Submarine movies come in all shapes and sizes, from the highs of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and The Enemy Below (1957, really half a submarine movie) to the depths of Hellcats of the Navy (1957, not nearly as bad as its reputation) and the absurdities of Atomic Submarine (1960).
But René Clément's The Damned (1947) is the most authentic submarine movie I've ever seen, more so even than Wolfgang Petersen's celebrated Das Boot (1981). And it is by far the most immediate. Told in flashback by a French doctor, Guilbert (Henri Vidal), the film follows a German U-boat loaded to the gills with VIPs: fervent Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and their lovers, all fleeing from Oslo hoping to reach South America in the last days of the war.
Considering when it was made, the film is a technical marvel, accomplishing many of the same kinds of innovative claustrophobic camerawork usually credited to the much later Das Boot. It seamlessly blends new footage shot aboard a submarine with studio sets and wartime stock footage, while the jumble of fast-changing political (and economical and sexual) loyalties aboard this underwater bunker is equally fascinating, eventually becoming a microcosm of Europe during those chaotic last days of the Third Reich.
This Gaumont title distributed by Cohen Media Group looks nearly perfect in high-def. Either the original film elements were kept in great shape or somebody did a major restoration to make it look as pristine as The Damned does throughout. Good extras include an audio commentary and hour-long Clément documentary.
The movie opens with Dr. Guilbert at last returning home to his bombed-out French village after a terrible adventure. Somewhat confusingly, this transitions to flashbacks Guilbert narrates aboard the German U-boat days before he joins the story. Nevertheless, it allows for the introduction of the ship's international passenger list, notably martinet German general von Hauser (Kurt Kronefeld); fanatical, late-middle-age Nazi politician Forster (Jo Dest); Foster's "personal aide" and barely-coded lover, Willy Morus (Michel Auclair); Swedish collaborator Ericksen (Lucien Hector, based perhaps on Knut Hamsun?); his 17-year-old daughter, Ingrid (Anne Campion); French collaborator Couturier (Paul Bernard); pro-Mussolini industrialist Garosi (Fosco Giachetti); and his German wife, Hilde (Florence Marly, the Queen of Blood herself). The General sees to it that Hilde and Garosi are given separate quarters, she also being von Hauser's mistress. The crew speaks German but French is the language chosen among the VIPs; it's the only one all of them can speak. "Scandinavian, French, Italian, German!" says one, "Like Noah's Ark. All that's missing is the flood."
Though Berlin is on the verge of total collapse, initially everyone talks enthusiastically about redoubling their efforts to win the war, even if that means rebuilding the Third Reich from South America. Enemy depth charges violently rattle the ship, and in an unusually well staged bit Hilde bangs her forehead so badly that she falls into a coma. With no doctor aboard the General takes a chance along the French coast and successfully kidnaps Guilbert. Hilde's injury turns out to be a minor concussion and Guilbert realizes he'll be tossed overboard unless he can come up with a reason for his captors to keep him alive. He finds a possible ally in the ship's Austrian radio operator, but Guilbert is watched almost constantly, and where could he go even if given half the chance?
Highly suspenseful, The Damned is both an extremely tense submarine picture and, like Downfall (2004), a fascinating portrait of political fanatics, true believers, opportunists, pragmatists, fatalists, and victims of wartime all scrambling (as far as one can scramble in a U-boat) to stay alive while sticking to their political guns or trying to work up the courage to escape or commit suicide. Dining together, the true Nazis insist word of Hitler's death a hoax perpetrated by the British or maybe Hitler himself, while the others carefully consider every word in the name of self-preservation. If somehow taken alive by the Allies, the collaborators don't want to say or do anything that will come back to bite them later on.
The interpersonal relationships are all adult and realistic. Hilde outwardly appears the loyal Nazi but she's blowing with the wind, to whomever can provide her the most luxury and political security. Sadistic bully Forster's hold over the apparently bisexual Willy is like something out of a Herman Cohen movie. Couturier is terrified of returning to liberated France but not quite ready to down the little tin of cyanide capsules he carries, either.
Studio sets, stock footage, and location footage aboard a real sub are perfectly integrated, partly because much of the direction is shot like real combat footage. It's nearly impossible to tell the submarine sets from cutaways to German newsreel (?) footage aboard the real thing. In one scene several characters attempt to transfer from the sub to a small dinghy and one doesn't quite make it. The look of terror on the nearly-drowned actor certainly looks genuine to me. Similarly, the film has a grimness reminiscent of the later Seven Waves Away (aka Abandon Ship!, 1957). One character meets an especially grisly end that even in 2013 is hard to look at.
That the film was made so soon after the war adds an immediacy and verisimilitude impossible even by 1960. Guilbert wanders through what looks like a real bombed-out French village; the submarine is launched from an Oslo U-boat hanger that might have been one; it's more realistic than the elaborately recreated one for Raiders of the Lost Ark. I'd swear even the performances appear to draw on personal experience, from Nazis and collaborators and situations they themselves might have experienced only a few years before, with little bits of business or ways of playing scenes one just doesn't see in war movies made a decade later.
Video & Audio
The Damned, 1.37:1 and in black and white, looks fantastic in its Gaumont-restored edition. Except for about 40 seconds at the 1:27 mark the image is practically perfect, and the 2.0 LPCM mono (a mix of mostly French and German) is very good for its age. The English subtitles are good but would have been even better somehow distinguishing among the various languages (A change in font? Italics?), particularly since so much of the suspense hangs each character's language skills.
Supplements include an audio commentary by French and German cinema scholars Judith Mayne and John E. Davidson, and the nearly hour-long René Clément or the Cinema of Sketches , an excellent reappraisal of the director who with the coming of the French New Wave was unjustly dismissed for many decades. A couple of trailers and a nearly useless booklet are tossed in. I generally don't even bother to mention when a label includes trailers for its other upcoming and current releases but, I have to admit, everything coming soon from Cohen Media Group sure looks good.
One of the best Blu-ray releases I've seen this year, The Damned is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.