The camera pans slowly from face to face…22 men and one woman. Some look out the window of the transport they’re seated in. Some seem angry, others resigned. As the camera pauses at each face, the person’s name comes up, followed by “Died for France.” The time is 1944. They are the members of the French Resistance, the Manouchian Group. Many of them seem very young. In a few hours the men will be executed by a German firing squad. The woman will be taken to Germany where she will be beheaded with an axe.
Army of Crime tells the story of this group. They all lived in the same Paris neighborhood. Missak Manouchian, an Armenian, a poet and an intellectual, a man who was first ready to die but not to kill, becomes their leader. He learns to kill very well. The group is made up of Frenchmen, Italians, Poles, Armenians, Spaniards, Hungarians and Romanians. All are Communists. Many are Jews. Hours before his death, Manouchian wrote this passage in a letter to his wife:
My dear Melinée, my beloved little orphan,
In a few hours I will no longer be of this world. We are going to be executed today at 3:00. This is happening to me like an accident in my life; I don’t believe it, but I nevertheless know that I will never see you again.
What can I write you? Everything inside me is confused, yet clear at the same time. I joined the Army of Liberation as a volunteer, and I die within inches of victory and the final goal. I wish for happiness for all those who will survive and taste the sweetness of the freedom and peace of tomorrow. I'm sure that the French people, and all those who fight for freedom, will know how to honor our memory with dignity. At the moment of death, I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people, or for anyone at all; everyone will receive what he is due, as punishment and as reward. The German people, and all other people, will live in peace and brotherhood after the war, which will not last much longer. Happiness for all ... I have one profound regret, and that’s of not having made you happy; I would so much have liked to have a child with you, as you always wished. So I'd absolutely like you to marry after the war, and, for my happiness, to have a child and, to fulfill my last wish, marry someone who will make you happy…”
How did it come to this? Some young men in Manouchian’s neighborhood, infuriated by the arrogance and injustice of the German occupiers, began finding ways to strike back…shooting down German officers, throwing a grenade, leaving a crude bomb. Manouchian, once arrested by the French police and tortured, was released. He could see that organizing a group with selected targets would be more effective than individual and uncoordinated strikes. He was encouraged to do this by the senior leaders of the Resistance, all Communists, too. Before long, the Manouchian Group was blowing up troop trains, killing quantities of Germans in broad daylight, even assassinating a German general.
The group was slowly hunted down… not by Germans, but by the collaborating French police. (Himmler sent praise to them after they rounded up hundreds of Jews and deported them east. His praise? That not a single German soldier was needed. The French police did it all.)
Army of Crime concentrates on perhaps a dozen of the members, and we get to know well three or four of them. The movie is tense and intense as they plot, kill and put not only themselves at risk but also their mothers and fathers. The movie also is disturbing, in that it tells a story that for years the French did not want to face up to. Those pursing the Manouchian Group were French policemen. Those who captured the members were French policemen. All were tortured, by French policemen. They were turned over for execution to the Germans by French policemen.
After the members of the Manouchian Group were shot, German propagandists blanketed France with red posters showing their faces, listing their “crimes” and calling the group just an “army of crime.”
Two things remain in my mind after watching this movie. First, how brave ordinary people can be when faced with brutality and injustice. Second, how easily it can be for some police forces to see their job not as protecting the people and insuring that justice has a chance to work, but of protecting the status quo, of beating, spraying and imprisoning those who are considered by their leaders as not being docile enough or who simply exercise their rights.
Among the many fine actors are Simon Abkarian as Missak Manouchian and Virginie Ledoyan as his wife, Melinee. Army of Crime was directed by Robert Guediguian.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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