Army of Shadows and Lacombe, Lucien

Volume 2, Issue 1

Why people chose to join the Resistance is a question that historians must strive to answer, and they do so with caution and trepidation because there is no simple answer. If fiction offers far greater freedom to speculate on the motivations of resisters, two of the most potent films to grapple with this issue, Army of Shadows and Lacombe, Lucien, jettison a psychological approach. The first presumes that resistance was necessary and focuses on the moral dilemmas such engagement posed for participants; the second famously proposes that the decision to resist or to collaborate was the result of circumstances rather than ideological commitment. Whether one agrees with this proposition or not, Lacombe, Lucien just like Army of Shadows, raises the important question of choice and what it entailed, as our two specialists demonstrate. Students like to imagine how they would have responded and need sophisticated ways to think about it. The resistance continues to attract writers and film-makers, as witnessed by the release of Ismael Ferroukhi’s Les hommes libres (Free Men) in September which, like other recent films, seeks to highlight a little-known aspect of Parisian resistance. Michael Lonsdale plays Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, rector of the Paris Mosque, who saw it as his humanitarian duty to hide Jews and resisters, and Tahar Rahim, of The Prophet fame, a young Algerian who drifts, somewhat Lucien Lacombe-like, into collaboration before experiencing moral qualms and a change of heart. Unlike the despair of Army of Shadows or the cynicism of Lacombe, Lucien, and without being maudlin, the film offers a psychologically credible depiction of engagement.

Army of Shadows

Simon Kitson
Institute of Historical Research, London

Army of Shadows (L’Armée des Ombres) is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1943 by the French Resister Joseph Kessel. Into Kessel’s mixture of memoir and fiction, Melville wove his own experiences in the Combat movement, the BCRA and the Free French. Both Kessel and Melville presented the Resistance as isolated but in the former’s case this was coupled with a sense of optimism; his was after all a propaganda piece designed to attract people to Resistance. Melville’s vision, on the other hand, is so bleak that all his Resisters are killed off as the final credits roll. Although dating from 1969, L’Armée des Ombres has been less recognised than Ophuls’s Le Chagrin et la Pitié, released within months of it, as a milestone of French memory of the war years.  Nonetheless, Melville’s film had already underlined French involvement in anti-Semitism, showing Jews interned in camps run solely by Vichy, and did not shy away from Vichy’s collaboration with the Germans: both times the central character is arrested, it is by the French authorities, who then quickly hand him over to the Germans.

An initially hostile critical reception for L’Armée des Ombres in France focused on two central accusations. The first, sacrilegious in the wake of May ‘68, was that it was a ‘Gaullist’ film. True, the Resisters portrayed are clearly not communists (the communist in the film is described as a ‘lost child’), but the right-wing anarchist Melville depicts de Gaulle in a slightly mocking way. An actor is used as a body double for the General but he takes an eternity to pin a medal on a resistance leader and does so without uttering a word, thereby making fun of the haughty aloofness of the Free French leader. The second criticism was of having transformed Resisters into gangsters. This would seem more valid. In Melville’s filmography, L’Armée is sandwiched chronologically within a sequence of gangster films. The execution of the traitor Paul Dounat takes place in a villa near Marseille’s picturesque fishing village of the Vallon des Auffes – a typical location for gangsters to settle scores. The Cahiers du Cinéma panned the film in 1969 and it was only after it re-assessed its position in the late 1990s that The Army of Shadows made inroads into the American market, finally being released there in 2006 to enthusiastic acclaim.

Some of the characters in Melville’s film were inspired by real combattants.  The central character, Philippe Gerbier (played by Lino Ventura, who incidentally was not on speaking terms with Melville throughout most of the filming), is partially based on Jean Pierre-Bloch’s internment in Vichy France. Melville has also claimed that the film’s depiction of Gerbier’s escape from the Germans was inspired by Paul Rivière’s account, although this seems unlikely.[1]  Luc Jardie, the big chief of the French resistance in the film (played by Edith Piaf’s former lover, Paul Meurisse) is mainly inspired by the philosopher-turned-Resister Jean Cavaillès. (The titles of books accredited to the fictional Jardie were actually those published by the real-life Cavaillès.) Other sources of inspiration for the Jardie character include Pierre Brossolette[2] and Jean Moulin, especially in the manner of his death. Mathilde, the character so convincingly played by Simone Signoret, is said to be based loosely on Lucie Aubrac. (Interestingly, the real life Aubrac had been Signoret’s history teacher.) This character symbolises the important role of women in the Resistance. Mathilde moves from Paris to Lyon in 1943 to take charge of the movement in Gerbier’s absence. The chronology is problematic, however. The women who led Resistance movements generally did so in the first two years of the occupation. After that, women were often given liaison roles of vital importance but, sexism oblige, were rarely offered leadership roles.

If the characters draw on real models just how historically accurate is the film? A sample of the factual errors should underline their frequency. One scene, which must be dated no later than 27 January 1943,[3] shows the French Milice armed with machine guns when, in fact, this parallel police only came into existence on 30 January and did not receive such weapons until later that year. Gerbier’s actions after his initial captivity are also not historically credible.  A leader of the resistance would not have stuck to the surname under which he was arrested, nor would he have stayed at a country estate being used as an airfield for RAF planes carrying men and supplies.  Finally, Gerbier is handed by the French police to the ‘Gestapo’ at the end of 1942 although, historically, this did not occur in the southern zone until spring 1943.

These nit-picking gripes apart, this is an important film, and an excellent teaching device. Not only do the students seem to enjoy it (unlike Melville’s earlier Le Silence de la mer) but its moral complexities and interesting representation of the Resistance lead to fascinating discussions. I’d like to offer some thoughts on points to raise with students, both if one were to select an excerpt of the movie or if one were to offer comparisons between this film and others.

One could do a lot worse than choosing the opening 11 minutes, a section which is so rich in possible commentaries.

The film opens and closes with images of Germans in front of the Arc de Triomphe, but with a major difference. In the opening sequence a German military band goose-steps triumphantly down the Champs-Elysées. Melville was extremely proud of this reconstitution, and had his actors march to the recorded sound of real Nazi soldiers since he deemed it inimitable. Filming German uniforms parading down the avenue involved breaking a taboo, so powerfully evocative was the memory.  One must recall that to wipe out this humiliation, the day after the 1944 Liberation of Paris de Gaulle marched down the “world’s most beautiful avenue” to reclaim the territory. Thus it is easy to imagine how sensitive re-enacting the Champs-Elysées scene was. By the film’s conclusion, only a single German soldier stands in front of the Arc de Triomphe, reduced to traffic duties. This contrast highlights the progressive decline in German power between 20 October 1942, the first date given in the film (predating the Allied invasion of North Africa), and 23 February 1943, the setting of the last scene, just after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. This decline in German power is juxtaposed throughout the film with the inevitability of an Allied invasion: prefigured at first by a glimpse of a British submarine off the coast, then an RAF plane flying over France, and finally the RAF actually landing in France, a clear sign of the progressive Allied encroachment onto French territory.

The German marching band then gives way to opening credits containing a subtle tribute to Kessel who co-wrote the Resistance anthem Le Chant des Partisans. The first two lines are enacted before our eyes: in the sound of crows over a rainy field (“Ami entends-tu le cri noir des corbeaux sur nos plaines?”) followed by the low droning of a police van that contains the hand-cuffed Resistance ‘hero’ of the film (“Ami, entends-tu les cris sourds du pays qu’on enchaîne?)[4]

At 3 minutes 16 seconds, the gendarme accompanying Gerbier explains that they are stopping to pick up some black market supplies from a farm. This highlights the food shortages in occupied France. But it also points to the corruption and hypocrisy of the Vichy State since in a later scene gendarmes conduct checks for black-market produce in the metro demonstrating that a double standard was at work regarding black market activity. Gerbier’s gendarme then touches a raw nerve by suggesting he is being taken to the best camp in France, intended to house German POWs, who of course did not materialise in the rapid defeat of 1940. At 4 minutes 50, a French gendarme stands watch over the internment camp; this can be read as a reference to Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard which fell afoul of the censors in 1955 for showing the photograph of a French gendarme guarding the Pithiviers camp. Melville underlines this point by having a French tricolor fluttering over the camp. Melville’s presentation of the abased French flag contrasts with his depiction of the Union Jack: the first time shown flying above the Houses of Parliament, a symbol of democracy, and the second time shown in a dancehall frequented by Allied service personnel, thus symbolising continued participation in the war.

At 5 minutes 8 seconds we cut to the office of the prison warden where we witness the arbitrariness of the French State and the corruption of its officials. The warden relates how some people are kept in internment camps for a long time on the flimsiest of pretexts, whilst others with substantial dossiers are released quickly and even sometimes find employment in Vichy. He can’t decide what to do with Gerbier — whether to treat him as a dangerous Gaullist, or as a well-connected man to be handled with care. When he opts for the latter he reminds us of Captain Louis Renault, the police chief from the 1942 film Casablanca: a Vichy official sensing which way the wind is blowing before making decisions. The regime’s repressive nature is emphasised by a map of internment camps on the wall. A portrait of Marshal Petain surveys the scene.

The action then moves into the prison barracks. Melville embodies French national unity in the wake of the defeat by showing the Communist prisoner Legrain watching over the dying Catholic Armel. Conditions in the camp are so awful that there is no room for him in the infirmary — the number of seriously ill internees strains the meagre medical facilities. When Armel dies, Gerbier promises Legrain that “all debts will be repaid,” emphasising the camp’s atrocious conditions were responsible for this death.

Gerbier exercises outside in the next scene as Legrain passes by. Legrain works in the camp’s power plant—without any special privileges, simply to ‘keep his hand in.”  We might contrast this desire to work to Vichy’s criticism that the Popular Front encouraged people to place pleasure over duties. The scene ends with Gerbier saluting Legrain as a ‘comrade.’ This is not gratuitous since it links Gerbier, the Gaullist, to Legrain, the communist, a point reinforced sartorially both by the similarity of the two men’s attire in the scene but also when Gerbier turns his towel into a scarf in imitation of Legrain’s neckware. The link between the two is subsequently deepened when we learn that both Gerbier and Legrain have worked in the electrical industry — albeit at different levels. The two men begin to plot their escape but are interrupted by Gerbier’s transfer from the camp. Henceforth communists disappear from the film.

Another way of teaching from the film would be to compare it to another movie about the period. Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien, released 5 years later, offers a good contrast. The first obvious difference between the films is that Melville’s is about resistance whilst Malle’s concerns collaboration and in many respects the two movies are polar opposites. Lacombe, Lucien stands out for its luminous picturesque scenery: collaborators could initially operate in the open. Melville, on the other hand, has chosen to portray the Resistance as a dark world. The sky is almost always grey (the opening credits show rain battering a field), the light is usually obscured and several scenes are shot at night. This highlights, in keeping with the title, the underground, shadowy aspect of Resistance and the gloominess of France’s dark years. Malle’s film has collaborators living the high life; Melville stresses wartime shortages from which Resisters are not exempt. In Lacombe, Lucien the emphasis is on causes: why did Lucien become a collaborator? Was it by chance or was it linked to the absence of his father or perhaps a desire to be as active as his brother, the Resister, or simply a desire to avenge himself of the school master who didn’t take him seriously (hence the title being Lucien’s name in school register format)? In contrast, Army of Shadows does not ask how the characters became Resisters. Apart from Jean-François, whose recruitment we witness, we have absolutely no idea why any of these characters made this choice. The emphasis is instead on consequences: belonging to the Resistance severs you from your loved ones and induces constant fear.

Another comparison might be made between L’Armée des Ombres and Resistance films such as La Bataille du Rail. In that 1945 film, directed by René Clément, time and place disappear. By not telling us where in France the actions take place, Clément renders them universal: as the activity of all French people, regardless of location. Time and place matter very much to Melville.  He situates the filmed sequences between October 1942 and February 1943. We are also given a very precise idea of locations, for example when the action unfolds just outside the Palais de Justice in Marseille. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Marseille will easily recognise that the action then moves along the Corniche. In Lyon the camera homes in on place names allowing us to identify the famous Place de la Trinité. In Paris, who can fail to recognise the Champs-Elysées? Melville conveys the Resistance’s omnipresence by setting its activities in the three major cities, although the number of Resisters is clearly more limited in Melville’s presentation than in Clément’s.

Unlike the Bataille du Rail, Melville’s approach to the Resistance is unromantic. This is a Resistance struggling to preserve the loyalty of its members and its own internal code of conduct.  Melville enjoys making mirror scenes. Thus, twice, the Resistance must kill one of its own members. In each case this leads to a moral crisis. First Félix and Gerbier bring a traitor to be executed. A new recruit to the organisation, Le Masque, expects this execution to be conducted honourably, preceded by a trial, and he tries to stop Félix dispatching the traitor with a knife rather than a revolver. Such niceties, he discovers, are not the reality of Resistance and finally, for lack of a knife, the traitor is strangled with a tea towel. Later in the film, Gerbier informs Le Bison and Le Masque that Mathilde must be killed to stop her from denouncing the whole movement. Now it is Le Bison who challenges the decision, warning Gerbier that he will kill him if the order to execute Mathilde is not rescinded. Mathilde has risked her skin to save members of the group and Le Bison feels they are so indebted to her that they should let her denounce them to save her daughter who is being threatened by the ‘Gestapo’. It is symbolic of how far Le Masque has travelled from his initial idealism that he stands ready to club Le Bison to protect Gerbier from this threat.

In La Bataille du Rail, we don’t get much sense of how the Resisters are organised structurally but we sense that they operate in a unified fashion. Throughout L’Armée, Melville (and Kessel before him) highlights the structural unity of the Resistance. Resistance within France is linked to Resistance in London through Gerbier and Jardie’s trip to visit de Gaulle.  Melville links the Resistance in the north and south by having Gerbier’s network operate in both zones (clearly an unrealistic detail as no movement, other than the Front National, did so). But whatever the structure of the Resistance, betrayals always threaten it from within.

The Bataille du Rail could not possibly offer a more romantic vision of Resistance if it tried: seemingly everyone is involved in its activity and no major obstacles stand in its way.  Good working-class folk lead the battle between good and evil. Melville shows the Resistance on the defensive, only attacking Germans when trying to escape. Melville’s Resisters actually kill more of their own members than the enemy. They constantly face peril and resistance is dominated by a struggle to survive. They are instructed to carry cyanide pills and the “danger of death” sign on a door in an early scene is ominous. In Clément’s film, Resisters easily find ways to improvise anti-German sabotage with no need for external aid. Melville’s, on the other hand, are acutely aware of their lack of equipment. Yes, they can improvise but it brings them onto morally dangerous ground.  They cannot carry out a ‘clean’ execution because the British have failed to equip them with silencers. The limited resources of the Resistance are highlighted in other ways such as a juxtaposition of de Gaulle’s HQ in London, with just one guard, following on immediately from a depiction of the Gestapo HQ in Lyon with numerous soldiers guarding its entrance. Similarly, the solitary Jean-François must run the gauntlet of two ridiculously over-manned baggage checks – the first German, the second, immediately afterwards, conducted by French gendarmes.

To sum up: Melville presents a complex and nuanced vision of the Resistance and its manifold dangers, including internal betrayal, and its difficult moral choices. His Resisters are courageous, but, more than anything, they are ruthless.

  1. To my knowledge, Rivière did not escape from the Germans but was released around the time of the invasion of the southern zone. Secondly, surely Rivière did not state that he had been taken to the Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Majestic. The Gestapo’s HQ were in the rue des Saussaies and the avenue Foch. The Hotel Majestic was the HQ of the Militärbefehlshaber in Frankreich (MBF or German Military Authority in France). What would the MBF have been doing conducting interrogations of Resisters in autumn 1942? The scene strikes a false note.
  2. The statement made in the film that France will be free when the film Gone with the Wind can be shown at French cinemas is based on a wartime conversation between Melville and Brossolette.
  3. In an early part of the scene Mathilde is present and we later learn that she was arrested on 27 January.
  4. “Friend can you hear the dark cry of the crows on our plains? Friend can you hear the muffled cries of a country in chains?”

Jean-Pierre Melville, Director, Army of Shadows (1969), 140 min. Les Films Corona, Fono Roma, France/Italy.


Richard Vinen
King’s College, London

The influence of Lacombe, Lucien on how the French past is seen is so considerable that it is now often discussed alongside academic works of history (notably Robert Paxton’s 1972 book on Vichy France). It is often used in teaching and it is, along with The Battle of Algiers, one of the films that I show to my own students of twentieth-century French history every year. The conflation, however, might give the impression that the key to Lacombe, Lucien is its subject matter (France under the German Occupation) and that the film sets out to advance some kind of historical interpretation.

The purely cinematic aspects of those films (those aspects are least easy to capture with plot summary or quotation) tend to get neglected. This is a film shot in colour (when we are so used to seeing the Occupation evoked in black-and-white), and it is set to a lively jazz track (when we are used to seeing films on the subject set to somber classical music). The impact of this film when it was first seen owed much to these qualities and we should remember that, in 1974, most people saw the film once in an art-house cinema and today’s students, who scan through old movies on their laptops, can never quite capture the novelty that attended Lacombe, Lucien when it was first released. [1]

Malle knew a great deal about the history of France in the occupation – a fact that impressed the historian Pierre Laborie, who became his friend. He was not, however, a historian and his aim was to produce a striking film not a well-researched work of history. He was sometimes cavalier in his attitude to historical context; when he had filmed Drieu la Rochelle’s novel Le Feu Follet in 1963, he had moved the action from the 1920s to the Algerian War. He seems to have considered setting Lacombe, Lucien in a variety of different periods and countries before settling on France during the Occupation as the backdrop to his story.

Having said all this, the impact of Lacombe, Lucien obviously derives, in large measure, from its historical setting. It concerns a peasant boy who drifts into joining a group of French collaborators who are fighting, with great brutality, against the French resistance. The collaborators are presented as human, even sympathetic, figures. There is an aristocratic dandy who proves utterly lacking in scruple but also charming and refreshingly free from hypocrisy. There is the black member of the band (apparently there really were a couple of black men who worked for the Germans in Toulouse) with his dead-pan humour (he tells an outraged notable, with scrupulous courtesy, that they are going to shoot his brother). Adolescent rebellion against bourgeois convention is a big theme in Malle’s early films, but the most striking thing about Lacombe, Lucien is that the collaborators, rather than the resistance fighters, are the rebels. The leader of the local Maquis, by contrast, is a school teacher (often the villains in early Malle films) who solemnly tells Lucien that the Maquis is “serious, like the army.”

Lacombe, Lucien appeared at a time when the French were becoming more aware, or perhaps just more willing to talk about, the darker side of their history during the Occupation. It is, however, important to stress that the film bore a slightly tangential relationship to this general rethinking and that its influence sometimes derived from the way in which it was misunderstood. The rethinking of the early 1970s (particularly that stimulated by Paxton’s work) meant an increased tendency to emphasize the popularity and autonomy of the Vichy government and to play down the importance of the Resistance. Lacombe, Lucien, however, is set in a very particular place and time: south western France in the summer of 1944. We know from the beginning that Allied troops have already landed in Normandy and that, as a waitress explains to Lucien, “the Boches are screwed.” This is a long way from the atmosphere of July 1940, when the French parliament had voted full powers to Marshal Pétain. Lucien himself is young (he must, I guess, be about seventeen) and practically the only reference back to the circumstances of 1940 comes with the revelation that his father is a prisoner-of-war. Malle presents the Resistance as being powerful, as it undoubtedly was in that area and at that time. The Maquis grip on the countryside is so strong that Lucien can never return to his native village. The collaborators are marginal and doomed and it comes as no surprise when we learn, in the final frame of the film, that Lucien has been shot at the Liberation.

Vichy, so important to the historiography of the early 1970s, hardly features in Lacombe, Lucien. Lucien uses a poster of Marshal Pétain for target practice, but, so far as I remember, there is only one other, dismissive, reference to the Marshal in the entire film and only one Vichy minister, Philippe Henriot, the minister of information, is mentioned. It is sometimes supposed that Lucien and his comrades work for the Milice, the paramilitary forces that was, at least nominally, loyal to Vichy, but, in fact, they are directly employed by the German police.

Of course, like every influential film, Lacombe, Lucien has an afterlife and this affects the way in which we see it now. Merely stating that some French people collaborated and that not all resistance fighters were entirely admirable is probably less shocking now than it would have been in 1974. Other aspects of the film, particularly its detached treatment of Albert Horn, the Jewish father of Lucien’s lover who is so humiliated by his daughter’s affair that he gives himself up to the German police, may seem more shocking to audiences today than they would have seemed in 1974.

Lacombe, Lucien marked a break in Malle’s career.  Soon after it, he moved to America and, for some time, turned away from evocations of French provincial life. The star of the film, Pierre Blaise, rejected the chance of a career in films and was, in any case, killed in a motorcycle accident in 1975. Only Patrick Modiano, who had written the script, remained in France and continued, in a succession of novels, to reflect on wartime France. Two of Malle’s later films seem to refer back to Lacombe, Lucien. The most obvious of these was Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), which concerns the hiding, and eventual discovery, of Jewish boys in a French Catholic boarding school during the Occupation. Malle had himself grown up in a bourgeois Catholic family and been sent to a religious school. Much of his career can be interpreted as a rebellion against this background and sometimes he flirted with blasphemy – think of Le Souffle au Coeur (1971) or of the way in which Lucien mocks a religious procession. Au Revoir les Enfants feels oddly like an act of contrition. This time, priests and teachers are the heroes; the Jewish victims (very different from the brusque Albert Horne) are presented as innocent. The whole film has the neat moralism that Lacombe, Lucien so conspicuously lacks and, perhaps for this reason, is often disliked by those critics who normally admire Malle most. Less obviously Milou en Mai (made in 1989 and set in May 1968) seems to refer back to Lacombe, Lucien. Once again we have a film set in the summer countryside (and set to a jazz soundtrack) about a moment of high political drama. Once again, we have a flight to the hills and, even, a discussion that explicitly recalls the Liberation. It almost feels as though Malle is revisiting Lacombe, Lucien and, perhaps, reminding us of the extent to which that film had itself been rooted in the very particular climate of the years immediately after 1968.

  1. Those interested in the film’s reception might want to watch the 52-minute documentary (May 2011) “Un film et son époque” on Lacombe Lucien, available free on You Tube:

Louis Malle, Director, Lacomb, Lucien (1974), 138 min., Nouvelles Éditions de Films, Universal Pictures France, Vides-Film, Hallelujah-Film, France/Germany/Italy.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,