The Arty Semite

Jean-Pierre Melville: Resistance Fighter and Filmmaker Who Made the Right Choices

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

The French Jewish film director Jean-Pierre Melville (born Grumbach; 1917–1973), famous for films about crime and France’s wartime Résistance, is being rediscovered by cinema addicts. A remake of Melville’s 1970 heist film “Le Cercle Rouge” is currently in development as “The Red Circle” starring Orlando Bloom while Melville’s equally influential 1967 “Le Samouraï,” about a hit man (played by Alain Delon), has inspired filmmakers from Jim Jarmusch to Hong Kong’s Pang Ho-cheung.

Following the October release of a 7-DVD box set of his films from StudioCanal DVDs, and a retrospective at Paris’s la Cinémathèque française from last November 3 to 22, “Riffs for Melville” (Riffs Pour Melville) a new book from the Belgian publisher Les éditions Yellow Now has appeared.

“Riffs for Melville” contains, among other intriguing articles, a key essay by critic Jacques Mandelbaum: “From Grumbach to Melville: the Jewish Obstacle.” Mandelbaum reminds the reader that Melville adopted his pseudonym while working in the French Résistance, an experience which inspired his 1969 movie “Army of Shadows,” adapted from a novel by French Jewish journalist Joseph Kessel. Yet, as Mandelbaum notes, surprisingly little attention has been paid to Jewish influences on Melville’s work. As Mandelbaum puts it, Melville “never really emerged” from his wartime experiences, and in subsequent films, whether explicitly about the Résistance or the world of gangsters, the director obsessively focused on outlaw groups who struggled in secrecy.

In Rui Nogueira’s 1972 interview book, “Melville on Melville,” sadly out of print from Viking Press, Melville modestly, and debatably, underestimates his own Resistance heroism, which included fleeing to London in 1942 to join the Free French forces:

As for me, the opportunity to stand out by making a choice was not given me; I am Jewish. For a Jew, joining the Resistance is infinitely less heroic than for a non-Jew. Who or what can guarantee that had I been a non-Jew, I would have made the right choice?”

Mandelbaum intriguingly asserts that even in unexpected places, the theme of Judaism appears in Melville’s films, starting with his first feature, “Le Silence de la Mer” (The Silent Sea; 1949), an adaptation of a short story by the French author and Résistance hero Jean Bruller, who wrote under the name Vercors. Even such Melville films as “Les enfants terribles” (1950), with screenplay by Jean Cocteau, and 1961’s “The Forgiven Sinner” (“Léon Morin, prêtre”) introduce the theme of Judaism, sometimes incongruously, as an indelibly inspirational element of the filmmaker’s personality that will not be submerged.

Watch Jean-Pierre Melville in a 1970 French TV interview.

Watch him here in 1967, talking about his passion for detective novels.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Orlando Bloom, Joseph Kessel, Jean-Pierre Melville

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.