January 26, 2017
Damned, The - France, 1947
There have been many movies dealing post-World War II Europe. Some of these have been court room dramas, ones in which one or a number of individuals from the Axis Powers are put on trial for their suspected activities during the war; others look at the world that greeted the survivors of the war, one replete with shattered, bombed out buildings, displaced families, and scarred psyches. Rene Clement’s The Damned has elements of both of these types, for it includes people on the run from justice and has as its lead character a man who returns home after the war and attempts to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. It is also the first of these films that I would describe as a thriller.
The film’s central character is a young French doctor named Guilbert (Henri Vidal), and in the film’s opening credits, it is his hands we see writing madly in a journal at a candlelit desk that sits just below an image of the swastika. Soon the film flashes forward, and we see Guilbert returning to his home in Royan, France, one person a line of evacuees that stretches far and wide. In a touching moment, we watch as he finds his old harmonica, and we realize that in times like these the memories that come back to us when we are reunited with cherished possessions can be bittersweet. I though the film would settle here for a bit. Instead it flashes back and transports viewers to a very different place. There we watch as a submarine slowly fills up with passengers, some of them Nazi sympathizers from France, some Italians, a few higher ranking German officers, and their henchmen, as well as civilians whom we assume must have some kind of connection to the Third Reich. Soon they set sail for South America. What exactly they plan to do there is anyone’s guess.
As with many submarines during wartime, there is soon a skirmish, and a blast causes one of the women on board to fall into a coma as a result of head trauma. She needs a doctor. As fate would have it, they are sailing near enough to Royan to make an emergency stop. The plan: to kidnap a doctor. One guess which doctor that turns out to be. From there, it’s a fight to say alive, with Guilbert trying to stay one step ahead of a German officer named Forster (Jo Dest) who intends to kill him when his services are no longer required. Guilbert’s only hope then is to extend his usefulness until an opportunity to escape presents itself.
Given this set up, I was sure that the film would focus almost exclusively on Guilbert, yet I was pleasantly surprised when it began focusing on other characters and fully fleshing them out. For example, a German general named Andreas Von Halbetatadt could easily have been a one-dimensional character, one rotten to the core with no redeeming values. However, here he is presented as a military man whose devotion to the Nazi cause - and to the married woman he is having a fling with – may not be as strong as it seems at first. In this way, he is the opposite of Forster. His loyalty never wavers, and as the film progresses, it leads him down an increasingly violent and murderous path. His actions are truly frightening, and it reminded me of the maddening fact that many German commanders continued fighting even after defeat was inevitable.
Behind the camera, Clement works hard to create a claustrophobic feel. In one amazing scene, he appears to pick up his camera and walks backward as Guilbert is entering the sub for the first time, and as he walks both he and viewers are made aware of just how perilous his situation is. There’s no place to hide and no place to run. If someone wants him dead, it won’t be hard to make it happen. I also admired the way the film defies convention. In a more standard film, Guilbert would morph into a man of action and play people against each other before ultimately having them right where he wants them. For the most part, Clement avoids this trap. Guilbert doesn’t become one of those action movie types. In fact, the strategies he employs practically ensures that he is much more likely to stay out of fisticuffs than he is to engage in Bond-like maneuvers and direct confrontations.
It should be apparent by now that I enjoyed The Damned quite a lot. The film is tense and suspenseful and includes a number of twists and turns that I honestly did not see coming. I also admired the way what transpires onscreen is so deeply connected to 1945 and its many explosive changes. In a scene toward the middle of the film, word gets out that Hitler is dead, and it is utterly fascinating to observe the impact this news has on the occupants of the submarine. Just what must it have been like to learn that everything they believed in was crumbling?
As much as I enjoyed the film, it would have worked much more had one key change been made. At various points in the film, the film is narrated by Guilbert, and much of what he tells us is either unnecessary or distracting. Even worse, it is unclear what the narration actually is. At times it seems as if he is relating his story from the heavens as he watches a reenactment of it; at other times, he talks about events that seem utterly fascinating, but far too many of these are presented simply as thoughts in Guilbert’s head. We do not see them occur, and as such, they don’t resonate very much. Even more egregious is the inconsistency with which the narration is used. For long stretches of the film, the narrator simply disappears. In a way, this seems logical, as Guilbert is far from the events depicted in some scenes, but this just begs the question: How can we see it if the narrator of the film is not present and there is no scene in which the event is related within earshot of him? And while we’re on the subject, just how does he know, which he claims to do, what characters are thinking?
Despite this quibble, The Damned remains a powerful, thrilling film that is much more original than many of the more well-known films in its genre. It is also one of those rare examples of a film that grows in quality and intrigue as it goes along. I was captivated by these characters, shocked by some of their actions, and enthralled by the chaos of it all. The film deserves to be discovered and appreciated as the wonder that it is. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars
*The Damned is in French, German, and Italian with English subtitles.