Movie Night with Urbaniak: Battle of Algiers

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urbaniak has been talking about watching Battle of Algiers since we watched Z a year and a half ago. I have always held Z up as my model of authenticity, a political thriller that really makes you feel like you are there watching history unfold. Now I have seen Battle of Algiers, a movie that, in terms of capturing a historical moment, makes Z feel as authentic as Fiddler on the Roof.

Battle of Algiers tells the story of the FLN, an Algerian political force (or terrorist organization, depending on who you are) who fights to free Algeria from French colonialism. It chooses for its protagonist an ordinary man, an illiterate thief, who rises to become one of the leaders of the FLN, and is then martyred by the French. Like All the President’s Men, one of the many movies that owes a great deal to Battle of Algiers, the narrative chooses to end at the moment of its protagonist’s failure, only to then note his triumph in an epilogue.

The movie tells the story of the FLN in a simple, non-judgmental, uninflected, documentary way. As Urbaniak mentioned, it does not say anything you’re watching — beheadings, bombings, shootings, torture — is good or bad, it just says "This is what happens. This is what happens when a colonial power occupies another country." Even though the filmmakers are obviously on the side of the Algerians — the producer, one of the key players in the FLN, actually plays himself — the movie isn’t a polemic. It says "One side wants this, the other side wants that, and this is the conflict — the drama — that results."

The most astonishing thing about Battle of Algiers is the fact of its physical production. Shot on a low budget, it has one of the most complicated visual schemes I’ve ever come across. Every scene — every goddamn scene — involves hundreds of extras, complicated stunt work (hordes of people cascading down narrow, winding staircases, people falling and being trampled, including children and toddlers, bombs going off, tanks plowing through protestors) and effects gags (bombs, guns, squibs, blood effects, fake store fronts to be demolished), and it’s all shot in a manner that makes it feel like it’s all really happening and the camera just happened to be there to capture it. If you can imagine the liquidation sequence from Schindler’s List going on for two hours, that’s the level of production executed — flawlessly — by Battle of Algiers.

Both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, two monumental movies from a production standpoint, kept coming up in my mind while I was watching Battle of Algiers. Both those movies feature incredible set pieces involving capturing a moment in history, the story of a people, but both of them balance those set pieces with lots of scenes that are pretty much about people talking. Battle of Algiers is like one long goddamned set piece, seething and rolling, ebbing and flowing, from beginning to end. Every time I thought "Okay, well, this scene isn’t so very complicated, it’s just some people in a room talking, the scene would suddenly explode into some moment of politically-motivated violence or other, dozens or hundreds of extras would come pouring through and the camera would get swept along in the tide. The characters in Battle of Algiers can’t get away from the history they’re making, it interrupts their every conversation and informs their smallest of decisions.

There is a moment toward the end of Act I where some French men have some drinks at a party and then go out for a drive in the city at night, and I thought "Whew, finally, a scene that involves nothing more complicated than a car driving down a street at night." (The large-scale action of the piece really is that relentless.) Then, of course, the car stops, one of the men gets out and plants a bomb, the car drives away, and the bomb goes off and destroys an entire city block. And I’m sitting there thinking "Well, yes, but that must be miniatures or something, you wouldn’t blow up a whole city block for a movie," and then I find out, yes, they went to the actual place in Algiers where that actual bomb was placed, re-built the neighborhood, then blew it up again, for the movie. (The fact that the producer was one of the players in the story helped get the overwhelming cooperation of the Algerian government and the people themselves, who apparently emphatically threw themselves into assisting the filmmakers, and it shows — this movie would have been impossible to shoot any other way.)

With all those crowd scenes, all those speaking parts, all those extras, all those costumes and sets and effects, I kept looking something — anything — that would indicate that this is "a movie," and could find nothing.  There is not a false moment, not a movie-movie moment, not a hand-tipping performance, in the entire thing.  Which, as a sometime filmmaker myself, makes me incredibly sad and depressed — I struggle to get little bitty moments of authenticity into my work, and here is a movie with oceans of authenticity exploding out of every frame.  It just doesn’t seem fair.

The score, by Ennio Morricone, I was familiar with through John Zorn’s recordings, but hearing it in the context of the movie I suddenly (after twenty-two years) realized that Morricone’s score for The Untouchables is meant to evoke Battle of Algiers. And it occurred to me that it was intentionally so — that DePalma hired Morricone and asked him to cook up something evocative of Battle of Algiers to equate that movie with his own vision of urban violence and a city under siege. Now, I love me some Untouchables, but "capturing a historical moment" is not on its list of things to do — its melodramatic, even comic, representation of the story of Al Capone’s reign in Chicago is antithetical to the heart-stopping realism of Battle of Algiers.

For Urbaniak and I there is a special added attraction in Battle of Algiers, and that is the casting of Jean Martin as the colonel in charge of the French paratroopers who are brought in to "bring peace" to the city. Martin originated roles in both Waiting for Godot and Endgame in Paris, and watching him in Algiers gave us a chance to see the man perform and imagine how he would be as Lucky or Clov. His performance as Col Mathieu is extraordinary, especially when you consider that the Algerian side of the conflict gets to be portrayed by thousands of people, in some cases the same people who actually had fought it nine years earlier (the movie, made in 1965, portrays events from 1956), but the French side of the story must be conveyed by this one guy, an honorable soldier who has the unenviable task of quelling a rebellion. Mathieu sympathises with the leaders of the FLN and respects their commitment to their cause, but he’s there to do a job and he will torture and kill whoever he has to in order to achieve his end.

And, it goes without saying, there’s something for Americans to learn from this movie today.


17 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: Battle of Algiers”
  1. robjmiller says:

    Wow, this sounds incredible. I’ll track down a copy this weekend, just as soon as I finish the VB commentary (2 episodes with Alcott mentions thus far, by the way).

  2. emeraldsedai says:

    I watched Battle of Algiers not too long ago, for the sole reason that it just keeps coming up as one of the great movies of all time. I was impressed, in my uninformed sort of way. Your post lets me know why.

    Great post. Thanks.

  3. craigjclark says:

    I watched this a couple years back. A stunning achievement. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance (or the desire) to see Steven Soderbergh’s Che, but I would say it holds up pretty well in comparison.

    Also, your write-up also brought to mind Peter Watkins’ BBC films Culloden and The War Game, which I recently got to see for the first time. Highly recommended if you’ve never seen them (and they’re included on the same disc, which is convenient — I just wouldn’t recommend watching them both in one sitting).

  4. nom_de_grr says:

    One of my all-time favorites. I got Michael Parenti to sign my copy of it.

  5. malsperanza says:

    One of my very favorite movies, for every kind of reason, from the political to the aesthetic to the entertaining, if that’s even the right word. I think the moment that stays with me the most is when the women plant a bomb in the ice cream parlor: it’s impossible not to root for them to succeed, and that is both shocking and deeply moving. Jean Martin gives one of the great screen performances, but he’s fully matched by the nearly anonymous Algerian actors who tell the rest of the story.

    I imagine you know that the War College and the Pentagon studied this movie during the Vietnam War in order to try to understand why we were losing it. Evidently they didn’t study it enough.

    I have to add, perhaps churlishly in your LJ, that I loath Schindler’s List for all the same reasons I love Battle of Algiers: the Spielberg movie is (to me) a perfect case study in dishonest storytelling, slick playing upon cheap emotions, and fear of political complexity.

    Anyway, I’m glad you liked the Pontecorvo movie.

    • mr_noy says:

      The scene in the ice cream parlor sticks out for me too but not because I’m rooting for the bombers. What gets me is that Pontecorvo lets the scene linger, let’s the tension build. He could have just shot the explosion from a distance but he insists on showing us the victims. I love the way the bomber looks around and sees people eating, talking about their day, young lovers dancing to pop music; all innocent and unknowing of what is about to come. We might perceive the bomber’s actions as justified but even she recognizes the terrible cost those actions demand. The first time I saw it I almost wanted to yell, “Don’t do it!” even though I knew she would. It gives me chills just thinking about it.

      • malsperanza says:

        Definitely. The thing that’s so amazing about that scene (and the whole movie) is how it never avoids showing the *consequences* of both points of view–and more than that, it forces the viewer not just to watch or opine, but to take a position (Do it! or Don’t do it!), so that we’re implicated in the event. Objective neutrality is not an option. Very few other movies can really do that. One other that I think of in the same vein is Kon Ichikawa’s incredible WWII movie, “Fires on the Plain.”

  6. ndgmtlcd says:

    It was TOO realistic and intense. I had to abandon it after watching only a few scenes.

    You know, you spend your life watching all those funny french films “à l’eau de rose” or those “flic et truand” stories where they reuse the same actors over and over again. You know that when Belmondo (or Gabin) gets a bullet in the gut he’ll be back for the next film, and then suddenly this one comes along. POW!

    • Todd says:

      To be fair to the French cinema, Battle of Algiers is an Italian movie, and they pretty much invented gritty realism.

  7. sheherazahde says:

    Iraq, of course. And Afganinstan (why can’t we learn from the British and the Russians there)

    When I read “This is what happens. This is what happens when a colonial power occupies another country.” my next thought was “there’s something for Americans to learn from this movie today.”

  8. mr_noy says:

    This movie was like a punch in the gut when I saw it. There’s no doubt where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie but I admire Pontecorvo’s restrained and even handed depiction of the French; particularly in the composite character of Colonel Mathieu. Giving that role to the only professional actor in the film was a master stroke.

    One of the things that got me was Morricone’s mournful, elegiac theme that plays during the aftermath of the bombings; the first time it’s when the French bomb the Casbah and later it’s used after the retaliatory terrorist attacks on French citizens. For me, that’s the true heart of the movie; through music Pontecorvo equates all of the victims and reminds us that the loss of life is tragic and regrettable; regardless of what side the victims are on. Indeed, most of the victims in the film, Algerian or French, don’t seem to be terribly politically minded. They’re just the everyday people caught in the crossfire of politics and ideology.

  9. I saw this projected at Lincoln Center years ago –
    it (along with very few other films) changed the game for me…
    just thinking about it makes my heart pump faster…
    been dying to see it again, but I don’t think the little screen will do it justice.
    Seeing on the big screen really puts you in the middle of the action.

  10. Just saw this 10 minutes ago and remembered that you’d written about it. God damn. I was on the edge of my seat, primarily for the incredible film work. Hitchcock talked about the tension of a bomb in a cafe waiting to go off, but he had nothing on Pontecorvo.