Director: Robert Guédiguian
Writers: Serge Le Péron, Robert Guédiguian, Gilles Taurand
French Title: “L’armée du crime”
In Paris 1943, the Nazi occupation tried its hardest to maintain a veil of social peace. No, fuck that, let me be more specific: they tried to maintain actual social peace. And the French cops, being cops, tried their hardest alongside the occupiers.
Army of Crime is a film about criminals — heroic criminals fighting against a Nazi occupation, but criminals nonetheless. Army of Crime follows the Manouchian Group, a network of about fifty armed anti-fascist, communist, and/or Jewish immigrants who committed sabotage, murder, and bombings by the score. In real life, their round-up, trial, and execution — along with the Nazi propaganda efforts to label them as foreign devils — is referred to as the Affiche Rouge (red poster) affair. The propaganda efforts largely backfired: the 23 dead communists became martyrs. And the Allies liberated France soon after their deaths regardless.
The film is about a group of rabble-rousing, bomb-throwing immigrant communists dead set on breaking the peace imposed upon France by the Nazi regime. And it’s lovely.
But the film isn’t about their post-mortem valorization, and it isn’t about the liberation of France. It’s about a group of rabble-rousing, bomb-throwing immigrant communists dead set on breaking the peace imposed upon France by the Nazi regime. And it’s lovely.
“Paris is so peaceful,” says Missak Manouchian, the closest the film has to a protagonist. He then goes on to describe the new nerve gas employed by the occupying force. And this sets the tone for the film — social peace is at the cost of liberty and lives. In a series of well-acted scenes, Missak makes the transformation from pacifist to partisan, grenading a Nazi patrol and accepting the weight this put upon his soul.
In history, it turns out that less than 100 fighters committed nearly every act of partisan violence in Paris during the occupation. More than half of them were the anti-fascist immigrants depicted in this film. While most post-war films about partisan resistance to the occupation focus on a sense of a united France, Army of Crime doesn’t shy away from depicting the social isolation of the partisans, nor from depicting the French informants and the peacekeeping role of the local French police.
It is a collective film about collective action, one that refuses to center even the group’s namesake and leader as the sole hero.
I’d say this is a working-class communist film. The film itself very much glorifies communist partisans while taking well-deserved potshots at party communism — again and again, the higher ups in the communist resistance stifle the group’s movements and plans and autonomy. And while some reviewers lambast the film for featuring so many characters as equals on the screen, interweaving numerous points of view rather than focusing on one point-of-view character, I argue this was to the film’s credit. We have simple, moving portraits of numerous families, each resisting in their way. It is a collective film about collective action, one that refuses to center even the group’s namesake and leader as the sole hero.
As a moviegoer, I’m so used to seeing token sympathetic cops in movies like this that when they bring a French detective to the foreground during his roundup of Jews, I expected him to turn on the Nazi occupiers. Instead, he is the truest antagonist of the film. The police exist to impose peace. And peace protects the repressive social order. That is the moral of this film. And for that, I love it.