Lately I’ve written about two very different members of the French Resistance in World War II: Marguerite, the daughter of the artist Henri Matisse, and Jean de Noailles. How did just a small number of people find the courage to actively resist the tyranny of the Gestapo in France, when most French citizens went about their lives hoping to avoid danger by collaborating with or ignoring the German occupiers? The reasons seem to be as varied as the people themselves.
I recently watched an absorbing 2009 film about the Resistance. It is semi-fictional, based on the courageous real-life actions of real people, supplemented by some fictional characters and situations. The fictional characters serve to humanize the bare-bones stories of the resistance fighters. The director was Robert Guediguian.
The film, which is in French with subtitles, begins with a busload of ordinary-looking people riding through Paris on a sunny day. They gaze out the bus windows, make small talk, joke with each other, or keep to themselves. I somehow missed the subtitles, so not until the end of the film did I realize the heartbreaking reason these 22 people were riding that bus.
Next, we see the events that led to that bus ride in 1944, just a few weeks before Paris was liberated. Back in 1941, at the beginning of the German occupation, a ragtag group of resisters began wreaking havoc on the German occupiers. Their leader was the real-life Missak Manouchian, an Armenian poet who was at first ready to die, but not to kill. That changed.
A large number of Resistance fighters were not French. Some of the fighters were Jews; many were Communists. All were implacable enemies of the German occupiers, willing to make the terrible choices dictated by resistance. Even knowing that they were losing the war, the Germans used them in a propaganda campaign which called them an “Army of Crime.” Red posters featuring them appeared all over France in the days before their executions.
Marguerite Matisse and Jean de Noailles are featured in my previous posts,
A review of “Army of Crime” is at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/movies/20army.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. The film is streaming on Netflix.
Join me next time for more explorations into the fascinating history (and art) of Europe!