Oh, to be young, bold, and fighting the fascists: The angel of history sits on the hunched shoulders of the myopic, silver-haired heroes of the long-unseen documentary Terrorists in Retirement no less than on the beautiful, perfectly coiffed proto-rock stars of Lindsay Anderson’s newly revived If . . .
Terrorists in Retirement—a World War II story that is itself an artifact (made in the early ’80s) and the most controversial documentary on the French Resistance since The Sorrow and the Pity—opens with a clip from a newsreel produced in France under German occupation. Early in 1944, only five months before D-Day, the Germans proudly informed the subject population that a group of mostly foreign-born, mainly Jewish partisans led by an Armenian poet named Missek Manouchian had been captured, tried, and executed for terrorism.
The filmmaker Mosco Boucault, himself a Bulgarian Jew living in Paris, tells the story of seven now middle-aged co-religionists who, for one haphazard reason or another, managed to survive the liquidation of their cell. Some remain Communists, all appear to live marginal lives as tailors in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. The story is as exciting as their straits are constrained—it could be the real Casablanca—and as prompted by Boucault, the men relive their reactions to the Hitler-Stalin Pact as well as the other historical landmarks of their youth.
But Terrorists in Retirement is not simply oral history. As with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, which was in production at the same time, Boucault’s movie is a sort of existential documentary. The filmmaker not only interviews these elderly tailors at their workbenches and sewing machines but places them in situ on and under the streets of Paris. Cannily, he triggers their recollections by persuading them to engage in stiff-jointed thriller reconstructions—supplying them with old pistols so that they can show him how they assassinated a German officer in the métro or a Nazi diplomat getting into his car. One shows just how to prepare a shrapnel-packed pipe bomb, the ingredients of which are discreetly bleeped out.
The most fanatical terrorists are often scarcely more than children. (Some of Boucault’s retired partisans are only in their mid fifties—the Communists recruited stateless Jewish teenagers, most of whom had lost or would lose their entire families in the Holocaust.) But because these onetime urban guerrilla fighters have long since spent the capital of their youthful bravado, their sense of the armed actions they once engaged in tends to stress imponderable aspects of luck and the difficulty in killing someone you don’t know. They also invoke fear, indecision, failure, and arrest: “The French tortured me a lot, then handed me over to the Germans.”
Terrorists in Retirement starts as a form of nostalgia but shifts into more troubling territory. There are several unresolvable issues around the demise of the Manouchian group—which was evidently betrayed by one of its members. It seems possible that the Party could have protected these jeopardized comrades, as it did others, by placing them out of harm’s way. But with the end of the war in sight, the Communists were competing with de Gaulle’s Free French for the leading role in the resistance, and there is a strong suggestion that these immigrant terrorists were sacrificed on the altar of French nationalism. As the historian Philippe Ganier-Raymond puts it, “It would have been exceedingly embarrassing for the French Communist Party to have to reveal that their Resistance heroes were not grassroots Frenchmen but people with names like Mitzflicker, Weissberg, and Kojitski.”
In pointing this out, Terrorists in Retirement became a scandal. Passionately narrated by former fellow traveler Simone Signoret (who was subsequently inspired to write a novel about immigrant Jews during the occupation), the movie was shelved for two years and then, once scheduled, subjected to a prolonged and bitter attack by the French Communist Party lasting throughout the spring and summer of June 1985. Terrorists evidently had its first and only American screenings at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1999.
The irony is that Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda—specifically the red posters plastered around Paris by the Gestapo in early 1944 (the subject of a poem by CP laureate Louis Aragon)—was what kept the memory of the Manouchian group from being buried for good. The survivors were never granted French citizenship, let alone official recognition. Boucault’s sturdy, yet haunting, tract ends without resolution. Indeed, there’s a bitter prescience to its final images of a defaced Jewish cemetery.
Also to be found at Film Forum, in a fine new 35mm print, is another account of adolescent resistance at a well-mythologized historical moment: Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . This self-consciously ambivalent evocation of youthful high spirits amid class oppression at an English public school had the great good fortune to materialize just before Christmas during the Year of the Barricades, 1968. This was the very apex of the British youth revolt—between the great anti-Vietnam demonstration of October, attended by young Bill Clinton among some 100,000 others, and the monthlong confrontation between students and administration at the London School of Economics.
If . . . had its New York premiere the following March, opening between Godard’s Weekend and the 20th Century Fox biopic Che. The poster had a sketch of the dandyish star, Malcolm McDowell, striking an insouciant pose, one hand in his pocket and the other cradling an automatic rifle. The Voice Scenes column predicted that If . . . would “probably be the biggest movie on college campuses since The Graduate,” irritating New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who, in noting the plug, added that “one can already hear the discussions on WBAI.” If . . . garnered highly positive reviews and, in a final coup, won the Palme d’Or that May at Cannes—the first movie to be so garlanded since soixante-huitarde militants shut down the festival.
That said, If . . . (which, so far as I know, has never until now been reviewed in the Voice) should be no one’s idea of an agitprop masterpiece. Nor is it particularly topical, despite the iconic pinups of Che (and the young Charlotte Rampling) scattered about and the emphasis on the rebellious students’ overlong locks. The project evidently originated with two disgruntled public school graduates who began working on the treatment at Oxford in 1960. Fans of Rebel Without a Cause, they first sent their script to Nicholas Ray. Anderson did not become involved for another six years—at which time the distinguished documentarian and cineaste made the movie his own, a follow-up to This Sporting Life, his first feature and previous attack on institutional masculinity, Brit style.
If . . . is, however, full of social allegory and free-floating parodies of British political rhetoric. The movie was originally called The Crusaders; its new title makes a cheeky reference to the Rudyard Kipling celebration of imperial responsibility: “If you can keep your head while all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/You’ll be a man, my son.” Interestingly, though, If . . . lacks a clear-cut generational divide. Alternately groping and cuffing their charges, the teachers are less villainous than the strutting upperclassmen known as whips, who enforce the school’s rigid caste system and punish the dashing rebel McDowell with cold showers and canings.
McDowell’s ordeal is far more visceral than his revolt. He and his mates are inspired by the Congolese mass, Missa Luba—perhaps the movie’s polite equivalent of rock music. In a stolen moment of motorbike freedom, they pick up a feisty (though silent) working-class bird who becomes their mascot. If they seem a bit abstract, so is the movie, which is filled with solemnly surrealistic interpolations—a priest being stored in a chest of drawers, a house mother wandering naked through the empty dormitory. Scarcely less capricious than the school’s idiotic, platitude-spouting administration are the film’s shifts back and forth from color to black and white.
If . . . was explicitly modeled on Jean Vigo’s lyrical paean to schoolboy rebellion, Zero de Conduite. The climax is a direct swipe from Vigo’s 1933 film, albeit with the stakes considerably raised. I don’t believe that audiences were shocked by the disproportionate violence back in 1969. After all, that was wartime. But if originally mistaken for a Maoist cell, the school’s alienated clique today seems more a premonition of the killers at Columbine—something Stanley Kubrick apparently intuited when he cast the suddenly hot McDowell as the futuristic juvenile delinquent in A Clockwork Orange.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 9, 2001