10 great films about the French resistance

As François Truffaut’s The Last Metro arrives on Blu-ray, we look back on other gripping tales of subterfuge and daring in occupied France.

1 June 2022

By David Parkinson

The Last Metro (1980)

In 1980, when François Truffaut released The Last Metro, which is now available on BFI Blu-ray, films about the French resistance were still comparatively rare. As the scars of the Second World War had yet to heal, such features invariably caused controversy, even though the suppressed truth about the nation’s response to the Nazi occupation had finally started to emerge.

During the war itself, French cinema had been muzzled by the German-controlled company, Continental Films, while British and American filmmakers sought to show solidarity with flagwavers that were mostly speculative, clichéd and mawkish. Yet, while the victors across the continent celebrated the feats of their heroes in ‘now it can be told’ exposés, French offerings examining the realities of repression and collaboration, such Jericho (1946), Manon (1949), The Cat (1958) and La Sentence (1959), remained comparatively rare. Audiences preferred escapism to reliving their recent ordeal, and filmmakers proved reluctant to pander to Charles de Gaulle’s romanticised version of Vichy in which people were united in their resistance to the foe.

Following de Gaulle’s resignation in April 1969, however, a new version of the wartime experience began to emerge. Illusions were shattered by Marcel Ophüls’ Oscar-nominated documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), and dramas like Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974) sought to present revisionist accounts of how collaborationists and résistants had operated.

Pictures as different as Lucie Aubrac (1997), Les Misérables (1998) and Army of Crime (2009) have chipped away at the Gaullist façade. More recently, TV audiences were confronted with the stark realities of occupation life in Un village français (2009 to 2017), which was set in the fictional Gestapo-controlled commune of Villeneuve on the French border.

This Land Is Mine (1943)

Director: Jean Renoir

This Land Is Mine (1943)

Having fled France in 1940, Jean Renoir was struggling to find a niche in Hollywood when he collaborated with screenwriter Dudley Nichols on the southern gothic drama Swamp Water (1941). The pair were keen to follow it up by producing a picture “specifically for Americans, to suggest that day-to-day life in an occupied country was not so easy as some of them thought”. Although the opening caption of the resulting film, This Land Is Mine, reads “Somewhere in Europe”, the action clearly takes place in France, denouncing both the complacency of the bourgeoisie for allowing fascism to take a grip on the continent and its acquiescence in the Vichy regime.

Yet, while class plays as much a part in proceedings as patriotism, milquetoast schoolmaster Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) is very much a resistance hero. He discovers that speaking truth to power is as potent a weapon as the explosives used by Paul Martin (Kent Smith) to sabotage the Nazi war effort at the nearby marshalling yard.

The Battle of the Rails (1946)

Director: René Clément

The Battle of the Rails (1946)

René Clément’s documentary background is readily evident in the first French feature about operational resistance. Feted at Cannes, it was compared to neorealist landmarks like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). However, it had as much in common with the docudramas that had been produced in wartime Britain, as Clément cast railway workers and Maquis veterans in showing both how everyday Nazi timetables were sabotaged and how troop trains for Normandy were targeted immediately after D-Day.

Shot on authentic locations and given additional pugnacity by the use of Soviet-style montage, the action has an immediacy that atones for some of the dramatic shortcomings. The derailment and firing squad sequences stand out, with the latter’s close-up of a spider’s web and salutational blasts of steam whistles being deeply moving. Clément completed his occupation tetralogy with The Quiet Father (1946), Forbidden Games (1952) and Is Paris Burning? (1966).

A Man Escaped (1956)

Director: Robert Bresson

A Man Escaped (1956)

André Devigny’s account of his 1943 escape from Lyon’s Fort Montluc prison inspired this intricate study of resistance. But director Robert Bresson was also able to bring his own experience to bear, having spent a year as a prisoner of war. Indeed, it was the memory of hearing someone being whipped in an adjoining cell that shaped Bresson’s audiovisual strategies, as sound and the unseen stretch the viewer’s imagination much more than the precision-crafted imagery.

Shooting in Montluc and copying Devigny’s ropes and hooks, Bresson was less interested in the ingenuity displayed by resistance prisoner Fontaine (Sorbonne philosophy student François Leterrier, who was cast for his expressive eyes) than in the way that heaven helps those who help themselves. This blend of suspense and spirituality makes for compelling viewing, especially when Fontaine is forced to take his potentially treacherous teenage cellmate with him to ensure his silence.

Line of Demarcation (1966)

Director: Claude Chabrol

Line of Demarcation (1966)

Once in peacetime power, Charles de Gaulle was quick to aver that France had resisted the Nazis en masse. However, Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of the memoirs of Free French agent Gilbert Renault (aka Colonel Rémy) subtly questioned a myth that was eventually shattered by the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity.

Chabrol borrows Jean Renoir’s maxim about everyone having their reasons to expose the extent to which so many residents of a village straddling the Free Zone frontier were resigned to their fate. The screenplay flirts with caricature and cliché, as a vanquished officer (Maurice Ronet) is roused from his compliant lethargy when his English-teacher wife (Jean Seberg) is arrested for liaising with the Maquis. But the strength of the performances and the restraint of Chabrol’s direction convey the fissures within a community that has even inured itself to the deportation of its Jewish neighbours.

La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

Director: Gérard Oury

La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

For over four decades, Gérard Oury’s wartime romp was France’s most commercially successful film. Lampooning the 1942 film Joan of Paris, it wasn’t the first occupation comedy, as it was preceded by Four Bags Full (1956) and Babette Goes to War (1959). But it remains a firm favourite,  influencing everything from the 1983 film Gramps Is in the Resistance to the BBC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo! (1982 to 1992).

Shot on an epic scale, the frantic action follows the efforts of genial Parisian painter Bourvil and pompous conductor Louis de Funès to keep Terry-Thomas and his RAF crewmates out of the clutches of a Nazi major. Satirising friend and foe alike, the blend of verbal wit and physical shtick is impeccable, whether the scene is taking place at the Turkish bath at the Grand Mosque, Vincennes Zoo, the Opéra Garnier or a convent in cahoots with the Maquis.

Army of Shadows (1969)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Army of Shadows (1969)

Knee-jerkingly dismissed on its initial release as Gaullist propaganda, Jean-Pierre Melville’s adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s fact-based 1943 novel has since been recognised as a masterpiece. As Melville had served with the resistance and the Free French Forces, he had a unique insight into the operation of networks like the one commanded by Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) with a ruthless pragmatism that eschews sentimental patriotism.

Consequently, Melville (whose war trilogy had started with 1949’s La Silence de la mer and 1961’s Léon Morin, prêtre) is able to frame the action with the same fatalist detachment that he applied to his celebrated gangster films. The name of the game is survival, as the Nazi grip in 1942 is still too tight for guerrilla resistance. So, Gerbier is compelled to dispatch anyone who is a threat to his cell, even if they have served it with distinction. There are no sensationalist heroics here, just matters of life and death; guts not glory.

The Last Metro (1980)

Director: François Truffaut

The Last Metro (1980)

Having lived through the occupation of Paris and seen his grandfather and uncle arrested for carrying messages for the Maquis, François Truffaut had longed to make a feature that reflected his childhood impressions of this tumultuous time. He had read that 15 theatres in the capital had been run by women during the war and that audiences enduring fuel shortages had huddled in them before taking the last Métro home.

Drawing on the memoirs of stars Jean Marais and Ginette Leclerc, the enforced confinement of film director Marcel Carné’s Jewish associates Joseph Kosma and Alexandre Trauner, and the heroism of actor-résistants Louis Jourdan and Jean-Pierre Aumont, Truffaut constructed a story about an actress (Catherine Deneuve) falling for an actor in the underground (Gérard Depardieu) while her German-Jewish husband is hiding under the stage. Mostly filmed in darkness and confined spaces, the resulting film won 10 Césars and became the biggest box-office hit of Truffaut’s career.

A Self-Made Hero (1996)

Director: Jacques Audiard

A Self-Made Hero (1996)

Guilty consciences prevented gung-ho resistance adventures like Costa-Gavras’s Shock Troops (1967) from finding favour with French audiences. But there’s no sense of shame about Albert Dehousse (Mathieu Kassovitz), the self-mythologising protagonist of Jacques Audiard’s Cannes prize-winner, which is adapted from Jean-Francois Deniau’s 1989 novel.

Raised believing his alcoholic father had been a First World War hero, Albert is too busy fabricating his way through life to notice that his provincial in-laws have been sheltering Allied airmen. Once in liberated Paris, however, his genius for deceit and subterfuge allows him to reinvent himself as a Maquis lionheart after genuine warrior Dionnet (Albert Dupontel) urges him against letting the past drag him down. As much a parable on airbrushed credentials as on redrafting history, this slickly staged and slyly non-judgemental satire also contains some devilishly droll faux newsreel, as Audiard subversively pulls the rug from under a generation that had decided to forgive itself its sins of omission.

Laissez-passer (2002)

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Laissez-passer (2002)

The prevailing view of this reflection on French cinema during the occupation is that Bertrand Tavernier allowed his passion for screen history to overwhelm a slender plot. Yet, worthy of reappraisal, this 170-minute insight into the conduct of Continental Films conveys better than most the everyday realities of living under Nazi tyranny, as it adds the need to survive to the moral dilemma of whether to collaborate with or resist the conqueror.

In their own way, screenwriter Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydès) and assistant director Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin) do their bit. Between romantic dalliances, the former finds excuses for rejecting the assignments offered by Continental’s urbane chief, Alfred Greven (Christian Berkel), while the latter uses his position to pass documents to the Maquis, despite being a new father. Working for Continental was deemed treacherous, but Tavernier shows how filmmakers often risked slipping references past unsuspecting censors that would have resonated with besieged audiences.

Free Men (2011)

Director: Ismaël Ferroukhi

Free Men (2011)

Just as Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory (2006) focused on the indigènes who fought with the Free French Forces in North Africa, Ismaël Ferroukhi’s second feature reveals the role that France’s Arab population played in resisting the Nazis and smuggling Jewish people out of the country on false passports.

Although Younes (Tahar Rahim) is a fictional composite, Grand Mosque rector Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michel Lonsdale) and gay Jewish singer Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby) are historical figures caught up in a perilous act of defiance and comradeship that crosses race, creed and sexuality. At times the noirish action cleaves a little too closely to the classics of the genre, as Rahim’s Algerian black-marketeer agrees to spy for the police after his arrest. But Ferroukhi daringly suggests that Maghrebi activists, such as communist resistance fighter Leila (Lubna Azabal), used the plight of their colonial master to prepare for the wars of independence that were to come.

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free