There has been a recent surge in the number of revisionist dramas dealing with Nazi occupation. The most recent of these is Free Men, a French drama starring Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as Younes, a young Algerian immigrant scraping together a living selling goods on the black market. Apolitical and only out for himself, Younes begins the film as someone unaffected by war. It is 1942 and the Nazis have occupied Paris, yet Younes is uninterested in the machinations of the invaders and the efforts of the Resistance. This is not his war.
It works as a nice set-up. Let the adults kill themselves by the thousand; as long as he can scrape by, young Younes is happy. Happy that is, until his affiliation with a revolutionary-minded cousin lands him on the wrong side of the law. Suddenly, he is being forced to spy on the Muslim community of Paris, reporting back to the Nazi occupiers and their French minions. The main focus of his surveillance is the singer Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby), a Jewish man masquerading as a Muslim in order to keep off the Nazi radar. Younes strikes up a friendship with the singer, and as the SS begin rounding up Jews and resistance fighters, our protagonist finds himself faced with the first of a number of moral dilemmas he encounters throughout the film.
The facts on which this smart drama is based are a little enough known section history to ensure that this was never going to be just another wartime drama about the plight of the Jews. Head of the capital’s Grand Mosque Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (played superbly by Michael Lonsdale), along with other Parisian Muslims, has been sheltering Algerian Jews and providing them with false papers proving their Islamic faith. This act of human kindness influences the otherwise uncaring Younes, who finds himself gradually coming round to Ben Ghabrit’s way of thinking.
But while director Ismaël Ferroukhi could have concentrated on the unfolding story around the real historical figures of Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit or Salim Halali, the action follows the comparatively dry and static fictional character of Younes. Rahmin brings the same kind of intensity to the role that worked so well in A Prophet. But here, something more was needed to help draw the audience to the character, which Rahmin does not quite deliver.
Younes strikes up relationships with other Jewish members of the community, and with each new person he meets — the mysterious woman, the young war orphan — the intangible nature of the period’s politics becomes more manifest both to him and the audience.
This is not a film concerned with the Second World War on a grand scale, or the big decisions being made by the warring countries’ leaders. This is an intimate and intriguing journey of self-discovery, in which a self-interested opportunist is shown the way of human warmth and compassion in the face of great danger.