Review: ‘Shadows of Freedom,’ starring Robert Satloff, Robert Gildea, Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, Brian Lane Herder, Helen Fry and Christopher Kolakowski

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

U.S. troops with Algerians during World War II in “Shadows of Freedom” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Shadows of Freedom”

Directed by Amos Carlen and Aline Robichaud

Culture Representation: This documentary, which interviews an all-white group of history experts, examines the underreported World War II history of Jewish resistance fighters in Algeria who were influential in helping the Allied Forces build a military strategy to defeat the Nazi regime.

Culture Clash: The Jewish resistance fighters in Algiers had to battle with the Nazi-controlled Vichy government in France, while United States and the United Kingdom disagreed on which Nazi-occupied country to invade first.

Culture Audience: “Shadows of Freedom” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about World War II history that took place in North Africa.

José Aboulker in a 1972 TV interview (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Much has been written about and reported on Jewish resistance fighters in Europe during World War II, but most people aren’t aware (because it’s rarely taught in history classes) that Jewish resistance fighters in the North African country of Algeria played a crucial role in the Allied Forces winning the War. “Shadows of Freedom” (directed by Amos Carlen and Aline Robichaud) is a very traditionally made documentary that tells this underdog story through the use of archival footage, some animation and interviews with World War II history experts.

Narrated by Youssef Iraqi in an appropriately serious tone, “Shadows of Freedom” begins with a brief summary of the events that led up to World War II, such as Adolf Hitler-led Nazis invading several countries in Europe from 1938 to 1940. France became divided between two territories with two separate governments: the democracy government in the free territory and the Vichy government in the Nazi-controlled territory. Also at stake where the North African countries Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Algiers, the capital of Algeria, was the largest city in this African region.

It was in Algiers that the seeds of resistance were sown with a Jewish man who is widely considered the leader of the Jewish resistance movement in Algeria: José Aboulker, who came from a French immigrant family of left-wing intellectuals. José’s father Henri was a professor of medicine and an activist. José’s brothers Rafael and Stephan also were influential members of the Jewish resistance group in Algeria.

The talking heads who provide commentary in the documentary are Robert Sayloff, executive director of the Washington Institute of Near East policy; Oxford University professor Robert Gildea, author of “Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of French Resistance”; Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, a historian and José Aboulker biographer; Brian Lane Herder, author of “Operation Torch 1942: The Invasion of French North Africa”; World War II historian Helen Fry, author of “Churchill’s German Army”; and Christopher Kolakowski, director of the MacArthur Memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

José Aboulker, who was a 20-year-old medical student at the time he formed the resistance group, is described in the documentary as intelligent and well-connected. With the help of his brothers, José recruited members of the group under the guise of having health-club/gum gatherings, so as not to raise suspicions of the government. It was a clear ruse, since the meetings would serve twofold purpose of making plans and giving physical training to the resistance members, most of whom were young (18 to 40 years old) but with no military experience.

Other key members of the French resistance in Algiers were two members of the free French government: Henri D’Astier de la Vigerie (a soldier) and Colonel Germain Jousse. And although the majority of the resistance members were Jewish immigrants from France, many were also Jews born in Algeria and some were non-Jewish Algerians.

During the formation of the Jewish resistance in Algeria, there were also disagreements brewing between the United States and the United Kingdom on what military strategy to use to win World War II. The U.S. had resisted getting involved for years in fighting the Nazis, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941 was the catalyst for the U.S. to get involved in World War II as part of the Allied Forces with the United Kingdom.

The U.S. military wanted to invade an embattled France first to free it from the Vichy regime. However, the U.K. military thought a better strategy would be to defeat Germany in other Nazi-occupied countries first, starting with those in North Africa, and then working up to Europe. The U.K. strategy is the one that was taken, and it turned out to be the correct strategy, because it have the Allied troops the experience and the confidence needed by the time they got to Europe.

In order to free the countries in North Africa, the Allied Forces would have to battle the French/Vichy military controlling these countries. A relatively small group (about 388 people) of Jewish resistance fighters, led by José Aboulker, played a crucial role by taking over the city of Algiers on November 8, 1942. The resistance fighters took police officers and city officials into custody for about six hours, which was longer than the resistance movement had expected.

The resistance fighters’ takeover of Algiers cleared a path when the Allied troops entered Algeria and finished what the resistance fighters started in the famous Operation Torch siege, by defeating the Nazi-sympathetic governments in Algeria and in other parts of North Africa. Unfortunately, the resistance fighters in Algeria were later marginalized in the Darlan Deal, brokered by French admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan after the Allied Forces’ defeat of North Africa. Many of the resistance fighters were imprisoned for their helpful actions during Operation Torch.

The documentary’s pundits say that this mistreatment of the resistance fighters is an embarrassing part of French history, and it’s one of the reasons why the resistance movement in Algeria is not widely taught in history classes. Likewise, Americans and Brits also downplayed or tried to erase the contributions of the resistance fighters in Algeria, because Americans and Brits had to fight against the French in Algeria, and it doesn’t fit the usual narrative that the French were allies to Americans and Brits during World War II.

At 65 minutes long, “Shadows of Freedom” is a completely efficient retelling of this underrated part of World War II history. The archival footage includes early 1970s TV interviews of José Aboulker; his cousin Bernard Karsenty, who was also part of the Jewish resistance in Algeria; and Marc Jacquet, who called D’Astier de la Vigerie “an archangel with a sword” and a “true leader.”

D’Astier de la Vigerie is credited with being influential in the Jewish resistance movement in Algeria, but the documentary also points out that although he was anti-Nazi, he also had right-leaning political views that favored the idea of France going back to being a monarchy instead of  democracy. Satloff (who is the most compelling and articulate pundit in the documentary) also mentions that José Aboulker, who died in 2009 at the age of 89, was also probably not given enough credit in historical accounts of Operation Torch because of José Aboulker’s unpopular political views later in life. José Aboulker advocated on behalf of Algerian Muslims, which was a controversial stance for a Jewish person.

The documentary’s illustrations/animation by Joseph Sherman adeptly complement the story that’s told in the movie. There is a small editing error toward the end when subtitles are absent for historian Verdès-Leroux, who speaks in French. However, “Shadows of Freedom” musical score by co-directed Carlen is on point, ranging from majestic to poignant. “Shadows of Freedom” is the type of documentary that can easily be shown in history classes as part of any curriculum about World War II. However, you don’t have to be a history buff to be inspired by the courage of ordinary people who made a positive difference in an extraordinary period of humankind.

Gravitas Ventures released “Shadows of Freedom” on digital and VOD on April 24, 2020.