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Oslo, April 19th 1945, as the Third Reich is living its last days, a group of Nazis and sympathizers (a Wehrmacht general; an SS commander and his "assistant"; an Italian industrialist and his wife who is also the general's lover; a French collaborator) board a submarine that will take them to South America, where they hope to find refuge. While they sail in the Bay of Biscay, off the shores of the liberated French port of Royan, they manage to kidnap a French doctor to have him look after a wounded passenger. Dr Gilbert will be forced to share the restricted space of the submarine with the fugitives. The atmosphere soon becomes unbreathable... Written by
The history of French cinema, for better or worse, is largely tethered to two boad-sweeping movements; the Poetic Realism movement and the Nouvelle Vogue. Both periods expanded the limitations of film technique while constantly calling into question grammar and form. Populated with names like Godard, Varda, Renoir and Carne, these movement most importantly laid the foundation for auteur theory (the notion that a film is a product of the director like a novella to an author).
Rene Clement is not a member of either of these movements. Considered too young for the poetic realism and too old for the French New Wave, Clement was dismissed by Francois Truffaut as part of the Cinema du papa (Your dad's cinema); a blanket term for French filmmakers who try to mimic the bloated spectacle of Hollywood. Yet anyone who gives Forbidden Games (1952) or Purple Noon (1960) a chance can clearly see a talented filmmaker with a flair for docudrama and a taste for good-old-fashioned storytelling.
Now granted The Damned does not reach the feverish heights of Purple Noon but it nevertheless oozes with the spirit of Americanized suspense while telling a story that's uniquely French. Set during the last months of the Third Reich, a group of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers have planned a daring escape from Europe via U-boat. Things however hit a snag after a close encounter with a Allied ship, forcing the boat to dock and kidnap a French doctor (Vidal). The doctor then bares witness to the escalating fanaticism of the U-boat's crew and occupants as they come to terms with the war ending.
Filled with potboiler intrigue, calculating villains and frenetic action, The Damned brings to mind Hitchcock's slim but suspenseful war-period films like Lifeboat (1944) and Foreign Correspondent (1940). Yet unlike those films which played on the uncertainty of a wartime audience, The Damned has a foreboding sense of ennui. The narration provided by Henri Vidal puts you into the mind of the Doctor and his multiple attempts to escape from the clutches of the U-boat's occupants, which include fanatical SS Officer Forster (Dest), Wehrmacht General Von Hauser (Kronefeld), Italian industrialist Garosi (Giachetti) and his wife (Marly). His main motive is concentrated to that of sheer survival. He knows full well that the moment the wife's injuries are cared for, he's a dead man, so he cleverly uses any excuse to stay on as the resident doctor until better options arrive.
Yet while the doctor may be absolved in his complicity to the Nazi cause, the film shades in the rest of the characters in sometimes quixotic ways. By virtue of being connected to the virginal Ingrid (Campion), Scandinavian physicist Eriksen (Hector) is absolved of his motivation to sell nuclear secrets to the highest bidder. The majority of the Nazi U-boat crew are seen in a positive and simplistic light; a cadre of men just wanting to go home. Meanwhile Florence Marly's Hilde is savaged by the events of the story, not merely because she's a sympathizer but because she is also the mistress to the General. Paul Bernard plays Couturier a French newspaper editor (and the only representative of Vichy France) who is quietly kept under the rug until his final curtain call. One can't help but think that if Couturier's death wasn't so senseless, Clement was trying to build a story around justifying culpability.
Regardless, The Damned is still a brilliantly shot film full of nail-biting suspense and claustrophobic mis en scene. Those who saw Das Boot (1981) or Run Silent, Run Deep (1956) will no doubt see similar visual cues which, I won't go far enough to say were inspired by The Damned but are strongly reminiscent of it. Rene Clement may not be one of the names immediately conjured up when thinking of French filmmakers but with quality films under his belt, he certainly doesn't deserve the Cinema du papa moniker.
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