drama evinces some interest in assessing the ethical compromises required of those opposing Nazi rule. Working against a broad canvas, Guédiguian calls into question both the moral efficacy of revenge (thus working counter to Tarantino’s gleeful Nazi killing) and considers the lure of limited personal collaboration with the enemy. Unfortunately, neither of these issues is treated with the depth made possible by the film’s extended scope, both instead simplified and shuttled to the margins to pave the way for the movie’s inevitable martyr-reverencing conclusion.
Opening by presenting interweaving portraits of a varied group of anti-fascists living in occupied France in the early part of the war, Army of Crime brings together this disparate bunch around the midway point of the film when they finally trade their individual acts of resistance for more official activity as part of an organized underground unit. Led by Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), an Armenian poet whose hatred of injustice stems from the slaughter of his family years earlier by the Turks, the team also includes the fiery young swim champion Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stévenin), who’s given to shooting German soldiers on the street in revenge for his deported father, and Thomas Elek (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), a young Communist who makes his mark exploding a bomb hidden in a copy of Das Kapital in a fascist bookstore. The film’s strategy of introducing these characters first before bringing them together as a group helps establish their individual motives for fighting, useful for spelling out later moral crises, and it’s probably also necessary in order to differentiate between what becomes a large number of figures, but despite the little quirks with which Guédiguian endows his characters, he fails to elevate them above a fairly stock and uninteresting gallery of participants.
These characters are chiefly defined by their attitudes toward their resistance work and, from that perspective, Manouchian immediately stands out, marked by his reluctance to kill. As he tells his wife, “I always felt revenge was an awful idea,” thus calling into question the propriety of shooting German soldiers and French collaborators, a moral inquiry that should stand at the heart of the film. But after making his first kill, a grenade attack on a small band of SS men, the leader never has any future misgivings about violence. (The presentation of the act, a clumsily intercut bit of impressionism that juxtaposes the soldiers marching and Manouchian’s troubled face with an old photo of the Armenian’s murdered relative, suggests the facile motivation for his sudden penchant for violence.) “You can’t turn back,” he explains, and as if to prove it, he later reprimands one of his fighters for refusing to throw a grenade into a party because he had qualms about killing women.
Similarly, thorny ethical questions arise surrounding the level of compromise permitted the free French in their relations with the Germans and their Gallic allies. Among his extended cast of characters, Guédiguian concocts a whole range of responses, ranging from total non-compromise (the majority of the resistance fighters) to wholesale squealing (a captured resistance officer). But even Manouchian is not above judgment. After being arrested early on in the film for his alleged communist ties, the Armenian signs a paper denouncing communism, an act that haunts him for the rest of his film since he’s constantly reminded of his fellow prisoners who refused to sign and were killed. A more involved ethical compromise involves a series of scenes with Marcel Raymon’s girlfriend, Monique (Lola Naymark), a young Jewish girl whose parents have been deported. Spurred on by spurious promises of contact with her family and, later, the release of her arrested boyfriend, she engages in sex acts with a slimy French police investigator, a narrative setup that brings home the sense of erotic degradation involved in fascism, but one that plays out as unnecessarily sleazy, alternately disgusting and disgustingly titillating.
But whatever their compromises, most of the characters—particularly the resistance fighters themselves—are completely pure in their actions, refusing to talk even under heavy torture. Unlike other “tasteful” WWII films, Army of Crime doesn’t soft peddle the torture, depicting the graphic results of a blowtorch applied to a man’s stomach and suggesting contemporary parallels by showing the “terrorists” (as they’re labeled in the French press) being subjected to drowning torture. But despite the film’s occasional bits of tough-mindedness and the occasional thrills provided by violent resistance activity (itself somewhat morally problematic), Guédiguian is chiefly concerned with providing a relatively non-compromising depiction of heroic martyrs that we can safely cheer on from a comfortable historical distance of nearly 70 years.
The closing sequence in which the captured resistance members remain defiant as they’re paraded in front of the press while, in an echo of the opening scene, an off-screen voice recites their names, is all too emblematic of the film’s penchant for melodramatic excess. This mode of filmmaking, which involves frequent recourse to swirling strings and heroic slow-motion whenever the film veers too close to moral ambiguity, dictates both our attitude toward the men and our temporal removal from the circumstances being depicted, suggesting the work of a director more interested in sentimentalizing history than in analyzing it.