The subject of the film seems perfect for you, but the idea of making it did not come immediately. Why?
I think the choice was too obvious, in fact. Manouchian the Armenian, the German occupation (my mother was born in Germany) and communism—the combination of those three elements probably brought it too close to home. Ever since I was born, Iʼve heard Manouchianʼs story. Heʼs up there in the pantheon of communist Resistance heroes. I particularly remember reading, as a kid, the letter he wrote before he died. For Manouchian to say, “I die with no hatred of the German people”, reassured me about my dual origins and humanity in general.
You made THE ARMY OF CRIME as a way of keeping their story alive, passing it on…
Yes. I think the worst thing thatʼs happening to us is that the strands have been broken. In the last 25-30 years, there has been a break with five or six generations of struggle and counter-culture. Today, people are disoriented. Probably the most serious consequence of the gradual removal of the Communist Party from the French political landscape is the disappearance of a counter-model that structured class consciousness in towns and factories…
Jokingly, I say that THE ARMY OF CRIME is national peopleʼs cinema, in reference to Jean Vilarʼs National Peopleʼs Theatre. Because the film is a concentrate of culture, legend and wonderful historical characters… These Jews, Armenians, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Italians and Spaniards fighting for the same cause set an example in our world of striking inequality, and religious and cultural sectarianism. And I have no problem in saying that my approach is also educational. I take complete responsibility for that.
How do you make fiction out of real-life events and people who actually existed?
I didnʼt hesitate to take a few liberties, which I am sure do not contradict history. The overall impact of the characters—what they did and their place in history—is respected. I changed certain events or reworked the chronology so that my story would work.
At the beginning, the film chronicles society and family life of the period…
Yes. From the start, I wanted to develop simultaneously the three major strands— Rayman, Elek and Manouchian (I have to point out in memory of the resistance fighters in Manouchianʼs group that we could make 23 films with the 23 characters). Showing where they lived, how their parents, brothers and sisters lived… Yes, it chronicles society, itʼs the antithesis of an action movie, but it allows us to identify with the characters. Theyʼre not abstract heroes who pop out of nowhere. They are demystified heroes. The film shows precisely how the young members of the Manouchian group came to join the Resistance—their motives, the process…
Individually, these very young men and women—often under 20—want to fight back because they canʼt bear whatʼs happening. Theyʼre indignant, rebellious. But there is also a predisposition to act this way: generally, their parents, from Central Europe, Armenia, Italy or Spain, have suffered from discrimination and oppression. Early in their lives, these young people are struck by an idea of freedom, by what universal moral principles that are above the law. They soon join the FTP-MOI (immigrant, working-class partisans), where they have discipline drilled into them inorder to be more efficient.
They needed organizing because a lot of them were very young and inexperienced, slightly hot-headed, and they continued to live their lives. They were sometimes careless, arrogant almost in the sense that they felt invincible. I like that aspect of their characters, which is redolent of the libertarian spirit. They are not sheep, who will blindly follow and obey. I said to myself that I had to draw these young people towards something definitively modern by making them respond to eternal questions: What is our capacity for revolt? What do we oppose? How do we behave in a group?
On set, you were surrounded by numerous young actors—Virginie Ledoyen, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Lola Naymark, Adrien Jolivet… What was it like welcoming this new generation into your “cinéma”?
I think it was a great experience for them and for me. Bringing to life a story that the working-class movement no longer recounts overlapped with the very essence of filmmaking, because I canʼt make a film, in all modesty, that doesnʼt stem from a vision of the world, a moral that needs passing on. Maybe these young actors arenʼt often confronted by that in modern cinema. For whatever reason, they all agreed that this relationship to history and to cinema had been missing for them.
Death is never banal in THE ARMY OF CRIME, for the characters and audience alike. How did you construct your ethical take on violence?
I think there are two ways of obscuring violence. The first and more prevalent derives from a sort of indulgence in naturalism by which the violence becomes a spectacle. The Americans are very good at that. The second, more European way, is to show nothing or only in a very euphemistic way. In both instances, violence is not denounced. I donʼt think we should dodge the subject. Resorting to violence should continue to shock us, to seem like something that we can and must try to avoid. We have to manage to combine the spectacular, demanded by the audience, and the crucial denunciation of violence. In each scene, there is probably only one way of doing this and you have to find it.
From that point of view, Missak Manouchian is an emblematic character, a non- violent man compelled to violence…
Yes. He returns to the scene of the bombing to consider what he has done, to see the corpses of the German soldiers. He says, “I have become a true fighter.” And he cries. Itʼs an absolute contradiction of his violent act. One of the characters in the film sums it up: “We kill because we are partisans of life.” Itʼs because they donʼt want to kill that they kill. Manouchian takes that paradox to its furthest limit.
The film has no archive footage, but you use a lot of radio archives. These propaganda messages being read by the voices of the period add to the sense of disgust that they provoke…
In the film itʼs mostly the voice of Philippe Henriot, a notorious collaborator, that we hear on the radio. What is said is even more brutal because we donʼt see the face of the person talking. The content is stripped bare almost. The arguments are horrifying. How can anyone express such abject ideas, in a very pompous voice, moreover, with such bombastic diction, and above all how could people swallow such a pack of outrageous lies?
Even if itʼs not the crux of the movie, the presentation of the group as the “Army of Crime” on the famous red poster also allowed me to show how opinion is manipulated. Which is why I chose those extracts because they reveal how lies are spread about whoʼs an immigrant, whoʼs a leader, and so on. These methods of disinformation, relatively speaking, are still in use today.
Did you have any problems shooting on location in modern-day Paris?
Itʼs increasingly complicated. The buildings or places in Paris of the period have been gentrified, repainted and rehabilitated. We scouted locations for three months. Itʼs a painstaking task to blend studio and location work. After the shoot, we resorted to digital techniques exactly 133 times. Itʼs all very costly. This filmʼs budget is two and a half times my usual budget.
How did you approach recreating history?
A director must have an opinion on how it is recreated, on the sets and costumes.Excuse the pun, but I wanted the film to show the army of light, the light that only these young people glimpse in a world going through the darkest period of its history. Thatʼs why I wanted the film to be sunny and colorful. Once thatʼs been defined, itʼs not up to the director to take care of it; his preoccupations should be the storytelling, actors and scene structure.
In your early films, you separated realism and stylization, but now you tend to combine them more and more…
If the storytelling is good, you can do what you want. Of course, it has to be justified. I simply resorted to forms that have been around in movies for a long time—combining black & white and color, superimposition… If I tried to tell the story by more conventional means, Iʼm not sure I could, in just one scene, at least. Iʼd probably have to add a couple more explanatory scenes. You can use the locations to add stylistic elements, also. For example, Manouchian and Epsteinʼs arrest: I wanted it to look good, stylish. We looked for an unusual location without worrying about historical reality— they werenʼt at all arrested where we shot—and we found this stretch of water on top of a building in Paris, level with the rooftops. Itʼs an amazing place. Itʼs a theatrical approach that tells you more than the simple process of an arrest.
When they are arrested, the two characters gaze at each other and half smile. Why?
I got that idea on set. I didnʼt ask Simon Akbarian and Lucas Belvaux to express anything in particular. In fact, all the members of the group died with a smile, extremely proud of what they had done, writing in their last letters that they were convinced that the final months of misery had come and that the survivors and their descendants would soon live happily in a much better world. Rayman wrote that he couldnʼt stop feeling joyful. So, through Manouchian and Epsteinʼs smiles atarrest, I wanted to emphasize the faith that they all shared.
The Army of Crime hits UK cinemas on October 2nd 2009