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
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,
”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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
of Shadows by Joseph Kessel (1944, Alfred A.
Knopf); see Kessel bio on page 20
Courteline (1858-1929) was a French dramatist
and novelist known for his satiric wit.
satire on military life, published in 1886
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.
by MGM in 1962
equivalent of 250,000 New Francs; approximately
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.
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
Brossolette (1903-1944) was a socialist, journalist
and member of the Resistance; captured by the
Germans, he jumped to his death from Gestapo
“Chained Duck,” a French satirical
magazine still being published today.
Bureau Central de
Renseignements et d'Action, the Free French
military intelligence unit.
was the German administrative designation for
the greater Paris region
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
(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
rural guerrilla bands
of the Resistance
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.
Henriot was the Vichy
government's Secretary of State for Information
Melville crime thriller
released in 1966; Ventura played a character
called Gustave Minda, nicknamed “Gu”.