Movie Night with Urbaniak: Battle of Algiers
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.