Robert Guédiguian’s The Army of Crimeopens and closes with different images of the same event: the deportation of 23 members of a communist resistance cell consisting mostly of Armenian, Jewish, Italian, and Spanish immigrants en route to be executed for inciting sabotage and committing a series of assassinations of German soldiers and officers in occupied Paris over the course of 1943. In the first scene, the condemned sit pensively behind the barred windows of a police bus as a narrator recites their foreign-sounding names and asserts each “died for France.” Outside the bus, French citizens obliviously stroll and bicycle by enjoying the sunny day. The closing scene contains a similar roll call of the conspirators, as they are loaded onto the bus by Parisian gendarmes. In a voiceover of the last letter he wrote to his French wife Mélinée ( Virginie Ledoyen) who evaded capture, the group’s leader, the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), confirms that he [End Page 17]will be executed for enlisting in the “Army of Liberation,” thereby contesting the collaborationist Vichy government’s vilification of his group as an “army of crime.”
The French Communist Party recruited the Manouchian group from the ranks of Vichy’s disenfranchised and persecuted. As immigrants, communists, and, in almost half the cases, Jews, the film’s protagonists faced detention, deportation, or death after the defeat of the Third Republic, the promulgation of Vichy’s repressive policies, and the occupation of two-thirds of France by German troops. The vulnerability of people in these categories increased between 1941 and 1943 as Vichy cracked down on communists following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, rounded up Jewish immigrants for deportation to death camps in Poland, and drafted French laborers to work in Germany. As the tyranny of Vichy became more onerous, Dupont (Horatiu Malaele), the liaison from the French Communist Party, orders Manouchian and his colleagues to launch a coordinated wave of attacks on high profile targets like German troop transports and Nazi elites. These culminated in the murder of SS General Julius Ritter, the director of the German labor conscription program in France. To curry favor with Hitler and deter future insurgencies, Vichy established the Special Brigades to identify the subversives, decimate their ranks, and discredit them as alien thugs.
Manouchian’s partisans shared a history of being the victims of exclusionary nationalisms elsewhere and consequently embraced communism as the antidote to ethnic, political, and religious persecution. Haunted by the memory of the Armenian Genocide that orphaned him, Manouchian settled in France where he edited literary journals and a newspaper for the Armenian expatriate community and joined the French Communist Party. His background as an organizer for the communist MOI, the Immigrant Workers Movement, serves as grounds for his temporary imprisonment at the beginning of the film and provides him with the contacts and credibility to be tapped by Dupont to command a Parisian unit of the FTP-MOI, the military wing of the MOI in 1943. A prominent figure in this unit was Olga Bancic (Olga Legrand), a Rumanian Jewish communist who had smuggled arms to Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. Thomas Elek (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) was the son of Jewish communists who had fled Hungary. He initially protests Vichy collaboration by drawing hammers and sickles on the walls of his lycée, beats up a fellow student who labels him a “filthy Yid, “and bombs a bookstore when a sign is posted on his mother’s restaurant marking it as a “Jewish business.” Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stévenin), the son of a Polish Jewish tailor shoots German soldiers pointblank after hearing that his father has been interned in a French camp and faces imminent deportation. Guédiguian weaves an engrossing political thriller out of the exploits of this unlikely alliance of rebels and their ultimate entrapment and martyrdom.
The film merits attention for the significant cinematic, contemporary, and historical issues it explicitly or implicitly raises: 1) it challenges the consensus portrayal of resistance and collaboration in...