My dear Melinée, my beloved little orphan,

In a few hours I will no longer be of this world. We are going to be executed today at 3:00. This is happening to me like an accident in my life; I don’t believe it, but I nevertheless know that I will never see you again. What can I write you? Everything inside me is confused, yet clear at the same time.

Thus began the last letter Missak Manouchian, an Armenian-French resistance fighter in Paris under the Nazis, wrote to his wife.  He had been tortured by The French Special Brigades and, along with 21 other members of his resistance cell, given a public trial and execution by firing squad.  The cell, made up almost entirely of foreigners on French soil, had run operations from shortly after the Nazi invasion of Paris, June 1940 until November 1943,  derailing trains, assassinating German and French officials and military officers, including most spectacularly, in September 1943, General Julius Ritter, the assistant in France to Fritz Sauckel, who  was responsible for the mobilization and deportation of labor under the German STO (the Obligatory Work Service) in Nazi-occupied Europe.

An Army of Crime was the designation the Nazis and their French collaborators gave this cell, plastering the countryside with broadsides trying to convince the populace that thugs and criminals were responsible for the disruption of order and good government.  Army of Crime is also the name of the very good 2009 film by Robert Guediguian about Manouchian and his small band.

In a perfect mix of normalcy and tension the film centers on a group of young friends in a heavily Jewish and immigrant neighborhood of Paris as they move from individual acts of resistance to the Germans and French Vichy officials into more organized actions, and more lethal retribution. Several of the youngsters are still living at home.  Adolescent rebelliousness is not simply staying out too late, or resisting a father’s orders; it involves guns and makeshift bombs, raids and interrogations.  The pacing of the story is pitch perfect, as is the soundtrack, including Mozart, Bach and Brahms amplifying the emotions of quiet conversations, staring at the dead or covering up the sounds of a mimeograph churning out leaflets. Festive scenes in dimly lit rooms are interrupted by knocks on the door.  No one knows who it is; someone has to answer.  Interludes in the park are intruded on by Germans playing soccer.  Every moment is fraught.

Most of Paris carries on as normal under the occupation.  Pretty girls laugh with German officers; chickens scratch in small yards; people jostle at the market place, kids play soccer in the street.  Even in the families involved  reactions to the days they are living through are mixed.  Some believe nothing bad will come to them. “This is France! Nothing can happen to us here!”  A father says he will go in with his papers, as ordered.  His son shouts, “What if it’s a plot!”  The father smiles, and says “You see plots everywhere.”

It is a perfect film to bring us to reflect:  what sort of person would I be in a situation such as this?  Or, as the film maker signs off at the end, “to help us live today.”

The story begins somewhat confusingly.  A bus with prison-like wire screens carrying men and women we can barely make out in the dim interior is driving along the Seine.    Outside, ordinary people are walking, kissing, pushing prams. A voice over is calling out names, not many recognizably French,  followed by “died for France.”  A woman on the bus says to the man sitting next to her, “Think there’s a bomb in the pram?” We don’t know what is happening, but we are uneasy, immediately.

We then see a sequence of new characters, each doing something that builds the time and place for us.  A man and a woman leave a small child with another woman; he asks if they will ever see her again.  The mother replies, furiously, “Don’t say that!  A young boy in school uniform, who looks to be no more than 15-16,  draws Soviet style hammer and sickle on the walls of a posh school.  He is confronted by a classmate who tells him to quit doing it, and calls him a “filthy Yid.”  A fist fight starts.  Another is a champion swimmer, but under an assumed French name, as Jews can’t represent France in sporting events.

Fairly early, to the martial strains of the Marseilles and scenes of happy roller-skaters  and hand-holding couples, we see the Eiffel Tower with a huge V on it, and a banner announcing Germany is Winning on All Fronts. News boys are shouting Germany Invades Russia!

Now the pace begins to pick up.  We have most of the characters in mind.  Manouchian [Simon Abkarian], who we have seen in bucolic circumstances with his wife, Melinée [Virginie Ledoyen ] is hauled off by the French police.  We get a sense of him when she appears at the door in a panic and he says to the police, “She’s my neighbor.” And to her, “It’s all right, I’ll be back.”

The father who dismissed his son’s worries is in fact taken off, perhaps to a work camp — 600,000 French workers were transported to Germany during the war — perhaps to an extermination camp; mother and son fear differently.  The son, Marcel Rayman [Robinson Stévenin] begins to do individual killings, asking  German soldiers for a light  then pulling a pistol and shooting them, casually walking away.

Thomas Elek, [Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet] the young communist builds book-bombs and leaves them, timed to go off, where Germans and their consorts gather.

The tension of these youngsters doing things beyond their years is then compounded as more institutionalized, and organized men, in communist affiliated units gathers them in and insists on discipline and order, the end to individual acts.  There is clearly a difference between the two.  At one planning meeting the head communist of the area makes a brutal comment to one of the youngsters about his wife.  He want them to separate while working.  “If you need to get laid, that’s not a problem.”  A fight breaks out, even as they all need to work together.

The tension between comrades surfaces as some council patience and others immediacy.  “You’re not Jewish!” one exclaims.  “Your family is not being taken away.”  Manouchian looks at him.  “My family disappeared along time ago.  You know what Hitler said about that?  Who will remember the Armenians?”

Tension of the knock on the door is masterfully handled.  In one unforgettable sequence a political gathering transforms itself into an Armenian wedding when two gendarmes come to see what the noise is about.  A bride volunteers, the music changes without missing a beat, and the guests hoist their glasses to answer the police toast to Marshal Petain — after almost missing a beat.

Tension over the question of killing, and personal values is also laced into the story.  It’s not quite as central as in another good film about civil resistance to the Nazis, the 2008 Danish “Flame and Citron“, but it’s expressed by the central character, Mouchian, who at first says he will not kill.  “It’s a question of ethics,” he says.  After he uses his first grenade to take out a squad of German soldiers, he reflects mournfully to Melinee that now there is no way back.  He can see what the future holds for him.

The character development, especially of Manouchian, is quite good.  We learn that he and his younger brother survived the Turkish massacres of Armenians and came to France as young refugees.  We see him growing in love with Melinée, and in the hardest times, saying “I can have supper with the one I love.  What more can I want?”  After he is taken away by the police she finds a poem he has written.

“His eye knew broad horizons
He was used to mountains
And had pierced the mystery of their grandeur.
The animals and birds, trees and
flowers, plants and the earth
Had taught him the secret of love.”

What really troubles us, from the first frame to the last is the air of normalcy, outside the fighters, that is going on. The  German officers and French girls,  big-band music playing in the sound track.  Chickens scratching,  women at sewing machines. Scenes in the park, soccer and picnicking, necking, German officers playing a violin trio.  As people carry on, doing their shopping and talking to their neighbors we hear radio broadcasts about the lazy Jews finally learning what it means to be Frenchmen and to work hard.

Against those who have cast their lives into the struggle we see others, who want to be thought well of while still guarding themselves against accusations of disloyalty.  The head master asks the young communist if he is Jewish, and if his father reads the Talmud.  He upbraids him for his Soviet graffiti and tells him not to risk his life and career.  “To tell you the truth,” he says,  “I can’t stomach the student who beat you.  We’ll forget this for now, but it will go hard on me if people find out.  A police detective grabs Melinée from the station waiting room where she has gone to inquire about Manouchian.  We fear for her as he yells at her, “Do you want to go to a camp too?”   Then he tells her, almost kindly, that Manouchian is no longer there, that he is at a German-run camp.  He tells her the location, then slaps her so hard her lips bleeds — “So my colleagues won’t think badly of me.”

Another character, a winsome redheaded Jewish girl –Monique [Lola Naymark]– initially a girlfriend to one of the boys, gradually throws her lot in with the French forces.  Her parents are taken away in a long caravan of city buses but Pujols, [Jean-Pierre Darroussin] the local police inspector is taken with her.  He has her take off her yellow star and tells her how he should be rewarded.  Gradually, she becomes part of the net that is being drawn around her friends, even while thinking she can save her former boyfriend with sexual favors for her “protector.”

Not too far into the movie we realize that this is less a story about the Nazis than about the French:  an occupation of one part of the French people by another.  A landlady shows up to tell the detective about the smell of sulfur coming from one of her rooms.  The police Captain impresses on his men that their collaboration  with the German army is very useful to their fight against Bolshevism.  “Look how close we came with the Popular Front!” he exclaims. ” We are doing our patriotic duty!”  The assembled police break into loud cheers.

As  another proudly says, late in the film.   A round up of  13,000 foreigners and Jews  and no Germans were involved! The very young, very French, very cruel Commissaire David [Yann Trégouët] leads the take-down.  He personally over-sees the torture — some of which is shown in the film, but without the gratuitous detail that ruins other well intentioned movies.  There are scenes of the Petain style water torture we came to know under the Bush regime…

Their resistance ends badly.  We know it will.  A few of the younger ones are sent off with more families to more concentration camps.  The formerly lively neighborhood is empty. The chickens are gone.  Furniture is stacked outside the flats.

But we aren’t left hollowed out by sorrow.  We have seen the small lights of those who chose to fight, those who even under torture would not talk to the torturers.

My only complaint as to do with the richness of the color.  Even though so many of the interiors are dim, with bright sunlight counterpointing outside, there is a Vermeer like glow I find distracting.   Maybe it’s that movies about real, gritty, dangerous lives should not have too rich a sheen.  There were some very effective fades into gritty black and white to indicate memory.  A few sub-titles were dropped along they way.   The strengths  make these complaints inconsequential.  As I said earlier, the sound track was almost flawless, from the original compositions, to the use of popular instruments and big-band sound of the era to the selections from the classical repertoire.  I’d never heard Mozart quite so ominously pretty before.

The story is all based on real people and real events.  There is plenty on the Internet about Manouchian, the French Special Brigades, the Immigrant Labor Movement.  There is plenty to think about, as the director intended, in a France once again boiling over the embers of immigrants, ethnicity, loyalty and “Frenchness,” [see for example this Sunday, March27, 2011 article: Jobs Are Scarce, Immigrants are Many] where Frenchness can be a place-holder for Americanness, Britishness, Germanness, and on and on.  This is a film that will bear watching several times.  Not because you should but because you won’t  be able to help yourself.  This is the film to see about Resistance to the French collaborators, not the regrettable Tarantino blood fest, Inglorious Basterds, which was apparently built around the same events.