[Row Three programming if we owned a Rep Cinema]
The Nazi Occupation Triple Bill
Rome Open City – 5pm
The Last Metro – 7pm
Army of Shadows – 9:30pm
Europe in the earlier half of the 1940s was thick with uncertainty, fear, and violence, gripped by the ever-spreading menace of Nazi Germany. The cities and countries that fell before it – not least of all portions of Italy and France – were forced to confront the new, stifling conditions of occupation. The civilians who chose to stay carried on as best they could while others rose to new challenges in their tireless efforts to evade, thwart, and defeat the invaders. This time of soldiers, spies, traitors, and heroes has become the stuff of many great films that span a gamut of genres from action to romance to tragic drama. The three films chosen for this triple bill come from some of Europe’s most renowned arthouse legends, each of whom produced their own distinct and personal chronicle of life under Nazi occupation. Through strikingly different cinematic styles and perspectives, viewers will be led along a winding path of tense situations, deep emotions, and ethical conflicts brought about by this dramatic chapter of history.
Shot in a Rome still visibly beat up by World War II (filming commenced in January of 1945 while war was still raging elsewhere in Italy), Roberto Rossellini’s landmark film Rome Open City bears some of the first key elements of Italian neorealism as we recognize it today (later developed by films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema) mixed in with healthy doses of humor, melodrama, and spiritual angst. Unfolding within the titular city during its occupation by Nazi forces in 1944, it is made up of an assortment of overlapping stories populated by a network of characters who can quite clearly be divided according to their good or evil traits. Much of the plot’s intrigue is owed to the threads following Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), a partisan on the run from the authorities; Marina (Maria Michi), his girlfriend, a cabaret dancer who struggles with both drug addiction and maintaining her loyalty; and a group of children who take it upon themselves to strike against the enemy. Yet the film’s key players are Pina (Anna Magnani), a gutsy woman eager to start a new life with her fiancée Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) who is also with the partisan movement, and Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the chivalrous priest who immerses himself in a world of secret messages and cleverly hidden bundles of money to aid his fellow Romans. These characters undergo terrible trials of torture, suffering, and sacrifice, all culminating in a powerful final sequence that places the hopes for freedom and relief on the young shoulders of a new generation of freedom fighters. At this point, though the war’s end is on the horizon, there is still more work to be done and blood to be spilt.
Jumping from Rome to Paris and rewinding back to September 1942 when the Nazis still only controlled the upper half of France, François Truffaut’s The Last Metro gives us a welcome measure of relief from the dire stakes of war by focusing on characters who, in pure Truffaut fashion, simply try the best they can to lead normal lives despite the intrusions of curfews, air raids, and German soldiers. Catherine Deneuve is elegant as ever as Marion Steiner, the director and lead actress of the Théâtre Montmartre who prepares her company of artists and actors for a fresh production. A new addition to their little stage family arrives in the form of Gérard Depardieu’s Bernard Granger, a rising star who, between rehearsals and failed seductions, moonlights as a member of the French Resistance. Truffaut’s special brand of light-hearted compassion comes through stronger than ever as the theatre’s crew and supporters do their best to carry on despite the ongoing war; hurtful barbs tossed their way by Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), an influential, anti-Semitic newspaper critic; and the danger that increasingly threatens Lucas (Heinz Bennent), the former director and Marion’s husband who, being a Jew, is forced to hide in the cellar below the stage. Magically, the dangers posed by the Germans fade into the background for long stretches of time while such matters as romantic longing, artistic ambition, and, above all, the success of the new play take priority, entertainingly illustrating the importance of creativity, good work, and compassion during times of conflict and crisis.
However, the all-too-temporary feelings of joy and security granted by Truffaut’s film are whipped away in a flash in the opening moments of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows. The first shot of the mammoth Arc de Triomphe looming over a formation of marching German troops echoes the start of Rome Open City while establishing this fresh situation with aching clarity: it is October 1942, just one month after The Last Metro’s own narrative kicked off, and Paris is still very much under Nazi control. Nestor Almendros’ warm, earthy blend of reds, browns, and golds is replaced by a noticeably chillier palette of gloomy grays and blues rendered by Pierre Lhomme. As The Godfather, a rather fitting comparison in terms of style, content, and quality, would do only three years later, Army of Shadows employs a markedly subdued visual sensibility and intense, controlled performances from its actors to enhance the dire stakes and ugly deeds that the central band of Resistance fighters are mired in. Intelligence missions, supply deliveries, parachute drops, the coordination of agents and resources across an international network – every one of these operations are laced with the threat of discovery and torture at the hands of the Gestapo. A French counterpart to Don Pietro appears in the form of Lino Ventura’s Philippe Gerbier, who, like Fabrizi’s character, makes a strong impression with his portly build; intelligent, bespectacled visage; and calm, professional manner – they are both humble, dutiful men who see to the challenges set before them and their respective countries without hesitation, whether it means seizing a rare chance to escape from certain death, jumping from a British plane into the black void of night, or taking the painful yet necessary measures to exterminate a comrade who represents a security risk. Gerbier and the other agents he works with, including Jean-Pierre Cassel’s dashing Jean-François and the magnificent Simone Signoret’s Mathilde, truly demonstrate what true courage, honor, and heroism look like – values that Melville has specialized in representing throughout his career, but perhaps never more powerfully than in this film, which was drawn from his and the source novel’s author Joseph Kessel’s actual experiences in the Resistance. Sure enough, like Rome Open City, Army of Shadows ends on a devastating note that casts the deeds of bravery preceding it in a light of overwhelming sadness, ensuring that viewers leave with a clear understanding of the costs that can come attached to integrity, endurance, and liberty.