Movie Review: Les Hommes libres (Free Men) (2011)
Most movies about civilian life in Nazi-occupied Europe are pretty straightforward, whether they’re set in France (“La rafle”), the Netherlands (“Oorlogswinter,”), or Poland (“Katyn”). The Nazis are occupying your country. They’re rounding up Jews. They’re killing your friends. Everyone knows who to root for and against.
“Les Hommes libres” (“Free Men”), directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, focuses on Algerian Muslims living in occupied Paris, and thus adds a twist. The country that has occupied your country for more than 100 years is itself now occupied. So is the enemy of your enemy your friend?
Younes (Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete”), a black marketeer, begins the film as the classic disinterested protagonist, a kind of less-connected, rootless Rick Blaine. His cousin, Ali (Farid Larbi), a communist, tries to involve him in union issues. “We’re getting organized,” Ali says. But Younes sticks his neck out for nobody. “I’m not interested,” Younes responds. He says he wants to “make my pile and go home.”
Then he’s fingered—by Ali?—and the authorities swarm in, take his goods, put him in jail. There, L’inspecteur (Bruno Fleury) offers him a deal. He’ll let him go if he hangs out at the Grand Mosque of Paris and reports back what’s going on. Younes, conflicted, accepts.
Younes, we’re told, is an amalgamation of several World War II-era Algerians, but two of the folks he meets at the Grand Mosque are based on historical people: Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), the founder of the Mosque, and a French loyalist; and Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby), an up-and-coming Algerian singer with Elvis sideburns and amazing eyes. To the latter, Younes sells, for 800 francs, an Algerian drum he had acquired for two packs of cigarettes. For a moment, as he calculates his profit, he’s a happy man.
The authorities are watching the Grand Mosque because they suspect—rightly—that the Muslims are harboring Jews. The number of Jews Ben Ghabrit’s Mosque saved is debated these days, but both sides agree it’s somewhere between 500 and 1600. That’s Oskar Schindler territory.
Younes discovers all of this but feeds the authorities harmless information. He discovers Salim is part Jewish but warns Salim rather than telling the authorities. Ben Ghabrit actually makes short work of Younes’ snitching activities by complaining to a German official with whom he’s friendly, Major von Ratibor (Christopher Buchholz), that the Vichy French have sent in spies. Word gets back to L’inspecteur, who grabs Younes off the street, threatens his life, but ultimately lets him go. Younes is now free from that double life, about to enter another one.
The more he hangs out at the Mosque, and the more he sees the fiery-eyed Leila (Lubna Azabel), the more he’s drawn into the resistance. At first he reluctantly goes on errands. Then he volunteers. By the end, he’s a part of it rather than apart from it. He’s a leader.
In this way Younes is similar to Malik, the role Rahim played in “Un Prophete”: the loner who becomes a leader for his people after being co-opted by the enemy. Both characters never seem particularly strong, smart, or calculating, and yet, because they’re underestimated, they come out ahead. Rahim is an interesting actor. He exudes calm rather than intensity. I like his small gestures. The surprise on his face when he witnesses Salim kissing a French girl (“You can do that?”). Asked how he’s doing after being let go by the authorities, he gestures, without heat but vaguely annoyed, at the scar on his cheek. You feel his shame as a snitch and his awful grogginess waking up from his first hangover.
This is French drama so there’s less force driving the narrative; there’s a randomness that feels real. Younes saves two Jewish kids during the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up but we only see them again at the end. He begins a flirtation with Leila but she’s rounded up before their first date. As she’s being led away in the back of a military vehicle, their eyes lock, and in those few seconds their eyes say everything that time and circumstances won’t allow.
So why the Hollywood moments? The rain falling on Salim after the cemetery subterfuge; the look the Jewish girl gives Younes after he guides her to the getaway boat on the Seine; the unnecessary introduction of Salim’s homosexuality; the emaciated cheekbones of the Gestapo agent.
“Les Hommes libres” is a good film but no more. There’s a simplicity and economy to the story, an almost conscious attempt to avoid histrionics and melodrama—which is appreciated after the recent spate of melodramatic World War II fare: “Le Rafle,” “City of Life and Death,” “John Rabe.” The movie ends after D-Day and liberation, but a better ending might have been the moment Younes, again by the Seine, takes out Omar (Zakariya Gouram), his original black-market source, and a true snitch. It’s Younes killing the man he might have been.