Georges Franju’s background was in theatrical set design. As a set designer, he would have learned to create atmosphere through the use of subtle visual queues but he would also have learned that every scene and every shot are a world of their own. Properly conceived, a single shot can convey as much information as an entire page of dialogue. Where the camera focuses, when people enter, where objects stand and how they are lit are not merely aesthetic variables, they are to cinema what words are to poetry and literature. As such, it is perhaps fitting that Ruthless Culture’s first look at a work of Franju should be a short film that is practically silent; His 1949 short film about Parisian slaughterhouses Blood of the Beasts.
Le Sang Des Betes serves as a neat microcosm for one of the major themes of Franju’s work; the encroachment of the uncanny onto the humdrum and the mundane.
Like many directors from the generation that lived through the Second World War, Franju was hugely influenced by the Expressionism of German directors such as Murnau and Lang. German Expressionism was a part of the Romantic tradition in the arts and as such it rejected the (now dominant) positivist idea that engaging with real issues demands a depiction of the world that is entirely transparent. Indeed, while Expressionist film frequently dealt with very real and very serious issues, it did so in a stylised manner through the use of dream-like visuals and the kind of self-consciously artificial set design that made many Expressionist films come to resemble dark fairy tales. However, Franju was not one to recycle the styles of others. Indeed, he combined Expressionist ideas with the French Surrealist methodology of juxtaposing real images with fantastical ones, resulting in films which, though deeply rooted in the real world, were also infused with the uncanny and the bizarre. This bizarre almost paradoxical ontological posture can also be seen in Franju’s highly idiosyncratic approach to genre. His Horror film Eyes Without A Face (1959) and his homage to the French silent Pulps Judex (1963) are both fantastical films filled with genre motifs, but neither fits comfortably within the formulae and patterns of genre story-telling.
Blood of the Beasts, though ostensibly a factual documentary, draws its power and beauty directly from Franju’s unconventional attitude to depicting the real world.
The opening to the film is filled with heart-warmingly humanistic images of post-War Paris. These are the same kinds of images that could be found in the post-War Ealing Comedies such as Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). They depict a population which, though comparative poor, positively radiates both bravery and emotional honesty. These are the people who defeated the Nazis. They are what the Americans call The Greatest Generation. Every aspect of the opening sequence seems designed to illicit a positive emotional response; From the children playing and couples kissing to the jaunty music, from the decorative pieces of bric-a-brac to the eccentric re-positioning of items of furniture from the inside to the outdoors, the opening section radiates warm-hearted playfulness. It is no accident that Jeunet’s whimsical romantic comedy Amelie (2001) should choose to hark back to these kinds of images.
From the footage of the outskirts of Paris, Franju moves us seamlessly into the world of the slaughterhouse. The same salt-of-the-earth types we saw sitting outside at antique dining tables are now at work.
They lead a huge white horse out into the open. Voices are raised in the background and the dark-hued workmen potter about around this huge physical presence whose pale coloration grant it an almost ethereal character. Then, suddenly, an object is brought to the horse’s forehead and CRACK, it drops to the ground dead. The workers cut the animal’s throat and its black blood spills out in great torrents of steam. The workers drag the horse inside and prepare to skin it. For a second the horse lies on its back, a hideous pile of limbs at unnatural angles, gaping wounds and still black eyes that look straight down the camera.
What Franju shows us is the systematic and industrialised destruction and disfiguration of life. A process of destruction that has its own traditions and history. Its practitioners are praised by governments and honoured for their endeavours. So accepted is this process of mass-killing that our infrastructure has grown to accommodate and facilitate it. Bridges are built to link markets and slaughterhouses while auction houses resemble churches. A bell tolls in the distance, calling an end not to a day’s prayer but to a day’s killing. Trains pass through the landscape. Ours is a genteel and elegant infrastructure devoted to the destruction of life.
Throughout the film, Franju’s imagery expertly balances the dream-like (the huge white horse, the steam, the one-legged butcher, the corpulent merchant posing next to a dismembered horse) with the disgustingly real as animals have their heads and legs severed, leaving their dismembered bodies to twitch and writhe as though trying to escape a fate they have already met. This surreal and grotesque juxtaposition of images is calculated for effect. The images that open the film present France as it likes to see itself, the systemic killing of animals depicts the realities that underlie this whimsical self-image while the infrastructure and the jaunty whistling of the workers shows the extent to which Humans can come to live with killing on a day-to-day basis. Even the film’s soundtrack seems to filter and distort reality as Franju shifts from silence to the whistling of the workers to the crashes of the background and finally the cries of the animals. Though broadly silent, the film’s final scenes are accompanied by two short speeches that serve to drive the point home :
“’I will strike you without anger and without hate… like a butcher’ said Baudelaire. Without anger and without hate and with the simply good humour of killers who whistle or sing while slitting throats. Because one has to eat every day and to feed others even if it requires difficult and often dangerous work”
“The day is over. In the stalls, the sheep – spared for one more night – silently fall asleep. They won’t hear their prison gates close or the little train that leaves for the country at sunset to collect new victims for tomorrow.”
Franju’s peculiar ontological footing allows for the film to be both metaphorical and directly engaged with reality. The systematic slaughter of the animals along with the extent to which human infrastructure facilitates this slaughter reminds us of the Holocaust.
One possible source of inspiration for Blood of the Beasts is Billy Wilder’s 1945 propaganda film The Death Mills. The film was made in order to publicised the extent and the character of Nazi atrocities. Wilder made particular reference to Buchenwald, where staff began to give each other ghoulish human trophies such as shrunken heads and lampshades made of tattooed human skin. These are not merely crimes against humanity, there are works of morbid surrealism. Franju’s juxtaposition of fantastical and excruciatingly transparent images manages to recapture the same nightmarish feeling as Wilder’s death camp photography.
Rather than a film depicting the realities of animal slaughter, Le Sang Des Betes is a film about the ways in which humans can accept and institutionalise acts of almost surreal cruelty. If it is appropriate for a man in a suit to pose next to the dismembered body of a horse and for workers to sing and whistle while slitting throats, is it any surprise that humans can reach a point where they give each other shrunken heads as presents?
Of course, Le Sang Des Betes would also prove to be the inspiration for another French film. Gaspar Noe’s first film Carne (1991) opened with the slaughtering of a horse and went on to deal with the ways in which people are pushed into and then seek to justify acts of cruelty, stupidity, violence and destruction. Franju said of his film that had it been in colour then people would have been horrified, I leave it up to the reader to decide whether he was right.