Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Train

First of all:
Welcome to those of you who have found your way here via The Sailing Ship--and many thanks to Elle, the Ship's captain, for seeing fit to link to my humble blog. Pending Elle's approval, I'll be more than happy to reciprocate. I don't know how she found her way to the Meridian, much less what she saw that was worthy of linkage, but I'm still thankful.
Elle blogs pithily and precisely about film; her space is well worth a visit from those of you looking for good film commentary.
And speaking of film . . .
Thanks to both my colleague/movie-buff Larry and to Mrs. Meridian, I've been watching a fair number of films lately, but I just haven't seen much that, to my mind, that has merited a full post. I do want to point those interested, though, in the direction of a film I'd not heard of before.
The Train (1964), dir. John Frankenheimer; starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and, briefly, Jeanne Moreau.
Frankenheimer's masterpiece is, of course, The Manchurian Candidate, but this film is no embarrassment. The plot, "inspired by an actual event," is simple: It's the summer of 1944; the Allies are approaching Paris, and Colonel Von Waldheim (Scofield) wants to send the best of the city's art treasures to Berlin to protect them (really!--though he sells his superiors on the idea by saying that the Nazis can raise money by selling them). To accomplish this, though, he must rely on French engineers and yardmen to ready a train to get the paintings there. Enter Lancaster's character, Labiche, a barely-articulate engineer who could care less about art but who is a member of a Resistance-like group. He is persuaded to divert the train mostly because it'll anger the Germans and not because he's swayed by appeals to preserving his nation's cultural heritage.
I'll spare you the plot's machinations in favor of a discussion of the film's final scene. It ruins nothing to reveal that Labiche is successful (couldn't you have guessed?). The train's engine runs off the tracks, Von Waldheim's attempt to commandeer a truck convoy is unsuccessful, and the German soldiers, before they run off, machine-gun the French crew and hostages they had brought along to protect the train from Labiche's attempts at sabotage. Labiche and Von Waldheim have one final meeting. Von Waldheim's rage has its sources in a complex mixture of awareness that the Reich is losing not just France but the war and the fact that he can no longer enjoy these paintings (in the film's first scene, we learn that he had been a frequent visitor to the museums). Both military man and aesthete stand embodied in this one man, and both mourn. Von Waldheim says to Labiche, You have won, but you have no understanding of what you've won. Von Waldheim turns and walks away. Labiche looks at the machine-gunned bodies of the French; his anger rises, and he kills Von Waldheim. Then the film goes silent but keeps running: in static shots, it alternates between unloaded crates stenciled with the names of the painters whose works are inside and the bodies of the dead, the angles of their bodies echoing the slanted stenciling on the crates. It is powerful, this rewriting of the conventions of the still life. It is difficult to know how to read this scene, difficult to know whether we are to affirm that these paintings were worth the price of Labiche's heroism, never mind the deaths of these men. Perhaps we read it as Labiche seems to: that he may not understand what he has won, and may never know, the understanding of what he has lost is so overwhelming.

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