The First, Best after-the-fact French Resistance Propaganda Film

12/22/2009 2:43 PM |

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Since November 18, MoMA has been screening films in a series called “Best Years: Going to the Movies, 1945-46“. Making a claim for any art form’s peak year(s) is always a subjective (and slightly pointless) exercise, but it’s the going to the movies part that may have reached a definitive peak of excitement and fascination in those years of transition from the all-consuming war effort to the confusing comedown of peace. There’s a varying degree of propaganda in each film here, whether it’s the paranoia in a straightforward noir (The Dark Corner), the parental scare tactics of Where Are Your Children?, or the blatant pro-Bolshevik absurdity of The North Star. Russian and Swiss films share space with the U.S. productions, and an American-British co-production, The True Glory (co-directed by Carol Reed), is as powerful, educating, and moving as propaganda gets. The series is presented in tandem with the release of a book by the same title, by Charles and Mirella Jona Affron, who have introduced several of the screenings.

Mr. Affron introduces today’s showing of one of the most interesting films in the series, Rene Clement’s The Battle of the Rails. This first feature from the director of Forbidden Games, Purple Noon, and Is Paris Burning? was directly sponsored by French Resistance veterans, and it’s a stirring and shamelessly biased portrayal of deliberate sabotage performed by French railworkers to cripple the occupying forces.

The movie is back-patting and self-mythologizing to a fault, but it’s all the more fascinating for it, and those qualities don’t negate the purely cinematic pleasures—the track-level camerawork, brutal wrecks and violence, and appealing acting by unknowns. The Battle of the Rails has no main characters in the traditional sense, just the workers as a whole who, naturally, are all united in their commitment to thwarting Nazis. The lack of a proper story arc and scarcity of close-ups make it newsreel-like, all the better to further the notion that this is the unvarnished “way it was.” (MoMA’s description identifies it as a documentary, which is misleading). It’s a genially deluded victory lap of healing for the postwar French, exaggerated for maximum remedial effect.

For its extensive (and often lovely) footage of the French rail system, it makes a solid companion piece with Renoir’s La Bete Humaine. It’s also an interesting contrast to the train track footage in Claude Chabrol’s Occupation government propaganda compilation, The Eye of Vichy, which showed French rail workers gleefully and loyally working arm in arm with their German overseers. The historical truth of individual collaboration and resistance lies somewhere in between, of course.

Like with most of the selections in “Best Years”, a short precedes The Battle of the Rails. Others include Warner Brothers cartoons and bits from Capra’s Why We Fight series. Tagged on to Rails is Badminton, which features a match between two masters of the sport, interspersed with a smashingly unfunny extended gag featuring a buffoon trying to set up a net in his backyard.