Two World War II Resistance Films Worth Watching
By: Major Nils
Much of Europe fell quickly under the shadow of German occupation at the outset of World War II. Starting with small, passive gestures and rapidly gaining momentum over the months and years to come, resistance to the Nazis formed in every occupied country. At their height, in the months leading up to the Allied invasion in 1944, these underground forces numbered in the hundreds of thousands: men, women, and children of all ages filling a wide range of roles, both direct and supporting, in the cause of freedom. Their actions included sabotage, assassination, propaganda, guerrilla warfare, intelligence collection, and the operation of escape networks for downed Allied aircrews. These efforts tied up German forces, destroyed equipment, killed and threatened enemy leaders and soldiers, bled the German supply system, and weakened the German troops' morale. At the same time, the Resistance helped to sustain the spirits of those in the occupied countries, and produced valuable intelligence for the Allies.
Two recent European films provide an inside look at two specific Resistance movements. The first tells the story of a group of French partisans in Paris, while the second portrays the Danish Holger Danske resistance group. Both of these films are based on actual events and true historical figures. They skillfully represent the detailed inner operations of such organizations, the daring and commitment of their members, and the staggering challenges and risks these individuals faced throughout the war. Both films are recommended viewing for those who wish to learn more about this period of history, or gain an appreciation for the realities of clandestine organizations and this realm of warfare in general.
L'armée du crime (Army of Crime)
Directed by Robert Guédiguian. France: Studio Canal, 2009; U.S. release in 2010. French with English subtitles. 133 minutes. DVD available on Amazon.com (price varies); also available to U.S. Netflix subscribers. ASIN: B0048FQFI4.
The story of L'armée du crime revolves around the French-Armenian resistance leader Missak Manouchian and his organization of French and immigrant fighters, many of whom are still memorialized as national heroes in both France and their respective countries of origin. Their operations, directed against the Nazis and French collaborators in Paris and its environs, included bombings directed against German troops, assassinations of key leaders (including a Nazi general), dissemination of propaganda, urban guerilla warfare, and sabotage. The carefully detailed examples of tradecraft featured throughout are fascinating, but the screenplay also vividly portrays the extensive supporting operations that, although often overlooked by historians, are just as crucial to effective resistance. This emotionally charged film gives us a perspective into the varying motivations of the group's members, their relationships and internal divisions, their moral dilemmas, and their suffering and loss.
Actions taken by the authorities to counter the group range from simple surveillance to violent reprisals against the general population. Viewers will note that those who hunt the insurgents are mostly French, not German, and that they often act with little more than a touch of direction from the Nazi occupiers. This may come as a bit of an awakening to those less familiar with the occupation, who may have thought that the oppression was entirely at the hands of the Germans. L'armée du crime makes this important historical point quite clear.
The high quality of the acting and cinematography serve to further enhance the story's inherent drama. Perhaps the most powerful moment comes as the film concludes with a staggering tie-in to the real-life history of Manouchian and his group. If you have an interest in this remarkable aspect of the war against Nazi Germany, you won't want to miss this film.
Flammen & Citronen (Flame and Citron)
Directed by Ole Christian Madsen. Denmark: Nimbus Film Productions, 2009. Danish with English subtitles. 130 minutes. DVD available on Amazon.com (price varies); also available to U.S. Netflix subscribers. ASIN: B004GJMW0W.
Flammen & Citronen (Flame and Citron) tells the true story of two assassins in the Danish resistance: the debonair and confident Bent Faurschou-Hviid (Flame) and the bitter and scruffy Jørgen Haagen Schmith (Citron, "Lemon"). The saga is narrated by the character of Bent and is generally seen through his eyes. Throughout the movie we see the incredible strengths of this odd couple, as well as their fundamental human flaws, and the personal and moral challenges each faces as they work to undermine Denmark's occupiers.
At the outset, Flame and Citron have a relatively simple (although difficult) role—that of killing Danish collaborators. This quickly becomes complicated, however, as their leaders begin to direct hits on German officers and civilians, which actions may lead to retaliation against innocent Danish civilians. The possibility of a double agent somewhere within the resistance organization poses yet another danger.
One of the profound realities of the underground depicted throughout the film is the way in which the duo and their fellow resistance members must operate continually under the noses of their Gestapo and Abwehr pursuers— in shops, restaurants, bars, and on the streets. This initially is of little consequence, as their faces and identities are unknown to the enemy. Here the essence of the information advantage is laid bare: we see the far superior forces of the Nazis made impotent as the members of the resistance blend perfectly with the population. The film gives a real feel for this nerve-wracking dynamic, and also shows that the apparent cover it offers can be fragile: the very success of the pair soon puts a price on their heads.
Another interesting feature of Flammen & Citronen is its portrayal of the resistance organizational structure. We see the chain of command that runs from their group to a local leader, to a higher command in Stockholm, and eventually to the British Special Operations Executive. We see the manner in which this chain directs the operations, coordinates support, and disseminates intelligence— and the friction that can arise along the way. The film also introduces the local organization, a crew of men and women of all ages and professions: a leader, an expert researcher, a member who has extensive connections and sells information to both sides, a weapons expert, a pair of students, a former nun with her own resistance cell, and a number of others. While the focus is certainly on Flame and Citron, we occasionally see the workings of the broader group throughout the story.
From an artistic perspective, the film is highly cinematic. It begins with carefully selected segments of actual war footage that lend context to the story, and offers many visually rich scenes on location in both Copenhagen and Stockholm. The acting is superb and the narration is skillful, at times almost poetic, as Bent leads us through this complicated story.
From chain-of-command challenges to personal dilemmas, and of course edgeof- your-seat action, Flammen & Citronen provides a rare, valuable glance inside the complicated and morally challenging world of the Danish resistance fighters in World War II.
About the Author(s): Major Nils French is a Canadian Army officer studying at NPS.