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.