Monday, April 7, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Les Maudits" ("The Damned," 1947)

This essay isn't about the better-known 1969 film by Luchino Visconti of the same title, but the 1947 drama by René Clément that was recently restored and given a lush Blu-ray release. "The Damned" concerns a group of German Nazis and sympathizers who flee the Fatherland aboard a submarine during the waning days of WWII, making for South America and salvation.

Ostensibly, they're on some sort of "mission" to sow support for the Wehrmacht and open a new front across the Atlantic. But with wives, mistresses and children in tow, and the senior Nazi leaders employing fake names, it's pretty clear their only real concern is the state of their own skins.

Visually, the film is bona fide masterpiece, with incredibly textured black-and-white photography by Henri Alekan that presaged much of the film noir look of American crime films of the 1940s and '50s. Alekan and Clément make terrific use of the tight claustrophobic spaces inside the sub, with all the characters seemingly having to hang on each other. All this really comes through excellently in the Blu-ray.

It's a little wobbly in terms of the narrative and characterizations, with some of the figures acting as mere collections of traits. For example, the French collaborator,  Couturier (Paul Bernard), only gets a few lines of dialogue here and there, so when he makes a desperate attempt to escape the submarine and is killed, his death carries little emotional weight.

Perhaps the most inscrutable character is the main one, a French doctor played by Henri Vidal. He's kidnapped from his coastal village when one of the important passengers suffers a serious head wound while the submarine is being pounded by depth charges. Since they can't bring her to a medical care facility, they bring the medicine to her. Once aboard, however, they can't exactly let him go and blab about their mission, so he gets to make the journey as well, ensconced in a storage room as a quasi-prisoner.

The never-named doctor acts as narrator and lens through which the audiences glimpses the "damned." He's not in open conflict with them, though he rightly suspects his life will end when his usefulness does. As a result, he purposefully concocts an epidemic of illness among the crew, which is clever if not very Hippocratic. There is a brief sequence about him trying to escape by using an inflatable raft stowed below the upper deck, but it doesn't go anywhere.

Seemingly in charge is a German general, who has arranged for his Italian mistress (Florence Marly) to be brought along with her industrialist husband, Garosi (Fosco Giachetti). Garosi knows he's a dupe and a cuckold, but soldiers on out of a sense of love lost and self-pity.

Like many of the characters, the Garosis are a mix of good and evil impulses that control them, with Mr. Garosi tending more toward the former and Mrs. Garosi more toward the latter. Even the doctor is somewhat morally ambiguous because of his willingness to inflict fake medical conditions upon his patients to save his own life. The only true innocent is Ingrid (Anne Campion), the teenage daughter of an intellectual, who later abandons her to make good his own escape.

The true locus of evil is Mr. Forster (Joe Dest), a senior SS party leader who bullies and threatens the others into following his lead, eventually even winning over the general. With his chunky black frame glasses and severe salt-and-pepper slickened hair, Forster comes across as a tyrannical engineer who treats people like wayward machines.

Most interestingly, Forster is accompanied by his "right-hand man," a young angelic-faced street hood named Willy Morus (Michel Auclair) who employs a switchblade or Luger pistol with equal skill. It soon becomes completely clear that Willy is Forster's homosexual plaything, who attends to all his needs, be they martial or intimate. At one point Forster is using his knowledge of the general's mistress as leverage during their power struggle, and the officer responds with a similar threat about Willy.

Willy himself is a rather morally shadowy figure, easily capable of murder at his boss' command, but also resentful of the way he's kept under Forster's thumb. Eventually he rebels and slays his lover/tormentor.

The ship of the damned eventually makes it to South America (no country is specified) to find that the war his over, Hitler is dead, and the submarine captain is ordered to return his ship to the nearest port and surrender. Instead, a revolt breaks out, the cargo ship that refueled them is torpedoed and most of the crew and passengers killed, with the doctor left aboard alone as the ship's ghost and chronicler.

I relished "Les Maudits" quite a bit -- it's truly a lost gem of its era, made less than two years after the end of the war. (And despite a few bits of canned footage used for some action scenes, the production values are generally quite splendid.) At a brisk 102 minutes, it's a rare film I actually wished was longer, so the characters and themes could be fleshed out more fully.

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