An inspiring story of everyday heroism will probably attract the attention of socialists and people fighting for a better world.
If the film was about a resistance group of mainly immigrants, fighting Nazis and their French collaborators in the occupied Paris of the Second World War, I’m sure 99 percent of Socialist Review readers would not hesitate to book their cinema tickets. This is what Robert Guédiguian has chosen as a subject for his latest film.
Army of Crime tells the story of Missak Manouchian – an Armenian refugee, poet, Citroen factory worker and Communist – who’s asked by the Communist leadership to form an armed resistance group. The 23-strong group was made of mainly Jews from Eastern Europe, as well as Italian anti-fascists and Spanish Republicans who at one time or another sought refuge in France and decided to put their lives on the line to liberate it.
The film is based on historical fact. “Army of crime” was how the Vichy collaborationist government and its German masters depicted Manouchian’s group in an attempt to discredit it in the eyes of people under occupation. But the group’s heroic status is still very much present in the collective memory of left wing politics – though absent from the history textbooks I had to study at school in France. Guédiguian has deliberately chosen to present it to a wider audience and has to be thanked for it.
Guédiguian’s desire to bring this hidden past back into the mainstream is helped by a much bigger budget than his previous films had. The cinematography is warm and inviting, and there is no difficult narrative or excruciating dialogue. But this is not an action-packed movie; no Inglourious Basterds.
In Army of Crime he takes his time to introduce some of the characters, and what brings them to join the resistance and fight for a just world. These characters include Thomas Elek, a student who’s good at chemistry, and Marcel Rayman, a young worker with a passion for swimming. We also see how difficult it is for Manouchian to kill, even a Nazi. Violence in Army of Crime is no spectacle. It comes at a price and cannot be romanticised.
He also reminds us of the Vichy government rounding up Jews – on a scale even the Nazi authorities didn’t dare to order – and the rabid police officials who were too eager to please the Nazis for their own greed.
Army of Crime is also a reflection on the world today. It could be no more fitting than for it to come out at a time when millions of people are losing their jobs and dignity, and while we see continued wars abroad and racism at home. We can see that ordinary people, working class people, can unite to fight back.
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A pick of the highlights