Army of Shadows, (L’Armée des Ombres), 1969, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, with Lino Ventura.
In French, with English subtitles. Available on DVD
At Yale University in the early sixties, Stanley Milgram, doubting that Germans were different from other human beings, invited members of the American public to take part in experiments at Yale University. In the interests of scientific research, they were asked to send electric shocks of increasing voltage to someone who had given the wrong answer to a memory test. Although the test subject screamed with apparent pain, the great majority of experimenters did not stop, and eventually sent shocks of 450 volts- potentially lethal. The authority figure in these experiments was not a concentration camp commander, but a scientist in a white coat. What does this tell us about human beings?
It was said of the film “The Army of Shadows” that it introduced the codes of French gangster films to the sentimental heroics of the French Resistance, so it is just possible to say- without being impossibly politically incorrect- that the film is about a gang of resistance fighters. The leader of the gang- who has a mask of tension which never changes- commands absolute obedience from those under him. Quite early in the film he orders the murder- by strangling, in order not to be heard- of a man suspected of being an informer. The members of the gang obey- the murder is carried out. We then follow their fortunes as some are imprisoned, and, in some cases make extraordinary escapes, without ever feeling with them or feeling them to be human.. “Brave”, committed, resolute, unquestioningly obedient….until, near the end, they are ordered to murder their second in command, who had been caught and then released and might lead the Nazis to the gang. They obey the order- they shoot her down in the street.
The film is regarded as the Director’s tribute to the Resistance. Tribute? No doubt, had the murderers been put on trial, they would have said that they were merely obeying orders.
This film, for reasons different from those of its director, might be included in the list of Great Films of War, because it shows the effect of war on how we manifest towards other human beings.