There have been a number of French films over the last few years about World War Two which, even if they are not particularly good examples of the cinematic art, at least draw attention to important aspects of history which would otherwise not be known or not known particularly well. Days of Glory (Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) deals with the treatment of African colonial troops fighting in the Free French forces in the Second World War. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crime, Robert Guédiguian, 2009) – perhaps one of the more successful – looks at the events of the” l’affiche rouge” (“red poster”) affair in which the Nazis sought to present prominent resistance fighters in Paris as foreign criminals. The title was taken from the caption on a Nazi propaganda poster, which reads “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime”.
The Round-up (La rafle, Roselyne Bosch, 2010) is a faithful retelling of the 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” and the events surrounding it where the Vichy authorities in Paris, going beyond what their Nazi masters demanded, rounded up 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, and kept them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (winter cycling track) until they were transported to French concentration camps and thence to their death in the camps in the East. (Some of the publicity suggested that this film was the first to bring this knowledge to a wide audience. In fact there were at least two French films portraying this event: Les Guichets du Louvre (The Gateways to the Louvre) (Michel Mitrani, 1974), and Mr. Klein (David Losey, 1976).
Free Men (Les hommes libres, Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011) joins this list. It is set in and around Paris’s Muslim community and in particular the city’s Central Mosque. Jews and resistance members were being hidden in the Mosque’s cellars while, up above, this place of worship was frequently visited by German occupiers.
There are two prominent real-life characters in this little-known story. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is Rector of the Mosque, (played by Anglo-French veteran, Michael Lonsdale); and Salim Halali, the gifted Algerian Jewish singer, passing as an Arab to escape deportation and living under the protection of the Mosque, (played by Israeli Palestinian actor, Mahmoud Shalaby). Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is played as a courageous man but also a subtle diplomat, leading on the Wehrmacht officers with promises of an alliance with the Moroccan monarchy.
At the centre of the film is Younes, played by Tahar Rahim (who starred in Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009)), whose character is based on a composite of several real-life individuals. Younes is a young apolitical Algerian black-marketeer, concerned only with himself and his family back home. He is forced to become an informer for the collaborationist police but, under the influence of his politicised cousin, he is gradually drawn into taking sides against the Nazis.
Younes’s metamorphosis into a militant in the resistance is slow and gradual. His first act of resistance is to deliver false identity papers to Jews living in hiding. He is too late to help the parents but he leads the two young children to the Mosque where they are taken in and given papers saying they are Muslims. The Germans begin to suspect the Mosque of both harbouring Jews and Resistance members and providing Jews with false paperwork saying they are Muslims.
So does it work as a film? Unfortunately good intentions don’t always make good films. The weak script and mise en scène undermine the humanist project of the film. In terms of genre, Free Men is perhaps a thriller but the moments of suspense and intrigue are few and far between. It’s probably best to think of it as a psychological drama, but without the tension you would expect from that genre.
One of the problems with the film is that it frequently initiates potentially interesting plot strands only to seemingly leave those ideas as non-sequiturs, with the result that the film wastes several opportunities for emotional impact. For example, Younes sees a young man coming out of Salim’s room. He is shocked and reacts badly but when he sees Salim again he apologises for his reaction. But that is it. It was hardly worthwhile to raise the question of Younes’s gayness if nothing was going to be done with it in the film. Likewise, Younes is attracted to Leila, a young woman in the mosque. We discover that far from being the submissive Muslim female, she is a leading member of the Algerian Communist Party who sees the resistance against the Nazis as a stage in the liberation of Algeria. She is arrested and Younes witnesses her being taken away. It’s not as if we’re expecting an all-guns-blazing rescue à la John Wayne but it’s frustrating that this narrative strand, once raised, is frittered away.
The film also suffers from its low budget (around €8 million) for a period piece. For example, the liberation of Paris – which many cinemagoers will be familiar with both from documentary footage as well as a number of fiction films – is evoked as well as it could be with a few dozen extras, lots of flags and, I think, three vehicles, one of which looked vaguely military.
My overall impression of the film is that it felt like an earnest TV movie. It is bland and inoffensive, qualities you wouldn’t normally associate with Resistance films. Usually when I watch such films (and I’m thinking in particular of Jean-Pierre Melville’s marvellous Army of Shadows (L’armée de l’ombre, 1969)), I have a kind of trepidation at the likely scenes of torture and degradation. We were spared these on the whole but at the expense of involvement in the drama. The only real suspense I recall in the film is the scene of the evacuation of those in hiding being led down through the tunnels to a boat on the Seine which leads them to relative safety in Algeria.
One of the strong points of the film was performance. Lonsdale is as good as he was in Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010). And Tahir showed he is a subtle and intense actor who is capable of demonstrating a range of emotions. The progression he makes from barely literate factory worker to full-fledged revolutionary is by far the most captivating aspect in an otherwise plodding screenplay
I should add that, despite a good familiarity with the Occupation and Resistance in World War 2 France, I was completely unaware of the role of the Paris Central Mosque and I have the film to thank for that. And I liked the North African music a lot.