>Criterion Collection: Army of Shadows (1969)

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Happy New Year, everyone. I’m going through these at a slower clip than I first anticipated, and I’m realizing there’s fun to be had in trying to see how many of these I can see in the theater. The older I get, the snobbier I become about seeing films “as they were intended to be seen,” on the big screen.

#385 – Army of Shadows
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969 – France
Seen in the Theater

Wow.

I mean, wow.

Do the best films sneak up on you? Surprise you? I remember putting in Miller’s Crossing late one night after taping it on cable and watching the whole thing when I should have been sleeping. Ditto for Mike Nichols’ Angels in America, which I had to stop after the first part because I really did need to get up the next morning. I rented All That Jazz from Netflix shortly after Roy Scheider died, and to this day, the final moments of that film remain some of the most transcendesent I’ve ever experienced — on par with the ballet sequences from The Red Shoes, which I went to see because I “heard it was good.”

Army of Shadows hit me so hard that I thought I might have to stop on my walk home and dry-heave. This isn’t some contest to show you I’m a better film nerd than you because films move me more — but the film affected me that much. As I mentioned above, All That Jazz is the high water mark when it comes to a film’s intial impact, but I think Army of Shadows might have surpassed it.

The film, based on a novel by a former French Resistance member and directed by Mellville, himself a member of the Resistance during World War II, is neither an anti-war film nor is it a pro-war film. The film focuses on the actions of a small Resistance cell, and the effects those actions have on their souls. More than a couple of times, I found myself thinking of Munich while watching this. The films have a similar approach — both teams work in anonyomous, nameless ways, hoping that they’re doing the right thing while realizing that they might not live long enough to find out. The difference here is that Mellville is depicting World War II, and while the Nazis are a pretty faceless bunch in this, there are moments throughout as to their relative bad-dudeness. There’s a sequence where a Resistance member has been captured, and the Nazis make them an atrocious, shocking offer that sells their evil without even being seen on screen.

Maybe Army of Shadows is so fresh in my mind and still has such a hold on me that I’m not describing it well. I wanted to write about a couple of scenes, but those scenes made me think of other scenes, and made me think of still others…but the moments that stand out, as I write this, are the scenes where characters discuss the practical implications of murder. The film is almost bookended by such discussions, one where the cell meets for the first time to kill a traitor, only to realize a gunshot will awaken a nearby family, and another where the leader of the cell lays out why a beloved colleague must die. The remove and practicality of these discussions is reminiscent of the film Conspiracy, about the Wannassee Conference, where Nazi officials sat in a room and calmly, with lunch breaks, discussed the best way to kill as many undesirables as possible. While Mellville’s characters are doing the right thing by opposing the Reich and the Vichy government, what’s the cost? Do the characters eventual fates — one of the most haunting, devastating endings I’ve ever seen — offer them some absolution from the deeds they commit over the course of the film?

It is not an easy film, this one, and there are few answers, as there often is in war, or so I’ve read. And while most films offer few answers, many at least offer consolation, comfort to the audience. There’s no real comfort at the end of Army of Shadows, just a waving German soldier and the mental image of a man refusing to run.

Like I said. Wow.

1. #385 – Army of Shadows
1. #485 – The Last Days of Disco
3. #90 – Kwaidan
4. #425 – Antonio Gaudi

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