10/40/70 #20: The Battle of Algiers


This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

The Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)

Rereleased by Criterion in 2004, The Battle of Algiers is hard to watch without thinking about the current war on terror, something which most reappraisals of the film have acknowledged. It is a film that’s easy to use to draw comparisons and make points about current events, largely because violence between oppressors and oppressed is always a current event somewhere. But at the level of image, it’s equally powerful.

10 minutes:

The film opens in 1957, and then flashes back to 1954 and the arrest of Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj), who becomes radicalized in prison. Radicalized, though, isn’t the right word. From the film’s point of view, Ali awakens to the injustice of the French occupation of Algeria. From the French and collaborating Algerian point of view he is radicalized, i.e., he becomes a threat. But in the film’s worldview he has simply awakened to the truth, and becomes a man of action.

At ten minutes, the camera tracks backwards across incarcerated men, slowly coming to rest, a few seconds after this frame, on Ali. The frame freezes the tracking shot in motion: sleeping bodies, a man combing his hair. The shot suggests that the camera could have stopped upon the faces of any of these men; they each would have a story to tell, a path to follow. The frame is full, above all else, of human beings and whether they are professional actors or non-actors or black or white or Christian or Muslim or of another religion or of no religion doesn’t matter at this moment. Although The Battle of Algiers is acclaimed for its realistic, documentary-like action sequences, which are still stunning today, it is the quiet moments, like this, that humanize the characters, in their repose.

40 minutes:

After a bomb explodes—planted by the French in the Casbah quarter killing dozens of sleeping Algerians—the people march in anger. They have seen the bodies of dead children pulled from the rubble. The scene is sheer anarchy, cinéma vérité at the speed of light, pulling us into the mob, the camera jostling, knocked around, unfocused, as alive as the flood of human bodies that flood into the streets. The imperfection of blurred frames is reminiscent of another great vérité film from the Sixties, Medium Cool (1969), with its Chicago riots. The scene that this frame is taken from is a pivotal one in the film, as the terrorist attack by the French has mobilized the people and given groundswell sanction to the National Liberation Front (FLN).

70 minutes:

The French paratroopers enter the Casbah, operating above the law, capturing and torturing and executing and “disappearing” suspects. Families are separated. At the 70-minute mark, another wordless sequence, accompanied by the rattling music of Ennio Morricone and Gillo Pontecorvo, as soldiers forcibly separate a half-naked, screaming baby from its mother. The soldier to the left yanks the baby up so hard that its feet leave the ground as the other soldier drags the mother out from her home. The force of the image in the frame is the force of history and collective memory. For in an earlier invasion of Algeria by France, Lieutenant-Colonel Lucien François de Montagnac wrote this in a letter:

“All populations which do not accept our conditions must be despoiled. Everything must be seized, devastated, without age or sex distinction: grass must not grow any more where the French army has put the foot. Who wants the end wants the means, whatever may say our philanthropists. I personally warn all good militaries which I have the honour to lead that if they happen to bring me a living Arab, they will receive a beating with the flat of the saber. This is how, my dear friend, we must do war against Arabs: kill all men over the age of fifteen, take all their women and children, load them onto naval vessels, send them to the Marquesas Islands or elsewhere. In one word, annihilate all that will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs.”

And, a year earlier, he wrote this: “We kill, we strangle. The cries of the desperate and dying mingle with the noise of the bellowing, bleating livestock. You ask me what we do with the women. Well, we keep some as hostages, others we exchange for horses, the rest are auctioned like cattle… In order to banish the thoughts that sometimes besiege me, I have some heads cut off, not the heads of artichokes but the heads of men.”

We kill, we strangle.

So simple, so direct. Words like those never disappear, though they may be forgotten. They linger like radioactive elements, poisoning generations. In The Battle of Algiers, at 70 minutes, they burn through the screen. In this expanded view of the left quadrant of the frame, the soldier’s boots so close to the baby’s bare feet are a sort of maniacal poetry. Behind the metal bars of the railing, the baby is a victim waiting to happen. The soldier’s gun, his hand gripping the baby’s arm, his boot near the baby’s toes; these are signs of the elegance of power, its mad rush to destroy the powerless simply because they are powerless.

And the other soldier, to the right, his grip on the mother’s arm, the force of his gun as a threat that lies behind the threat of flesh against flesh. Devastation “without age or sex distinction” Montagnac wrote to his friend. The democracy of brutality that does not distinguish between man or woman, old or young. From the black ink background she emerges: her arm, attached to nothing it seems. The woman is faceless, as is the soldier. They perform for the camera a re-enactment of the battle of Algiers and you can’t help wonder if there might not be some joy in them at this moment. The will to weakness is perhaps just as strong as the will to power, something Václav Havel wrote of so eloquently in “The Power of the Powerless.”

For in the end, The Battle of Algiers—with its scenes of degradation, torture, and wanton violence—doesn’t so much prompt the question how could this happen as it does another darker question, not really even a question at all, but a realization: this happens all the time. Organized violence—your tribe against my tribe—is not an aberration that interrupts the flow of history, but in fact is the flow of history, the film suggests in certain moments. There is war all the time because there is war all the time. The cultural machinery of our era always prepares us for this, even as it denies it.

Click image to enlarge.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →