BLOOD OF THE BEASTS (Georges Franju, 1949)

Along with Henri Langlois, Georges Franju in 1936 founded the world’s most celebrated film archive, La Cinémathèque française. (Two years earlier they had co-directed a 16mm short, Le Métro.) After the war, Franju went solo, launching his career with the short documentary Le sang des bêtes, which surveys, in graphic detail, the routine inside a Parisian slaughterhouse, composing in stark images a freezing reflection on the violence that human existence may require in order to sustain itself. But it is we the viewer who are moved to reflection; we watch workers simply going about their killing business with apparent indifference to the bloody and lethal outcome, and as a result we watch hard for small signs of affect that might suggest the humanity that is being suppressed in order to put meat on French dinner tables. Franju’s images combine the brutal and the lyrical, reportage and poetry; irony, too, becomes a prominent element of the director’s distinctive style: One of the film’s narrators describes sheep being led to their slaughter as “following like men.”
     We may say then that Franju’s documentary unfolds in the war’s hangover. The connection is elusive, but somehow its description of “normal routine” within so brutal a context suggests French accommodation to the German occupation, even collaboration. The soulless labor inside the slaughterhouse evokes wartime French activity divorced from the soul of France.
     The hanging carcasses is too complex an image to interpret easily. It evokes something more than the human slaughter that the war exacted. The routine labor surrounding these carcasses suggests the compelling capacity of war to draw humans into its killing reality. It is an image of war’s dehumanization, both on the battlefield and at the homefront. It expresses horror that despite so much death “life goes on.”
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