La bataille du rail, René Clément’s greatest film, consists of reconstructed episodes of the French Resistance involving railroads and railway workers during the German Occupation, culminating in the Liberation.
The film opens on a railway station sign, on the line of demarcation between Occupied and “Free” France, which suggests that the Germans, directly or indirectly, control all of France. Repeated is a warning that all Jews must keep from crossing the line; the German-language rendition appears on top, the French-language one, underneath. The political line, the actual tracks and split-level sign imaginatively converge to encapsulate a divided, captured nation.
One recalls the film’s celebratory sense of folk pulling together for a common purpose. But not all of the film is on the upbeat. One partisan attack on a train—partisans attempt to disrupt the flow of artillery and other supplies to German troops—ends in defeat. Earlier, a famous passage shows the execution of railway workers, one by one, who are lined up facing a wall. In the foreground of the shot is the man who will be mowed down last. He hears the shots that claim each of his comrades. Clément renders the sequence expressively disjointed, by cutting away from the worker to what he sees—a spider dropping off the wall; black smoke from a nearby factory—and by cutting away from the scene entirely for a bit of parallel action before returning to the worker’s fate. The death is imaged by a repetition of the factory smoke hitting the sky. In retrospect we wonder at this image’s literal reality. Perhaps it projected the victim’s own anticipation of extinction.
Indeed, the film’s disjointed quality, to which its episodic structure contributes, helps convey the terrible disruption, sometimes irradication, of ordinary lives.
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