Each nation has to come to terms with its past. For the Germans, it's the Holocaust, and for the French, it's their collaboration with the Nazi and Vichy regimes.
I remember when my infantry company landed in southern France in 1944, my mind was full of heroic newspaper and movie images of patriotic Frenchmen, all of them battling the hated Boche to the stirring background strains of the "La Marseillaise."
So when I met a French girl (we'll discuss that at another time), I expressed my admiration for her countrymen's fearless resistance.
She looked at me pityingly and said something like, "What resistance? A few crazy Communists and Jews. Everyone else just tried to get along."
I've been conflicted about the question of human courage and cowardice ever since. No one who has not lived under a brutal dictatorship, where the wrong word might mean loss of life or livelihood, is in a position of judgment or superior virtue.
After all, most Americans caved in quietly during the McCarthy period, when the most they risked were loss of a job or their neighbors' opprobrium. Pretty much everyone, everywhere, just wants to get along and stay out of trouble.
And yet, was France more craven than other countries under the Nazi heel?
These musings were triggered by watching "Army of Shadows," a 1969 film about the French underground, which has taken almost 40 years to reach the United States.
Its director-screenwriter was Jean-Pierre Melville, a French Jew born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, who expressed his admiration for the author of "Moby Dick" by changing his last name.
Melville, who fought in the underground and died in 1973, remains somewhat of an icon among cineastes, remembered for his reportorial-style gangster pictures, his strong influence on the French New Wave movies and the masterful, sparse creation of his pictures' atmosphere. The latter talent is quite in evidence in "Shadows," whose characters are not afraid of long silences or performing an action in real time.
In one striking scene, resistance leader Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) has just escaped from the Nazis and runs endlessly down a darkened street. He sees an open barbershop and tells the monosyllabic proprietor that he wants a shave.
For the next five minutes, the barber goes through the minutiae of his craft, stroke by stroke, never exchanging a word with his customer. Yet, the scene holds immense tension. Does the barber realize that his client is a fugitive? Will he slit his throat or call the police?
For a movie pitting patriots against collaborators and occupiers, there is surprisingly little action. No blown bridges, sabotaged railroads or pitched gun battles.
Granted, there are indications that the resistance group is rescuing downed Allied pilots, and we see the disfigured faces of Nazi torture victims. But most of the time, Gerbier and his small band is busy simply surviving, escaping from SS pursuit, finding safe houses and trying to rescue comrades from German prisons.
Clearly, the coolest and smartest among the underground fighters is Mathilde, a middle-aged woman, memorably portrayed by onetime sex bomb Simone Signoret. But even Mathilde has a weakness -- she cannot bear to discard a photo of her 17-year-old daughter -- and the one slip proves fatal.
In its slow, methodical way, the Melville film strips the glamour and derring-do from his depiction of wartime resistance, surely a more honest portrayal than Hollywood's triumphant wartime epics.
"Army of Shadows" opens May 12 at Laemmle's Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information, go to www.laemmle.com and www.rialtopictures.com.
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