Army of Crime (Lorber Films, NR)

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The film’s title expresses the official attitude of the occupied French toward these resistance fighters; they were criminals who interfered with the smooth operation of occupied Paris.

 
 
Army of Crime is set in Paris during the German Occupation and focuses on a band of French resistance fighters led by the Armenian émigré poet Missak Manouchian. I mention these details up front because your enjoyment of this movie will have a lot to do with whether it is the kind of movie you want to see. It will help if you have some interest in the historical events portrayed, but you also need to be open to the approach taken by director Robert Guediguian. He’s not trying to provide the modern Hollywood take on this story (not enough action or movie stars recognizable to Americans) nor is he taking the individual-to-the-point-of-eccentricity approach of, say, Quentin Tarantino (no cartoonish wish-fulfillment episodes). Instead Guediguian, working with a screenplay by Serge Le Peron and Gilles Taurand, gives the good old-fashioned epic treatment to an important chapter of history.
So what do we have the right to expect from a historical epic? First of all, it should be a grand movie in both themes and scope (check) that sets the human-scale stories of individual characters within a broad historical drama (check). It should be planted with nuggets of historical detail (check) and be presented with a first-rate technical package including period-appropriate production design and costumes (check). It also helps if good and evil are clearly demarcated (check), but individual characters are also seen to struggle with issues of ethics and morality—in particular, whether they should adjust their judgment on such matters based on the unprecedented circumstances in which they find themselves (check).
There have been many films about resistance fighters during World War II, but Army of Crime offers something a little different. Guediguian’s particular line of interest is the complicity of ordinary French people—from the police officers of Paris who explicitly collaborate with the occupying German army to the concierge who denounces her tenants to the authorities—and how quickly they closed ranks against those they considered not truly French. This category included both Jews and “foreigners,” the latter encompassing not only recently immigrants but also anyone with a foreign surname or heritage. The film’s title expresses the official attitude of the occupied French toward these resistance fighters; they were criminals who interfered with the smooth operation of occupied Paris.
Historical epics are seldom noted for their subtlety, and Army of Crime is no exception. It’s useful to think of it as a parable drawing on the conventions of the epic film in order to illustrate a point of view; in this case, that the truest subscribers to the French ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were not the native-born French but the émigrés and their offspring who believed such values were truly worth dying for. This point is underlined from the first as we hear a roll call of those who “died for France” bearing names that are Italian, Jewish, Hungarian—anything but French.
Many scenes in Army of Crime serve an expository purpose. Take an early scene in which a Jewish mother says her family has nothing to fear because 1) France is the land of freedom, 2) their papers are in order and 3) Dad knows someone at City Hall. Any guesses as to how that worked out for them? Or take an early instance of anti-Semitic harassment, followed up with a scene in which a school principal assures the victim that “this place is neutral,” so he should refrain from political expressions on campus. We even get to see a police supervisor instructing his men to cooperate fully with the German army in the effort to hunt down “foreign terrorists.”
These scenes would be problematic if Army of Crime was meant to be a naturalistic film, but it’s clearly not aiming for that goal (epics seldom do). By its own standards it succeeds very well and offers considerable food for thought about France’s attitude toward the non-French (by racial/ethnic definition) who form so large a part of contemporary French society. Among the stories woven into its tapestry are that of Armenian poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) and his wife Melinee (Virginie Ledoyen), the Jewish swimmer/assassin Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stevenin), the Hungarian émigré Thomas Elek (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and the Polish communist Henri Krasucki (Adrien Jolivet). There are a lot of family members as well, but despite the large cast it’s never a problem to keep the storyline straight. This is in part because the score by Alexandre Desplat helpfully tags the major characters with ethnically-appropriate music (and for scenes of martyrdom he uses Bach’s St. Matthew Passion).
There are plenty of historical breadcrumbs dropped in the script. Early on we hear a review of the Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew: it’s the film that likens Jews to rats spreading disease through Europe). Later, the camera zeroes in on a biography of General Petain in a bookstore, and a photograph of him is used by our heroes for target practice. One of the characters finds a truly revolutionary purpose for a volume of Das Capital, and the screenplay helpfully lets us know it was published in Fraktur. Like the explicitly expository scenes, these are part of the genre conventions and, as such, do their work effectively.
At over two hours in length, Army of Crime may try the patience of people uninterested in its subject or accustomed to the faster pace of commercial American movies. However, those who are willing and able to immerse themselves in the experience it offers will find themselves amply rewarded. | Sarah Boslaugh
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