This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
While films depicting the Second World War aren’t unusual, you’ve never seen one like this. Free Men is set in the Nazi-occupied Paris of 1942 and focuses on a group of young North Africans who, in an effort to protect the city’s Jews, join the French Resistance. Operating out of the basement of the Mosque of Paris, they issue Jews with fake identity documents giving them a Muslim heritage, shelter dissidents from the Vichy government and help them escape from under the nose of the Gestapo.
The story follows Algerian immigrant Younes, who makes a tortuous transition from Nazi informant to seasoned Resistance fighter. Initially sent to the mosque to spy for the Vichy immigration minister, the young man befriends a cabaret singer he is ordered to shadow and finds himself drawn into the heroic actions of the underground fighters. So cagey is Rahim’s performance that it’s not until his character goes to deliver faked documents to an Algerian Jewish family – he discovers the parents have already been arrested and rescues their two small daughters – that the viewer is entirely sure his transformation from small-time black market dealer to freedom fighter is complete.
The mosque’s director, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (who really existed) treads a fine line between protecting Paris’ Muslim community from Nazi intervention and fulfilling what he considers to be a moral duty to protect the persecuted. The scenes where he welcomes Nazi officers to the mosque on festival days are particularly fraught with tension – the viewer can see Younes and fellow Resistance members hovering in the background while the uniformed occupiers inspect a jewelled Koran and playfully pinch the cheeks of nervous children.
Free Men is full of silence and secrets. Inaudible whispers drift around corners. When the phone rings, you don’t hear the other half of the conversation. Characters have multiple names, or none. It’s as if the viewer is another potential informant who can’t be trusted with too much information. Underlying it all are the haunting North African melodies cabaret singer Salim Halali has brought to Paris, and the calm, contemplative atmosphere of the mosque. Halali was also a real person, and his story is skillfully interwoven with that of the fictional Younes.
After spending time creating this tense, quiet world, when director Ismaël Ferroukhi unleashes the action-packed climax, its violence is all the more shocking. Younes is betrayed during an attempt to rescue an injured Resistance fighter from hospital, and he and his brothers become wanted men. The mosque is searched, with Nazi soldiers tramping through its peaceful shaded courtyards. The Resistance has smuggled out the concealed Jews just in time, but Younes stays behind to look for one of the Jewish girls he rescued earlier in the film. Sprinting through the mosque with her in his arms, he’s cornered, but at that moment, the Imam instructs the praying Muslims to rise and exit the mosque all together. As one, they obey, and Younes and his charge disappear into the crowd. The aerial shot of all the worshippers streaming away from the mosque, protecting a defenceless Jewish child in their midst, is one of the most powerful of the whole film.
It isn’t all about Nazi persecution, though. As Younes learns at a meeting of the mosque’s underground Resistance, these young North Africans want to destroy fascism and fight for equality, with the hope that when victory comes, they too will be able to secure independence from their colonial oppressors. As Paris is liberated in 1944, we see Younes unearth a dusty Algerian flag in a backroom of the mosque. The message is clear: for these members of the Resistance, the fight is only just beginning.
Directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi and starring Tahar Rahim and Michael Lonsdale. Released in cinemas on 22 May