Jean-Pierre Melville’s portrait of a small group of French Resistance fighters left me shaken. The film has very little violence in it, but it produces a non-stop feeling of acute tension. In his “minimalist” directorial style, Melville’s characters rarely discuss their feelings or motivations. They rarely discuss anything. The Germans are methodical, brutal, and occasionally openly sadistic. The fighters move around in the death-maze created by the Nazi occupation, carrying out their missions and trying not to get caught…yet.
They sense that they will all be caught, eventually. Life and death frequently hinge on split-second decisions, or just plain chance. In an early sequence, the main character finds himself on a bench in Gestapo headquarters sitting next to another man waiting for questioning. The only outcome of interrogation is death. With a few words at an opportune moment, a plan is formed. The hero escapes, and the other? Did he escape the machine gun fire we hear? We, and the hero, never know.
The army is one of shadows, in the shadows, but also of shadow-people. To preserve security, no one knows much of the history of anyone else. An important figure in the organization is a family relation to another, lesser figure. Neither knows of the other’s work. The less known, the less said during the inevitable torture. That’s if you don’t get the chance to swallow your cyanide first.
Sounds like a thriller? It’s not like any other. The people are ordinary, made extraordinary by their ordeal. No heroic missions – it’s not even clear how much they accomplish – so much of the action centers on their responses to the arrests of their associates. During one halcyon segment, a local noble provides his estate for use as a nocturnal airstrip for British planes, and all goes remarkably well for a while. The man was a reactionary before the war, but he came around. We are told matter-of-factly that the Germans rounded him up with his private militia of local farmers and shot them all without trial. Back to the alleyways…
I read that some left-wing critics in 1969 (the year of its release – it was not successful and was hardly seen until its recent restoration) called the film “Gaulist propaganda.” De Gaulle was considered by many, at that time, to be a reactionary obstacle to progress in France, his glory days as the leader of the Free French were far behind.
There is a scene in the film in which de Gaulle is featured briefly, pinning a medal on a Resistance leader who is clearly moved to be in his presence. But as for la politique quotidienne – everyday politics, that is – I think the film is way beyond that. In an early scene, when the main character is in a prison camp, he addresses a young fellow inmate, an inexperienced, self-identified communist, as “comrade.” The young man, surprised, asks, “Are you a communist too?” “No,” he replies. “But I have comrades.” They make an escape plan.
The sequence of images below is from the climactic scene at the end. Mathilde (Simone Signoret) the mastermind of so many operations is compromised by the Nazis. She must be eliminated. She accepts her fate. It is the only way.
[I don't want to give too much away, but on at least one occasion, Melville's style was so minimalist, I was confused about a fact that provides a powerful emotional statement. The scene takes place in the dead of night, but because, in film, there must be some light, I was left somewhat in the dark!]