Top 10 French Resistance Films
By James Oliver
The Nazi occupation is maybe the most painful episode in the long history of France, a national humiliation that still stings nearly seventy years later. The dishonour is assuaged only by the memory of the Resistance, those heroic souls who risked (and often sacrificed) their lives to defend French soil and whose memory burns bright in French folklore.
The release of Jean-Perre Melville's monumental Army of Shadows on Blu-ray is an opportune time to survey how this period has been depicted in the movies. Oh, and while some of the clips that follow lack subtitles, rest assured that all the DVDs are fully English-friendly.
NB. We've limited ourselves to choosing from titles currently available in the UK
Resistance can take many forms. In Le silence de la mer, an old man and his granddaughter find an innovative way of obstructing the Francophile German officer billeted in their cottage: they remain mute, allowing all his doubts and anguish about the war to come forth. It was adapted from one of the key books of the occupation and directed by a young man who had himself served with the resistance, where he'd adapted the nom de guerre Jean-Pierre Melville...
The title refers to the Nazi curfew of Paris – if you wanted to be home on time, then you had to be on the last train or else. It's set amongst an acting troupe who take it upon themselves to shelter one of their number in their theatre and doing what little they can to stifle – or even undermine – the occupying forces. More polished than Francois Truffaut's early rough-and-ready nouvelle vague work, it's nonetheless a heartfelt piece and maybe the best of his later films.
Army of Crime is the most recent film on our list and proof that, even all these years later, we're still gripped by the war and its stories. Robert Guediguian's film follows the formation (by an Armenian living in Paris) of a single brigade, their campaign and the efforts of the invaders to track them down. A gripping, if downbeat, reconstruction of the times.
The biggest grossing film at the French box-office (until Titanic sank its record), La grande vadrouille looks, somewhat implausibly, at the lighter side of the occupation. French comedian Andre Bourvil plays a hapless house painter charged with getting an RAF crew (including Terry-Thomas!) out of harm's way. Inspired, surely, by Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be, it seems a probable influence on 'Allo 'Allo – but don't hold that against it.
The behaviour of the French film industry during the occupation would seem to prove the old maxim that 'film is a collaborative medium': many actors, directors and producers got very cosy indeed with their house-guests. Others, though, were more circumspect; Bertrand Tavernier's outstanding film studies the pressures (and the compromises...) that movie-makers of that era faced.
It's worth, I think, twinning it to a film actually made at that time, one mentioned in Laissez-Passer. It was basically impossible for French filmmakers to make anything but the most veiled comment on the plight of their nation (say what you will about the Nazis but they were world class censors. Not much slipped passed them!) But it's hard not to see Le Corbeau – a portrait of a provincial town torn apart by hatreds and pent-up rage, occasioned by poison pen-letters – as a oblique, and very grim, reflection of life during wartime...
For France to get back on its feet after the liberation, lies had to be told: collaboration was rare, it was said, and resistance common. It helped people sleep better at nights – until Marcel Ophuls came along and woke them up by rattling the skeletons in the cupboards. Low level treachery is exposed and the country's easy submission laid bare. Even resistance heroes come across badly. An incendiary film and one that's still loathed by certain sections of French society.
Although based in Britain, Joseph Losey hopped over the channel to make this, one of his most intriguing films. Alain Delon is the opportunistic, amoral art-dealer Robert Klein who discovers he has an echo – someone with his name who seems to be in the resistance. Worried lest his German friends suspect him of being Jewish, Klein follows 'Klein' and becomes progressively more paranoid. As ever, Losey thoroughly committed to offending his host nation: it shows casual collaboration and popular anti-Semitism, and climaxes in one of the most shameful moments in French history.
Now better known as the director of A Prophet, Jacques Audiard made his name with A Self Made Hero. Albert Dehousse (Mathieu Kassovitz) missed the war and his chance for glory. But once the shooting stops, he skips to Paris and starts moulding the past, constructing a new identity for himself as one of de Gaulle's most loyal foot soldiers. An excellent film.
OK, so the title gives the entire plot away (it's about a man (a resistance commando) who escapes (from a Nazi nick)) but it's not what happens that's important – it's how it goes down. We follow our hero as he calmly, patiently plans his escape. Every detail becomes heightened and amplified until we're as anxious as he is. As was his wont, Robert Bresson included a spiritual sub-plot but feel free to ignore that: the film works quite superbly as a gripping procedural thriller.
We met Jean-Pierre Melville at the head of the list, with the first feature he made as director. He returned to the occupation years throughout his career, first with Leon Morin, Pretre and then this, his masterpiece. Taken from Joseph Kessel's novel and blended with his own memories of the war, it is the opposite of the triumphalist narrative one might expect. The Resistance lose, repeatedly. They prove more effective at killing their own than les boche and it builds to one of the bleakest (and for my money the best) endings on film. Attacked as 'reactionary' by the class of '68 upon first release, it looks increasingly like one of the greatest of movies.
What did you think of the selection? Let us know below
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969
Melville's gripping and atmospheric adaptation of Joseph Kessel's seminal wartime novel has been ...
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969
Melville's gripping and atmospheric adaptation of Joseph Kessel's seminal wartime...
Robert Guediguian, 2009
French World War II drama chronicling the famous 1944 'Red Poster' case, in which a group of fore...
Gerard Oury, 1966
Comedy - for forty years the most successful French film in France of all time - about how the cr...
Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943
A dark film produced during the German Occupation from a pessimistic Clouzot. A village suffers a...
Jacques Audiard, 1996
In the final months of a war he has not fought in, a man decides to become a hero - to invent a b...
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949
Melville's cinematic adaptation of French Resistance writer Vercors' acclaimed 19...
Marcel Ophuls, 1969
A documentary originally made for French television in 1969 by director Marcel Op...