tue 17/09/2019

Army of Crime, Cambridge Film Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Army of Crime, Cambridge Film Festival

Army of Crime, Cambridge Film Festival

Notes from the French underground

A wave of recent movies has wrestled with this question in a very broad swathe of contexts. They include Flame and Citron (Danish underground fighters in World War Two); The Baader Meinhof Complex (German anarchists in the Sixties); Hunger (the Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981) and Paradise Now (suicide bombers in contemporary Palestine).

You might think this a purely post 9/11 phenomenon. Not so: such moral ambiguity has always exercised film-makers. It informs two of the very greatest movies of the 1960s, indeed of all time. In Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers (1966), both the Algerian liberation fighters and their French colonial opponents are equally charismatic, equally justified. And, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, the master of the French policier, The Army in the Shadows (1969) has its melancholy World War Two Resistance fighters cruising around like gangsters in trenchcoats and black limousines, their morals profoundly, necessarily, tragically compromised.

By contrast Army of Crime (whose title most unwisely involves Melville's great movie) looks dated and pedantic. Its hero is the real-life figure of Missak Manouchian, a poet of Armenian descent who reluctantly agrees to become a man of action and head up a cell of dissidents, where he tries to knock his motley crew of hotheads, weak links and loose cannons into an efficient army.

Deeds of heroism are done, acts of treachery committed; there is a red-headed Mata Hari and sneering, pock-marked Nazis. Guédiguian, who is half-German and half-Armenian, is in an extraordinary position to apply a new take to this material, and so it's especially disappointing that the Germans are almost all bad guys from central casting.

There are two interesting elements in Army of Crime. One is the way it shows the rich mix of cultures that powered the Resistance. Spanish Civil War Republicans and Italian Communists, Jews from Hungary, Poland and other East European countries and, of course, Armenians (Manouchian has an educational little speech in which he reminds us that his nation, too, had its Holocaust). These immigrants gave their lives for France, a nation which had, under Marshal Pétain, carelessly abdicated its own pride and identity.

The other striking feature is Guédiguian's use of sound: Jewish and Armenian folk music, not the usual period ditties, and radio clips instead of archive films like every other World War Two movie - rather showing footage from the loathsome anti Semitic documentary The Eternal Jew (a strategy which would in any case have been problematic) he has an oral description of it. It might be the film's most understated aspect but the most haunting thing about Army of Crime are those oily, disembodied voices urging hatred from the ether.

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