Who would have guessed that a thirty-seven-year-old foreign film would be the summer’s first sleeper hit? Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film, faded into obscurity after an initial lukewarm reception in his native France. Cynical Parisians, eager to distance themselves from their unsophisticated recent history, first dismissed its portrayal of Vichy Resistance members as pro-Gaullist nostalgia (Melville was himself a veteran of the Resistance). Now, with the director’s reputation secure as the French Alfred Hitchcock (his noir classics include Le Samourai and Bob le Flambeur), critics on both sides of the Atlantic are calling Army of Shadows one of the best films ever made.
It is certainly the best film this summer. Dark as it is, it is also a wild ride. Time magazine recommends it as an alternative to audiences bored with Poseidon and the new Mission Impossible. There are good guys and bad guys in this movie too, but with Melville’s expertly pared down direction, it is difficult to tell who is who.
In an unforgettable sequence, a recently escaped Vichy prisoner, panting after running for his life, hides in what he realizes is a barbershop. “What do you want?” asks the poker faced barber. “A shave,” he replies, sitting down, directly facing a Petain poster on the wall. The barber gets to work, teasing us with his knife. What will he do with it? Film often gives us a sense of omniscience, the foreshadowing and foreboding work by actors that can’t stop acting; but from Melville’s perspective stoicism is the craft of suspense. We do not know friend from foe as we do not know who will live or who will die. Call it sangfroid; this somber note is more deeply felt by modern audiences infused with the specter of history. We know the Resistance leaders in 1942-43 could do little more than save their own skin–and most failed at even that; but we still want the good guys to prevail.
Army of Shadows makes its U.S. theatrical debut just as Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française and a new translation of Elie Weisel’s Night top the New York Times Bestseller lists (fiction and nonfiction, respectively). Like Melville (who died in 1973), Nemirovsky did not live to see the publication of her two novellas, Storm in June and Dolce. She did not live to write the following three volumes of what was to be her WWII answer to War and Peace. She died in a concentration camp at the age of thirty-nine.
Suite Française was buried in an even deeper vault than Army of Shadows. For many years, her daughter couldn’t bear to open what she imagined to be her mother’s journals. Over sixty years passed before Denise Epstein transcribed her Ukrainian-émigrée mother’s masterpiece and submitted it for publication.
Nemirovsky, who died in 1942, wrote these volumes as this history was made, an unheard of accomplishment in fiction. Her book is rich in irony and wisdom of the kind we expect from someone looking at it in retrospect; but perhaps prose this dark could only come out contemporaneous events. There is nothing else quite like this remarkable book.
Do not let the story behind the book distract from Nemirovsky’s masterful writing. Her goal, illustrated in the Appendix of notes in the back of the book, was to demonstrate the power of individuals in spite of a collective oppressor. She wanted to give every one of the suffering a voice “that will interest people in 1952 or 2052.” The “historical side will fade away,” but we can remember the individuals that lived through these tragic events.
The first story, Storm in June, accomplishes this by introducing a dozen characters of various ages and class ranks as they make their way out of Paris on the eve of invasion in 1940. Reactions to the invasion are frenzied or blasé; characters are charitable or greedy. Some live and some die.
The second story focuses on an occupied small town, a year later. A dangerous pas de deux between a village woman and German soldier echos France’s submission to the Third Reich. Nemirovsky shows romance, well, hooking up, was not uncommon in this situation, as most of the men in the village were by then POWs.
Every one of these large, heavy women had someone they loved in one of those camps: they were working for him; they were saving for him; they were putting money aside for his return, so he could say, “You really took care of everything; you’re a good wife.” Each woman pictured her absent man, just hers; each woman imagined in her own way the place he was held captive; one thought of a pine forest, another of a cold room, yet another of fortress-like walls, but each of them ended up imagining miles of barbed wire surrounding their men and isolating them from the rest of the world. The farmers’ wives and villagers alike felt their eyes fill with tears.
As did mine as I reached the end of Suite Française, despite the beautiful June sky. The Holocaust stole from us not only one of the greatest twentieth-century novelists but all of these unforgettable characters she brought to life.
Joanne McNeil is a writer in Chicago, Il. Her website is joannemcneil.com.