This movie, directed by Gille Pontecorvo, was released in 1966 and was banned for five years in France. Just like in Pepe le Moko (1937), the main character here is Algiers’ Casbah, the old labyrinthine city from where the FLN succeeded to get organized and that the French army has transformed in a ghetto highly controlling its different gates.
This battle lost for six years and was eventually won by the French army but annihilating a network of organized resistance does not necessarily mean to destroy the fight this network was leading, therefore two years later, after very important demonstrations in Algeria’ cities, France eventually accept the independence of the country.French army has a pretty long history of urban suppression. The revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848 even inspired Napoleon III and his Baron Haussmann to transformed Paris in a secured controllable territory by the creation of a very important amount of large avenues that could be used in a very efficient way by the cavalry and the artillery in case of riots. Nobody can doubt that such an urbanism had something to do with the massacre of the Communards by the Versaille army in 1871.
However, a whole theory of urban guerilla has been invented by XIXth century French revolutionaries lead by the most charismatic of all, Auguste Blanqui. In fact Blanqui developed a whole agenda in order to “smooth the striated space” as Deleuze and Guattari would point out in their treaty of Nomadology (A thousand plateaus).
I want to quote here some excerpts from “Maintenant il faut des armes“, collection of Blanqui’s writing, but I don’t have any translation so I will do it myself…I hope you will apologize my clumsiness in it.
« L’attaque repoussée, il [l’officier] reprend et presse sans relâche la construction de la barricade en dépit des interruptions. Au besoin, des renforts arrivent.
Les ouvertures sont pratiquées au premier et au dernier étage, afin d’avoir deux routes ; le travail se poursuit à la fois dans quatre directions.
Tous les ilots ou patés de maisons appartenant aux rues barricadées doivent être perces dans leur pourtour, de manière que les combattants puissent entrer et sortir par la rue parallèle de derrière, hors de la vue et de la portée de l’ennemi. »« L’intérieur des ilots consiste généralement en cours et jardins. On pourrait ouvrir des communications à travers ces espaces, séparés d’ordinaire par de faibles murs. La chose sera même indispensable sur les ponts que leur importance ou leur situation spéciale exposent aux attaques les plus sérieuses.
Il sera donc utile d’organiser des compagnies d’ouvriers non-combattants, maçons, charpentiers, etc., pour exécuter les travaux conjointement avec l’infanterie.
Lorsque, sur le front de défense, une maison est plus particulièrement menacée, on démolit l’escalier du rez-de-chaussée, et l’on pratique des ouvertures dans les planchers des diverses chambres du premier étage afin de tirer sur les soldats qui envahiraient le rez-de-chaussée pour y attacher des pétards. L’eau bouillante jouerait aussi un rôle utile dans cette circonstance.
Si l’attaque embrasse une grande étendue de front, on coupe les escaliers et on perce les planchers dans toutes les maisons exposées. En règle générale, lorsque le temps et les autres travaux de défense plus urgents le permettent, il faut détruire l’escalier du rez-de-chaussée dans toutes les maisons de l’ilot sauf une, à l’endroit de la rue le moins exposé. »
This labor done, one put the two lateral barricades in communication by piercing the thick walls that separate houses situated on the defense’s front. The same operation is being executed simultaneously, in the houses on the two sides of the barricaded street until its extremity, then backwards, on the right and on the left, along the parallel street, on the defense’s front and on the back.
Openings have to be practiced on the first [ndt: first floor in Europe is second floor in US] and last floor in order to obtain two ways; work is being achieved in the same way in the four directions.
All the houses’ blocks belonging to the barricaded streets should be pierced in their perimeter, in a way that fighters are able to enter or exit by the backward parallel street, out of sight and out of reach from the enemy.”
”The interior of the blocks generally consists in courtyards and gardens. One could open communications between those spaces, usually separated by weak walls. It should be even compulsory on the bridges whose importance and specific situations expose them to the most serious attacks.
It would be therefore useful to organize companies of non-fighters workers, masons, carpenters, etc. in order to jointly achieve work with the infantry.
When, on the defense’s front, a house is more particularly being threatened, one demolished the ground floor’s staircase and one achieves opening in the various rooms’ floor of the first [second] floor in order to shoot the potential soldiers who would invade the ground floor to apply some bombs. Boiling water can also play an important role in this circumstance.
If the attack embraces an important extent of the front, one cuts the staircases and pierces the floors in all the exposed houses. As a general rule, when the time and the other defense works more urgent allow it, one should destroy the ground floor’ staircase in all the block’s houses except in the one the less exposed. ”
An important amount of readers will draw the parallel with Eyal Weizman’s study of Tsahal General Aviv Kokhavi’s strategy of making his troop progress in Palestinian towns through the walls. You can read this article in French on this previous post, and in English by following this link. The parallel of this Israeli general and the Commandant Matthieu – they both commands paratroopers – in The battle of Algiers seem also relevant in their very high sense of tactical philosophy and refusal of any ideology – they consider themselves as soldiers and that is all.
Cities are the new – since walled cities disapeared – scene of war -especially asymmetric wars and domestic riots/revolutions. Architecture, in its physicality, owns some ways to weaponize itself in favor of one side or another. What is certain in that matter is that not choosing is already a choice which risks to bring some more flesh to the institutional body.