LES MAUDITS (René Clément, 1947)

Call him Ishmael. Docteur Guilbert is the only survivor of a maritime episode involving a U-boat whose other passengers, Nazis and collaborators, during the last gasps of Nazi Germany are setting off from Oslo for South America, where they hope to continue the pursuit of their “political” aims. Docteur Guilbert has been kidnapped and brought onboard to tend to a medical emergency. All the others will end up dead—by each other or by suicide. The harmonica-playing doctor will commit to script an account of the misadventure. Intriguingly, the doctor’s voiceover conflates his “present” and his thoughts onboard the U-boat—thoughts he draws from the deep, as it were, to create the account.
     With Les maudits (The Damned), René Clément daringly applied a documentary style, such as the reconstructions exhibited in his La bataille du rail (Battle of the Rails, 1945), to this melodramatic material of his. (The script, by Jacques Démy, Clément, and Henri Jeanson, adapts a story by Jacques Companeez and Viktor Aleksandrov.) Riveting and atmospheric, this frightening portrait of evil is one of Clément’s most compelling works.
     The submarine evolves into a symbol of the Nazi mind. Sometimes overpopulated, shots inside the U-boat study claustrophobic interior space. Especially when it is submerged, the U-boat convincingly seems shut off from the air and light of life. It is the same with the passengers themselves, whose vicious ideology, as well as their increasingly fearful desperation, marks their course of self- and mutual destruction.
     Entering for the first time, Guilbert walks the length of the submarine’s lower level, with the camera facing him. This backtracking shot is complex, for its component of “openness,” if you will, freedom, indicates the doctor’s special status onboard, while at the same time the extended traveling shot, which reaches the hard limit of his patient’s cabin, ironically reflects on the limitation of space, itself in context anticipatory of the patient’s (horrible) end, along with everyone else’s end except for the doctor. Indeed, it is the ironical outcome of every tracking shot that it exhausts the extended space the camera traverses and thus defines the limits of space, motion, freedom. Here, the shot haunts the later one of the doctor, sedentary, writing his account and, perhaps for the rest of his life, haunts also his memory of the incident and of his participation in France’s memory of the war and its aftermath.
     Henri Alëkan’s black-and-white cinematography, especially in its outdoors dusky gray, defines the haunted mind.

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