The Battle of the Rails (La Bataille du rail)

The near-forgotten French classic La Bataille du rail, by master neo-realist filmmaker Rene Clement, has been newly restored on DVD.This gut-wrenching World War II thriller depicts the French resistance fighters who sabotaged the Nazi occupation and defied Vichy conciliation.

Divided loyalties, vigilante patriotism and sedition are all themes as relevant today as in the aftermath of war-torn Europe half a century ago.Politics, espionage and terrorism have been the dramatic backdrops of films as timely as Spielberg’s Munich and as timeless as Casablanca. Of course, director Michael Curtiz had the Hollywood assembly line at his disposal (which was cranking out anti-Nazi films by the dozen) to give Casablanca its distinctive atmosphere.Spielberg has unlimited resources and talent available to him, but in Europe at the end of World War II, Clement’s film was no less than a miraculous achievement. Bataille made Clement’s career as an international filmmaker and he went on to make a string of classics (Au-dela des grilles, Le Chateau de verre, Monsieur Ripois, Forbidden Games).

Bataille is framed in a structurally unique narrative–part fictitious story and part documentary that builds into a gripping political thriller and a testament to a demoralized people.Clement’s verite style is vital and courageous filmmaking from a politically, if not artistically, perilous time. First and foremost he is a filmmaker of economy who uses straightforward cinematic storytelling.Indeed, there are large chunks of unscripted "pure cinema" and film montage of searing visual power that draws viewers into threatening territory physically, politically and psychologically.

It is no surprise that Bataille was the winner of the 1946 Cannes Best Director and the Jury Prize and, just as important considering the time, Clement took the commercial French awards for best director.The film, and Clement’s cinematic influence, has been nearly forgotten outside of French film studies, but that doesn’t make his achievements any less impressive.Under restrictive and dangerous conditions, the French master produced this historic wartime resistance thriller. The story of the French resistance fighters who used the rail tracks for rescuing citizens, transporting contraband and sabotage against the Nazis, Clement manages top-drawer art direction with often brilliant cinematography by Henri Alekan (Beauty and the Beast, Roman Holiday).

All of the filmmakers’ effects–explosions, rail scenes and chases–are executed with thrilling technical clarity and dramatic tension. Clement’s realism is never more potent than in the scenes of the resistance trading information in decoy scenes by playing cards, socializing and otherwise disappearing into daily life.A scene of workers listening in stony silence as a Nazi commandant orders them to acknowledge that they are fighting for the same side.Clement doesn’t translate this speech from the German to French until after the officer is done, making the powerful, even poetic, statement that humanity wins out every time over political ideology.

Lewis Whittington

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Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.