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Melville on ARMY OF SHADOWS

 

Excerpted from Melville on Melville by Rui Nogueira (New York: The Viking Press,         1971); translation revised and annotated by Bruce Goldstein (2005)

When did you first read Kessel's book?

I discovered Army of Shadows1 in London in I943 and have wanted to film it ever since. When I told Kessel in I968 that my old dream was going to come true at last, he didn't believe anyone could pursue an idea so tenaciously for twenty-five years.

Although you’ve been very faithful to the spirit of the book, you’ve again made a very personal film.


This is my first movie showing things I’ve actually known and experienced. But my truth is of course subjective and has nothing to do with actual truth. With the passing of time we’re all inclined to recall what suits us rather than what actually happened. The book written by Kessel in the heat of the moment in 1943 is necessarily very different from the film shot cold by me in 1969. There are many things in the book -- wonderful things -- that are impossible to film now. Out of a sublime documentary about the Resistance, I’ve created a retrospective reverie, a nostalgic pilgrimage back to a time that profoundly marked my generation.

On October 20, 1942, I was twenty-five years old. I’d been in the army since the end of October 1937. Behind me were three years of military life (one of them during the war) and two in the Resistance. That leaves its mark, believe me. The war years were awful, horrible and . . . marvelous!

So the quotation from Georges Courteline2 , which opens Army of Shadows, is a reflection of your own feelings: “Unhappy memories! Yet be welcome,
for you are my distant youth.”


Precisely. I love that phrase and I think it's extraordinarily true. I suffered a lot during the first months of my military service, and I thought it hardly possible that a man as witty, intelligent and sensitive as Courteline could have written Les Gaîtés de l'Escadron3, but of course he too had been very unhappy during his service. Then one day, thinking over my own past, I suddenly understood the charm that “unhappy memories” can have. As I grow older, I look back with nostalgia on the years from 1940 to 1944, because they’re part of my youth.

Army of Shadows is considered a very important book by members of the Resistance.

Army of Shadows is the book about the Resistance: the greatest and the most comprehensive of all the documents about this tragic time in the history of humanity. But I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance. So with one exception -- the German occupation -- I excluded all realism. Whenever I saw a German I always used to think, “Whatever happened to all those Teutonic Aryan gods?” They weren't these mythical blond, blue-eyed giants; they looked very much like Frenchmen. So in the movie I ignored the stereotype.

Did you have a technical adviser for the German uniforms?

I saw to everything myself with the assistance of my costume designer, Madame Colette Baudot, who had done a great deal of research on the subject. One day, while we were filming the shooting range sequence, the French army captain serving as technical advisor told me that there was something wrong with the SS uniforms. So I summoned Mme. Baudot and the captain said to her, “I’m from Alsace, Madame, and during the war I was forcibly enrolled in the SS. So I can assure you that an SS member always wore an armband with the name of his division on his left arm . . .” “No, sir,” Mme. Baudot replied, “You must have belonged to an operational division; the SS in the film are from a depot division.” And the captain had to admit she was right.

Some critics in France accused you of presenting the Resistance workers as characters from a gangster film.

It's absolutely idiotic. I was even accused of having made a Gaullist film! It's absurd how people always try to reduce to its lowest common denominator a film which wasn't intended to be abstract, but happened to turn out that way. Well, hell! I wanted to make this movie for twenty-five years and I have every reason to be satisfied with the result.

The Resistance people themselves like the film very much, don't they?

Yes, I’ve had wonderful letters, and when I arranged a private screening for twenty-two of the great men of the Resistance, I could see how moved they were. They were all Gerbiers, Jardies, Felixes.
”As leader of the Combat movement4,” Henri Frenay told me, “I was obliged to return to Paris in December 1941, even though I had no wish to see the city under occupation. I got out of the Métro at the Etoile station, and as I was walking towards the exit I could hear the sound of footsteps overhead . . . it was a curious feeling keeping in step with them. When I came out on the Champs-Elysées I saw the German army filing past in silence, then suddenly the band struck up . . . and you reconstructed the scene for me in the first shot of your film!”

For that scene, you know, I used the sound of real Germans marching. It's inimitable. It was a crazy idea to want to shoot this German parade on the Champs-Elysées. Even today I can't quite believe I did it. No one managed it before me, not even Vincente Minnelli for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse5, because actors in German uniform had been banned from the Champs-Elysées since the First World War. One German was anxious to buy the footage from me at any price, because all they have in Germany is a black and white version of the parade.

To do this shot, which may well be the most expensive in the history of French cinema -- it cost twenty-five million Old Francs6 -- I was first allowed to rehearse on Avenue d'Iéna. At three o'clock in the morning, with all traffic stopped and the Avenue lit entirely by gas lamps, men in uniform began to march past. It was a fantastic sight. Wagnerian. Unfilmable. I swear to you that I was overwhelmed. Then I was afraid . . . I began to wonder how it would go at six in the morning when I was shooting on the Champs-Elysées.

You know, of all the shots I’ve done in my life, there are only two I'm really proud of: this one, and the nine-minute, thirty-eight-second shot in Le Doulos7.

Where did you shoot the opening concentration camp scenes?

In a former concentration camp which was completely in ruins and which I partially reconstructed for the film. Alongside this old camp there was another one, brand new, clean . . . waiting. It had been built two years before. All over the world there are camps like this one. It's fantastic. Terrifying.

The Commandant of the camp is physically very different from the one Kessel describes in his book.

Yes, mainly because I didn't want him to be unsympathetic. I made him a rather dry character, wearing the Pétain insignia, La Francisque. The emblem of the Fascist Party, in other words.

Why in the film, unlike the book, are Luc Jardie and his brother Jean-François each unaware of the other's clandestine activities?

I wanted to avoid melodrama. You don't see it? Perhaps you’re right. But go and see Army of Shadows at your local cinema. The moment the big boss comes down the ladder into the submarine and they realize he’s Jean-François's brother, the audience can't help going “Aaaahhh!” The two brothers' failure to meet is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Fate is shuffling the cards for all time: shot under a false name by the Gestapo, Jean-François will die without ever knowing that Saint-Luc is the head of the Resistance, and Saint-Luc will never discover what happened to his brother. The circumstances make the disappearance of Jean-François all the more tragic.

Why, in the film, does Jean-François send the Gestapo the anonymous letter denouncing himself?

This is one of those things I never explain, or don't explain enough. When Felix meets Jean-François in Marseilles, he says, “Well, still enjoying baraka?” When a man has baraka -- a divine grace bringing good fortune, according to the Arabs -- he feels immune to adversity. Jean-François isn’t afraid to send the letter which will mean his arrest because he’s convinced he’s got enough baraka to save Felix and to get away himself. But he’s got only one cyanide pill… the one he gives to Felix.

When Jean-François goes to see Saint-Luc, they have their meal in that sort of glass cage installed in the middle of the library . . .

There was no coal left during the war, and fuel oil wasn't used for heating in Paris. So apartments were freezing cold, especially in old houses with huge rooms; and people built these little wooden living spaces to go inside rooms, where they could eat or read and be more or less sheltered. You can't imagine what life in France was like at that time. People often slept fully dressed, shoes and socks included, because there was nothing you could do about the cold.

Things weren't much better where food was concerned. Hunger became an obsession. You thought of nothing else. I can still remember the indescribable joy I experienced one day when I managed to make a sort of sandwich with lard and garlic. In the mornings, to get the circulation going, we would drink a kind of old sock juice made out of roasted peas. Because I didn't want to make a picturesque film about war, I didn't go into any of these details.

As the story proceeds, my personal recollections are mingled with Kessel's, because we lived the same war. In the film, as in the book, Gerbier represents seven or eight different people. The Gerbier of the concentration camp is my friend Pierre Bloch, General de Gaulle's former Minister. The Gerbier who escapes from Gestapo Headquarters at the Hotel Majestic in Paris is Rivière, the Gaullist Deputy. As a matter of fact it was Rivière himself who described this escape to me in London. And when Gerbier and Jardie are crossing Leicester Square with the Ritz Cinema8 behind them advertising Gone With the Wind, I was thinking of what Pierre Brossolette9 said to me in the same circumstances: “The day the French can see that film and read the Canard Enchainé10 again, the war will be over. “

Why did you remove all the details explaining why the young man, Dounat, becomes a traitor?

To explain them would have been to detract from the idea of what a betrayal means. Dounat was too weak, too fragile . . . he reminds me a little of the young liaison officer -- he was fifteen -- we had at Castres for the Combat movement. One day I had been warned by Fontaine, the Political Commissioner for Vichy, that the Gestapo was preparing a raid, and I sent him to warn the Resistance group at Castres. Although he assured me he was carrying no compromising papers, a sort of instinct made me search him and I found a notebook full of addresses. A few moments later he got himself arrested by the Germans. Despite his position, Commissaire Fontaine was a genuine Resistant. Later, he too was arrested. He was deported and never came back.

What did you do during the war before you went to London?

I was a sub-agent of BCRA and also a militant with Combat and Libération. Then I went to London. Later, on March 11, 1944, at five o'clock in the morning to be precise, I crossed the Garigliano below Cassino with the first wave. At San Apollinare we were filmed by a cameraman from the U.S. Army Signal Corps. I remember hamming it up when I realized we were being filmed. There were still Germans at one end of the village, and Naples radio was playing Harry James's Trumpet Rhapsody.

I was also among the first Frenchmen to enter Lyons in uniform. Do you remember the spot where the scene between Gerbier and Mathilde takes place, beside the pigeon house? It was there, on that little Fourvière promontory belonging to the bishopric, that I arrived in a jeep with Lieutenant Gérard Faul. Lyons lay at our feet still full of Germans. We left that same evening after installing an observatory on Fourvière's little Eiffel Tower . . . When I think of everything that happened in those days, I'm amazed that the French don't make more films about the period.

Do you know when I saw Faul again? One Sunday morning in February 1969: the day I had the German army marching through the Arc de Triomphe. When the scene was in the can I went to the Drugstore des Champs-Elysées with Hans Borgoff, who had been the administrator of “Gross Paris” 12 during the four years of the Occupation, and whom I had brought from Germany to come and help me shoot this scene. While I was breakfasting with the man who used to march every day at the head of the German troops, I recognized a youthful old man sitting nearby: it was Lieutenant Faul, the man I had fought under in Italy and in France. Twenty-five years later the wheel had come full circle.

Why did you interpolate the scene where Luc Jardie is decorated in London by General de Gaulle?

Because in Colonel Passy's13 memoirs there’s a chapter about the Compagnon de la Libération insignia being awarded to Jean Moulin, and Luc Jardie is based, among others, on Jean Moulin14. I also thought it would be interesting to show how de Gaulle decorated members of the Resistance in his private apartments in London so as not to jeopardize their return to France.

Does the hotel room in London mean something particular to you?

It's an exact replica of the hotel room given to every Frenchman who came to London on business concerning the Resistance. Every time I meet a member of the Resistance, he asks how I knew what his room was like.

You end the film with a post-script telling of the deaths of the four leading characters. Is that what actually happened?

Of course. Like Luc Jardie, Jean Moulin died under torture after betraying one name: his own. Since he was no longer able to speak, one of the Gestapo chiefs, Klaus Barbie, handed him a piece of paper on which he had written “Are you Jean Moulins?” Jean Moulin's only reply was to take the pencil from Colonel Barbie and cross out the “s.”

A lot of people would have to be dead before one could make a true film about the Resistance and about Jean Moulin. Don't forget that there are more people who didn't work for the Resistance than people who did. Do you know how many Resistants there were in France at the end of 1940? Six hundred. It was only in February or March 1943 that the situation changed, because the first maquis 15 date from April 1943. And it was the proclamation by Sauckel 16about sending young people to Germany that made a lot of people prefer to go underground. It was not a matter of patriotism.

How did Kessel react to your film?

Kessel's emotion after the first screening of Army of Shadows is one of my most treasured memories. When he read the words telling of the deaths of the four characters, he couldn't stop himself from sobbing. He wasn't expecting those four lines which he hadn't written and which I hadn't put into the script.

Do you think the film was well received in official circles?

I don't know. I was at a screening at the Ministry of Information before an audience which included everybody who was anybody in the Parisian smart set. Among the two hundred people present there was only one Resistant, and he was the only one to remain transfixed in his seat after the screening. It was Friedman, the man who, one night in April I944, killed Philippe Henriot17 at the Ministry of Information.

Do you remember the moment in Le Deuxième Souffle18 when Lino Ventura crosses the railway line after the hold-up? When we shot that scene, Lino said to me, “I've got it, Melville. Today I am Gu!” “No,” I told him, “today you are Gerbier!” It took me nine years to persuade him to accept the role. When we shot the scene in Army of Shadows where he crosses the railway line in the early morning, we hadn't been on speaking terms for some time, but I am sure that at that moment he was thinking of what happened at Cassis railway station while we were filming Le Deuxième Souffle.

1 Army of Shadows by Joseph Kessel (1944, Alfred A. Knopf); see Kessel bio on page 20
2 Courteline (1858-1929) was a French dramatist and novelist known for his satiric wit.
3 a satire on military life, published in 1886
4 A resistance group founded by Henri Frenay (1905-1988) and others; Frenay also edited an underground newspaper by that name. Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were also Combat members.
5 released by MGM in 1962
6 the equivalent of 250,000 New Francs; approximately $50,000
7 Le Doulos (1962), a gangster film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo; the shot referred to by Melville is a 360-degree pan in a room full of reflecting glass. Le Doulos will be re-released by Rialto Pictures next year.
8 The Ritz was an actual London cinema, which had the distinction of playing Gone With the Wind for most of the war years (July 11, 1940 through June 8, 1944), the second longest run in a single West End cinema. Melville was lucky to film the Ritz marquee during the film’s 1969 reissue.
9 Pierre Brossolette (1903-1944) was a socialist, journalist and member of the Resistance; captured by the Germans, he jumped to his death from Gestapo headquarters
10 literally, “Chained Duck,” a French satirical magazine still being published today.
11 Bureau Central de Renseignements et d'Action, the Free French military intelligence unit.
12 “Gross Paris” was the German administrative designation for the greater Paris region
13“Coloney Passy” was the pseudonym for André Dewavrin (1911-1998), head of the BCRA and one of the chief architects of the French Resistance movement; Passy plays himself in Army of Shadows
14 Moulin (1899-1943) was a legendary Resistance fighter. He was captured and tortured to death by Klaus Barbie. Moulin’s ashes were transferred to the Panthéon in 1964. the dominantly 15 rural guerrilla bands of the Resistance
16 Fritz Sauckel (1894-1946), a senior German government official in charge of forced labor. He was convicted at the Nuremburg Trials for crimes against humanity and hanged.
17 Henriot was the Vichy government's Secretary of State for Information and Propaganda.
18 Melville crime thriller released in 1966; Ventura played a character called Gustave Minda, nicknamed “Gu”.

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