The Battle of Algiers – La battaglia di Algeri (1966)

People often think that Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers or La battaglia di Algeri is a French movie but the movie is Italian/Algerian, spoken in French and Arabic. It has been commissioned by the Algerian government. The topic – the war in Algeria – is still controversial in France. While it is meanwhile called “a war” and not only a “pacification intervention” – or whatever euphemism was chosen at the time – many of the aspects of the war are still not spoken about openly. One of them being the “interrogation techniques”. Another euphemism. I suppose this was one of the reasons why Pontecorvo’s movie has not been shown in France until recently. Another one may be that it pretends to be very impartial and realistic  and has also said to be exactly that while I feel it is entirely anti-French and one of the most tendentious movies I’ve ever seen. I think it is important to say the truth but it’s equally important to capture complexities.

Many critics think Battle of Algiers is one of the best war movies ever made. It received many prizes and is almost always mentioned on lists. I agree with some of this but I still think it’s a highly problematic and polemic movie.

The movie starts in 1957 with the end of a torture scene. A man has given away information and is now taken along to the hideout of four members of the FLN. From there the movie goes back to 1954 and we see how a young Algerian man Ali La Pointe is arrested. France has been occupying Algeria for far over hundred years now and oppressed the population. Algiers is a divided city with two parts. The Casbah, narrow labyrinthine streets in which the Muslim population lives, and the rest of city in which the French live. Racism and social injustice are habitual.

When Ali gets out of prison he joins the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) – The National Liberation Front. They are organised in small groups whose identity is unknown to the members. There are only two or three people who know each other.

They start their uprising or revolution with small terrorist acts, shooting individual police men. When the French police start to close off the Casbah with barbed wire and search all the people who enter or exit the perimeter, the tensions rise and new tactics and recruiting methods have to be found. Civilian places like cafés, bars and restaurants are bombed. That’s the time when even women and children join the FLN and plant bombs.

Clearly the police do not have the power to fight the terrorists and that’s when the French Army sends a special unit of paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu, fresh from Indochina. Mathieu knows that he has to cut off the head of the organisation but since there are only a very few people who know very few others it’s not an easy undertaking. A special “interrogation method” has to be applied. This method consists in torturing systematically every member of the FLN who has been arrested. And probably many others.

At the end of the first wave of uprising, the order is restored but unrest will break out again a few years later until Algeria will be granted independence in 1962.

The movie shows this in gritty black and white pictures which make it look like a documentary. There is no likable character in this whole movie, there is no side that isn’t shown in all of its determined ugliness. Still I found it tendentious because it leaves out that there were a lot of pro-French Algerians in the country, al lot of Algerians in the French army and a lot of pro-Algerian French as well. The so-called pieds noirs, French people, like the writer Camus, born in Algeria, loved their country and were about to lose it. Furthermore by depicting the battle in Algiers only, the film makers avoided to show what was happening in the mountains where all the French soldiers captured by Algerians were tortured and mutilated, Christian nuns were found nailed to crosses and other atrocities were committed.

Now why is this movie considered to be so great? I would say there are two reasons. I was reminded of Rome, Open City when I watched it as it is very close to Italian neo-realism. The way it is filmed is outstanding, We really think we see a documentary and original footage. The faces of the actors are expressive, the torture scenes are very powerful, notably when we see the faces of the men after they have been tortured and see the mixed emotions and shame. The opening scene illustrates this eloquently. What also contributes to the realism is the use of music and sound. Music is used sparingly, we hear drums and ululating sounds made by women which convey a sense of authenticity.

Another reason why I think this movie is so highly rated, especially by US critics, is the topic. I don’t think all that many non-French people are familiar with the war in Algeria. The fact that we see something in this movie with which the US has been confronted on a regular basis since 9/11 may have contributed to the movies’ appreciation. How uncanny to see a movie made in 1966 showing war taking place inside of houses and narrow city streets. An enemy who is hidden among the normal people who uses the attire of religious women, hides guns and bombs under veils. An enemy who recruits even young children and indoctrinates them from an early age on. That’s why the movie has been shown regularly by the Pentagon to officers and experts of the war against terrorism since 2003.

In 2004 a restored version of the movie was shown in US cinema’s and met with a new success. It’s only after this screening that it was also finally shown in France where it was now equally successful. It seems it was never officially forbidden in France but didn’t receive an authorisation to be shown until 1970 and then, through acts of intimidation, cinema owners were kept from showing it.

While the filming reminded me of Rome, Open City, I had to compare it to two much later movies as well. One being Black Hawk Down, the other one Battle for Haditha. I’m sure I will write more about this movie in the future, looking at parallels to other movies and influences.

I think Battle of Algiers is an explosive, topical and very important movie. It’s a must see for people interested in war movies and cinema history. It clearly shows the ugly face of colonialism; the French interrogation techniques which were a breach of Human Rights, as well as the acts of terrorism of the FLN against innocent civilians. Still, I find it’s a biased movie. It had to be, I suppose.

While considered by many to be great, others think that nowadays it’s thought to be great because it can be instrumentalized and used by both parties, terrorists and the army alike.

Just a final word on my ambivalent feelings towards this movie. I am not saying that I think the presence of France in Algeria was justified. I think that colonialism is a plague, an atrocity for which we still pay and will keep on paying. But I think that once a country has been present in another country for many generations it’s not as simple as good versus bad anymore. It’s much more complex than that and those of colonialist origin born in those countries will suffer too, not only the indigenous people. I think this side of the human drama has been left out as well as the human drama of the drafted French soldiers who had to fight in Algeria. Colonel Mathieu who is based on a real life officer, General Jacques Massu was one side of the medal, a right-wing General whose only aim was to keep French territory at any cost. There were many others dragged into this conflict against their will.

For these reason I still think when it comes to the war in Algeria L’ennemi intime aka Intimate enemies is by far more balanced. If you are going to watch it, pair it with Days of Glory – Indigènes, they go together very well.

For those interested here are a few names of Pieds-Noirs celebrities.

Albert Camus, Claudia Cardinale, Daniel Auteuil, Yves St.Laurent, Jacques Derrida and many more.

If you understand French, here’s an interesting mini-documentary on the history of The Battle of Algiers.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine – A Captain’s Honor (1982)

What an excellent movie. Even better than I thought it would be. It’s my second Schoendoerffer and it is as good as the more famous Dien Bien Phu.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine or A Captain’s Honor is part court-room drama, part infantry combat. It is a thought-provoking look at the way France tried to come to terms with the war in Algeria. It shows one nation’s struggle to face the injustice it committed in the name of peace-keeping.

20 years after his death on the battle field Cpt. Caron is publicly accused of having been a torturer and an assassin. The man who accuses him is a famous professor of sociology who claims having known Caron well enough to be sure of the accusation. The accusation happens during a TV show. Some of the guests leave in outrage. It isn’t only about Caron. It is about what really happened in Algeria. To this day there is a rift in France. On one side are those who claim that the French army has tortured in Algeria and on the other are those who say it didn’t.

Caron’s widow decides to drag the incident to court. She wants justice for her husband and his reputation. Her uncle, a famous lawyer and member of the Parisian high-society, advises against it but finally gives in and even wants to help her in court.

Before they go to court, they try to gather information and this part gives the movie another dimension. It links WWII, Indochina and Algeria.

At 17 the future Cpt Caron was part of the French Resistance, he later served in Indochina and was captured by the Vietminh. This is illustrated by original footage, many of it taken in battle and in the prison camps during the liberation. Those French soldiers looked exactly like the Jews in the German camps.

The drama that unfolds in court is very gripping. We really want to know what happened. Did he, or did he not do it? In order to find out, they have convoked former soldiers and officers who served with or under him. They take apart each and every element of the accusation. The film moves back and forth between the court in the 70s and the battlefield in Algeria in the 50s.

During 18 days Cpt. Caron led a special alpine infantry unit. Three of the men of this unit had been captured by the fellaghas (anti-colonialist rebels). This usually meant torture and slow death at the hands of those rebels. The Cpt. tries everything to get the men back. During these 18 days many unpleasant things happen. Algerian informants are tortured, killed and disappear. After a while it becomes apparent that it isn’t so much about whether it has really happened, everything does indeed point into that direction, but whether Caron gave the order.

It is fascinating how they deconstruct the accusations bit by bit, but every time they have proven that it may be a wrong accusation, another one is brought up.

Without giving away too much, I’d like to describe one scene that I found particularly  amazing. Caron and a few of his men are at the foot of a mountain, while the rest of them are somewhere high up. It is said that during this part of the campaign an Algerian prisoner was killed. And indeed, the soldier in the court room states that Caron gave the order. He was up there with the men. Another officer however testified that, no, he hadn’t given the order. He was standing next to Caron during te whole incident. What had happened? Caron told them to bring the prisoner down (descendez-le in French) but they had understood to take him out (also descendez-le in French). Depending on where a person who says “descendez-le” stands, it could either mean “take him out” or “bring him down”.

This is just an example how the movie works, what type of complexities it shows.

It is a movie that makes you feel very uneasy (if you are French). The thing is, if the Cpt, who was such an exemplary officer, is found guilty, one can assume that torture and murder was a fairly common practice. But if he isn’t found guilty, if he is innocent, this does not automatically mean that these atrocities didn’t happened. This is where the movie excels, it it is excellent at showing the psychology of those who want to believe either the one or the other.

I haven’t found a trailer but attached the scene in which Caron’s widow watches the Indochina footage. There are no subtitles but that doesn’t matter as they only speak a few words in the beginning.

12 French War Movies You Must See Before You Die

France, a country that has endured and fought many wars, was at the center of many a battle and armed conflict, a country famous for its outstanding filmmaking has produced a very modest amount of war movies. You will find numerous WWII movies on the Resistance and a fair amount of rather psychological war-time movies but if you are looking for combat movies, you will not be lucky. I know of no French air combat or submarine movie at all.

There may be many reasons and I can only attempt an interpretation, comparing French cinema in general to the cinema of other countries. What becomes apparent soon is that the French are not keen on producing large-scale, epic or very action driven cinema. French movies are psychological and intimate. They focus on the dynamics between a few people, their interaction, the dialogue. Many of the most famous French movies focus on tiny details, small things. It’s easily understood that this doesn’t fit in with infantry combat movies with their huge casts and more action driven story lines.

In choosing 12 movies  I tried to pick the few real combat movies I knew and added the ones that I think excellent or that absoultely need to be watched. I also tried to covera wide range. I left out good ones, I’m sure.

For those who want to further explore French cinema the website French War Movies offers a great overview.

I discovered one huge problem for the non-native speaker when I watched La Grande Illusion recently as I bought a movie with English subtitles. Almost 2/3 of the dialogue was missing. I noticed the same when I watched and reviewed the Italian Rome, Open City (here is my review). Since French and Italian movies are dialogue driven, it’s very hard for a non-native speaker to fully appreciate them. I’m sure this is done better in more recent movies, still it is a problem.

With all this said, let’s open the curtain for twelve stunning movies:

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937): WWI. Jean Renoir’s movie is one of the great classics of European cinema starring the late great Jean Gabin. A POW movie that offers a lot. Interesting German characters included. (Here is the review)

Nuit et brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955): WWII. Alain Resnais’ Holocaust classic. Death Camps. Final Solution. Documentary/original footage about the horrors of the concentration camps. Gut-wrenching. Impressive. A must-see. (Here is the review)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959): WWII. Another movie by Alain Resnais. A love story between a French woman and a Japanese man from Hiroshima. Interspersed with original footage of Hiroshima. Very special and poetic based on the scenario by Marguerite Duras. A must see for French cinema aficionados. (review upcoming)

L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (1969): WWII. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance masterpiece. Another classic. Claustrophobic, impressive, sparse. Excellent actors. One of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. (Here is my review)

L’honneur d’un capitaine aka A Captain’s Honor (1982): Post war. Algeria. A captain who died on the battle field in Algeria is accused of having been a torturer and a murdered. His widow tries to prove that he wasn’t guilty. (review upcoming)

Dien Bien Phu (1992) : Indochina. Infantry Combat. Schoendoerffer’s movie shows the final defeat of the French in Indochina. Not nice to watch at all. (review upcoming)

Le pianiste aka The Pianist (2002): WWII. Holocaust. Tells the story of a Jewish pianist in the Warsaw ghetto. Harrowing and beautiful. My favourite Holocaust movie. Very moving. (review upcoming)

La chambre des officiers aka The Officer’s Ward (2001): WWI. Everything you never wanted to know about the horrible facial wounds that were so frequent during WWI. Made me quite sick. Painfully well-done  (Here is the review)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles aka A Very Long Engagement (2004): WWI. Based on Sébastien Japrisot’s eponymous novel it tells the harrowing story of young Mathilde who travels to the no man’s land of WWI in search of her lost fiancé.  This is one of the darling movies of international film critics. I did like it but wasn’t awed. Starring the much-loved Audrey Tautou. (review upcoming)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI. The story of the little peace during the Great War. During the first Christmas in WWI, German, French and British/Scottish troops cease fire and play football together. Wonderful movie with great actors. One of  my Top 10 all-time favourites and one of the bestanti-war movies that exist. (Here is the review)

L’ennemi intime aka Intimate Enemies (2007): Algeria. One of the very few French Infantry Combat movies. Very good and very critical. About the ugly side of an ugly war that was officially no war. If you want to find out why I found this hard to watch, you’ll have to read the About page. (Here is the review)

L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime (2009): WWII. French Resistance. Based on the true story of a group of young people and immigrants who fought a desperate fight against the Nazis. They were led by the poet Manouchian. This is an absolutely stunning and very tragic movie. One to watch and re-watch. It went directly on my Top 10. (Here is the review)

Movies on the War in Algeria: A List

The War in Algeria, or the war that was officially no war, is a particularly dark spot on French history. For all the parties invloved, the French and the Algerians alike. Some of the movies on this list have been prohibited in France for a long time. I have only seen and reviewed Intimate enemies aka L’ennemi intime which is a very good movie but I know that a few of the others on the list, first of all La battaglia di Algeri aka Battle of Algiers and Chronique des années de braise are very good movies as well. I got L’honneur d’un Capitaine which, like some of the others, is only available in French. Lost Command has quite an interesting cast but I have my doubts whether the movie is any good and the first one on the list is decidedly a B-Movie.

Intimate enemies aka L´ennemi intime (2007) or France, Algeria and the War that was no War

This was one of the hardest movies to watch for me for very personal reasons. All those who have read the About page on this blog, know why. For everyone else here´s a quick explanation. My father fought in this war for almost three years after having been drafted barely aged 18. His stories were as much part of my childhood as were his brooding silences and constant nightmares. I may say that this war is as much part of my life as it is of his. More so due to the nature of it. This is no war to be proud of – most are not but this one especially not. France didn´t even call this a war, they said it was an attempt to reestablish order. But there was a good reason to not call this a war since  Algeria was an integrate part of France, although not with the same rights. There was no real enemy to be fought since the Algerians were French, hence this movie´s title Intimate enemies, meaning the enemy within.

This created an extremely complex situation as this movie attempts to illustrate.

After the war had been won from a military point of view it was lost from a political point of view. De Gaulle decided to let Algeria go. What a waste of lives. In future years it was silenced. One was not to speak about it which weighed heavily on the returning soldiers. No one to turn to, no one to listen. As a psychiatrist once told me, it was the general tragedy for men returning from a war before Vietnam, that they had no one to turn to. Not even psychologists or psychiatrists. Post-traumatic stress was just not cured at the time. Ok, this is not totally correct, it was treated but only insofar as the soldier was meant to go back to fight (one of the major themes of Behind the Lines aka Regeneration) but those for whom the fighting was over were meant to knuckle down and shut it.

Considering that an apparently (haven´t seen it yet) very outspoken movie like The Battle of Algiers aka La Battaglia di Algeri (1966) was banned in France until 1971 we can imagine what it was like for soldiers having participated in a war that a) was no war b) wasn´t to be spoken about and c) didn´t officially happen… And absolutely no one to thank them when they came home.

The whole complexity of the situation is shown in Intimate enemies. Algerians who had already fought during WWII sided with the FLN, the Liberation movement to fight France. Others fought on the side of the French. During the war many changed sides both ways. (The highly acclaimed Days of Glory tells the story of four Algerians who fought during WWII).

One very horrible trait of this war was the intelligence´s use of torture. Funny enough, many of those soldiers who tortured were by far the most traumatized upon returning to France. Since my father was just a simple private he did not have to do it but apparently his brother, some years older and a lieutenant was part of the intelligence unit. I never liked the guy so I never bothered talking to him. Just heard he´s been under medication since the late 80ies on account of serious problems with his conscience.

Does this serve him right? There is an interesting scene in the movie where lieutenant Terrien talks to the intelligence Sgt. and is being told that he will come around and understand these methods.

However not only the French used torture, the Algerians did as well. And terrorism. And cruelty. I remember my father telling me of a march through the desert when they started to see something in the distance and thought it was a Fata Morgana that looked like  dancing crosses. Upon their coming closer to that place they discovered that it was a whole convent of nuns having been tortured, killed and nailed on wooden crosses. There would be other things I could add here but this is not the place to do so.

The main theme of the movie is a somewhat Platoon-like juxtaposition of a very humane, just and friendly lieutenant and some hardened old-time officers and soldiers. Lt. Terrien fights cruelty whenever he can. He refuses to torture or execute. When someone explains that torture has been ordered he says that you shouldn´t follow an order when it is morally unacceptable. What is usually not much spoken about either is the use of napalm during that war. Terrien questions the use of napalm, and unmasks the contradiction of this non-war by quoting the officials who state that napalm is only to be used during a war. “This is no war”, says Sgt Dougnac, ” and we don´t use napalm.”

All in all: a war with a very ugly face.

Now back to the movie. It is  well done and absolutely worth watching. It will definitely broaden the horizon of any war movie aficionado used to mainly watch movies of WWI, WWII and Vietnam. On a scale from 1 to 5 I would easily give it a 4.5.

One of its most outstanding achievements is to show neither side as being worse than the other. And it wants to make us understand that often diplomacy could save us from going to war.

All the Algerians wanted was the same rights as the French. And their independence of course. Is that too much to ask for?

The war ended in 1962 but only in 1999 the French government officially admitted that it had taken place. 2 000 000 mostly young French soldiers had to participate in this war.  I´m sorry for all of them and for their Algerian counter parts. I had the opportunity to see what it does to soldiers.

My father returned to France in 1959. To this day his nightmares haven´t stopped.

What is the worst thing you dream about I asked him once: “All those dead men”, he says “They all come back and haunt me.”