Inside the Slow Boat to Hell…
There’s a certain lost poignancy to Les Maudits, René Clément‘s classic film, known in the United States as The Damned. This French film about a group of Nazis and unwilling French passengers escaping France in a submarine just as the Nazi occupation of France came to a close was shot and released in 1947, only two years after the last remnants of the Nazi occupation of France came to its actual end.
This poignancy may not translate to modern audiences whose ideas of postwar France revolves around a completely different war and a completely new France. This is especially notable as the immediacy of the Nazi influence and control over France was hardly lost on Clement and his cowriter Jacques Remy, thus no setting is truly given for the events to come, Clement and Remy trust their audiences’ equal immediate recall of these events of the then-recent past.
The black and white film itself is far from merely black and white, and while the Nazis themselves are the obvious bad guys here, this strange combination of U-boat movie and film noir drops the usual conceits of hero and villain and explores each character (almost in turn) as a complete character. The ostensible main character, Henri Vidal’s French Docteur Guilbert, narrates the film (sparingly) and provides background enough on each character as well as his own unwitting status on this voyage for asylum in South America. Characters like Anne Campion’s Ingrid Ericksen, a gentle daughter of a Nazi officer, as opposed to an actual believer, and Michel Auclair’s Willy Morus, a young soldier who would rather not be, muddy the waters between what constitutes the “good“ and “evil“ camps.
Then again, “evil” remains written all over this film and not so easily in the hearts of the guys in the swastikas. If there is a personification of evil in The Damned, it is surely Mr. Forster (Jo Dest), a high ranking Nazi in a business suit. The most disturbing parts of the film tend to (but do not exclusively) revolve around this evil character. Clement spares no expense in the “disturbing” category, however, and shows the pain and stress weighing on each passenger even as the upper crust (from any country) still dines exquisitely and dresses to the nines in this submarine built from irony.
What Clement has done is explore humanity and the varied levels and moralities thereof and has, albeit in a muted, desperate and impassionate way, commented positively on humanity. Yes, this is a claustrophobic film that mixes Crime, Film Noir and War subgenres of films (often in dark and subtly terrifying ways), but the metaphorical element is clear, if not ungainly. There is action and suspense, especially in the final act, but Clement’s drama is so very paced that it can occasionally come off as slow and plodding.
Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray release of The Damned marks the first time the film has been fully remastered and the glorious black and white looks great, even though the old movie dos not fill up the entire letterboxed screen. The clean, highly defined picture does cause the stock footage used for battle scenes to stand out in its scratchy, unmatched way, but the overall picture and sound are excellent.
Owing to the film’s age and the (obvious) lack of consideration for Blu-ray bonus features in 1947, there is no then-current media on the disc. This package includes a brand new commentary by film scholars Judith Mayne and John E. Davidson, the Cohen re-release trailer and a 2010 feature length documentary Rene Clement or the Cinema of Sketches. Considering the fact that The Damned was the 1947 Cannes Film Festival winner for Best Adventure and Crime Film, the hungry film buff could easily ask where the gallery of original promotional art and award stills might be. With its inclusions, The Damned Blu-Ray avoids the “bare bones” label, but could stand for a little more in the extras category, considering its historical significance.