The lump that was in my throat during the 139 minutes of L'Armée du Crime, Robert Guédiguian's dramatization of the "Manouchian Group" story has subsided, but the emotion remains. This is a good, old fashioned, based-on-fact war story that needed to be told, and in the veteran French-Armenian director's hands, it has been done justice.
"Justice," such as it was during the dark years of the Nazi Occupation of France and the active collaboration of the Vichy government of Maréchal Pétain, was of course in the hands of the victors. The Manouchian Group - we know their fate in the film's first moments - is given a show trial and accused of carrying out "terrorist acts" against the occupier.
The film does not actually glorify terrorism - few of the group are natural killers, least of all poet Missak Manouchian, who becomes its leader - but its portrayal of the various assassinations, ambushes, and bombings carried out in Paris is factual. The Musée de la Résistance Nationale has lent its stamp of approval, even providing an excellent "teachers' guide" available on the film's official site.
The film's poster tells you the essentials: Manouchian's collection of resistance fighters - "Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Spanish, and Armenians" - came from the ranks of the MOI, la Main-d'oeuvre immigrée, foreign communists who had found refuge in France, and many of whom were veteran anti-fascists from the Spanish Civil War. The film deftly shows their trajectory from simple immigrant workers lying low during the early days of the Occupation, through uncoordinated individual acts against the Germans, to full-blown integration into what became the Resistance.
Guédiguian has a stable of actors who regularly surface in his films, and one of his regulars, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, playing the composite character of "Commissaire David," manages to incarnate the contradictions and betrayals that were the hallmark of French officialdom's reaction to defeat at the hands of the Germans. While Darroussin's understated performance captures all the ambiguity, the script sometimes hammers French culpability down our throats, especially when depicting torture by French police - not Nazis.
All of which, Guédiguian tells us, is based on historic documentation. Even the soundtrack is historically significant: listen to Maurice Chevalier's "Ça sent si bon la France" and savor not only the irony in the 1941 song's selection for the soundtrack, but reflect that the crooner was long shunned after the war for his dalliance with collaboration.
Terrorism, torture... you might get the impression that the director is trying to send a contemporary message while educating his audience on a part of French history often overlooked. That would be correct: Guédiguian is a committed leftist, who mourns the passing of the kind of militant trade unionism that was the petri dish for the Manouchian Group.
French men and women who remember that their soldiers tortured Algerians in their war of independence but forget that Frenchmen tortured Frenchmen in the Nazi cause will find L'Armée du Crime unnerving. Americans who acknowledge that "enhanced interrogation" has been carried out in their name will be reminded that water torture is not always as clean and clinical as shown in stock Pentagon or CIA footage. And we used to think it was only the Gestapo that did such despicable things.
At least the 23 members of the Manouchian Group, tortured and executed in the dank dungeons along the Seine for their adopted country, now have a fitting cinematic tribute to their bravery.