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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

Army of Crime

Guédiguian depicts French resistance to Nazi invaders

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Life went on in Paris more or less as always after France fell to the Germans in 1940. The parks were filled with picnics and soccer, the streets were crowded with shoppers and culture continued with scarcely a blink. At first, for most people the main signs of change were the aliens in gray uniforms roaming the streets, noses in guidebooks, acting as much like sightseers as occupiers.

Writer-director Robert Guédiguian brilliantly shows how the dark gray shadows lengthened meter by meter in the opening scenes of Army of Crime. “This is France. Nothing can happen to us here. It is the land of human rights,” a Jewish mother tries to reassure her hothead son even though the grinding wheels of anti-Semitism have begun to turn.

Guédiguian takes the side of the Communist partisans who eventually rose against the Nazi occupation, soft-pedaling the docility of the French Communist Party during the period when its Soviet patrons were allies in aggression with Germany. Once Hitler stabbed Stalin in the back by invading Russia and the Gestapo began rounding up Communists, the party finally mounted a war of resistance. Guédiguian accurately shows that it began with vandalism and the random murder of Germans on the streets before coalescing into disciplined cadres fighting as an underground army.

The protagonist among the many characters of Guédiguian’s engrossing and fact-drawn drama is the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian. As a survivor of the Ottoman genocide against his people, he was determined not to stand idle as another holocaust gathered around him. Manouchian found himself at the center of a band of Jews and Italian and Spanish refugees organized by the Communist Party to demoralize the Germans and frighten their French collaborators. He was also at the center of a paradox expressed by one of his comrades: the idea of killing while fighting “on the side of life.” Manouchian was troubled by the ethics and chaffed at his Stalinist overseers, but ultimately felt he had no better option than to fight with bombs as well as words.

Army of Crime
frankly examines the many willing helpers the Nazis found in France—a nation whose politicians eagerly delivered its Jewish residents into the Nazi machinery of destruction. Some of the collaborators were careerists who found opportunities for advancement under the new order; others saw themselves as bulwarks against Bolshevism; some hated the Jews. Even among those fighting on the side of death, there were kind Germans and collaborators with guilty eyes. Army of Crime paints a complicated panorama of human response to extreme duress and oppression.

Army of Crime
screens 8 p.m. Dec. 3; 3 and 8 p.m. Dec. 4; and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre.