Georges Franju, “Le sang des bêtes” / “Blood of the Beasts” (1949)
An amazing if very graphic realist film documentary of the work done in abbatoirs on the outskirts of Paris in the late 1940s, Franju’s “Le sang des bêtes” helped to establish the director as a distinctive voice in French cinema who combined both matter-of-fact realism and dream-like surrealism in his work. And this documentary is both very uncompromising in its portrayal of casual butchery of animals whose meat humans rely on, and poetic, even lyrical, in its deliberate depictions of city and suburban scenes of Paris.
The film slyly immerses viewers into its world with a montage of static shots of the Paris landscape, its bridges and historic buildings, edging us to the city outskirts where there are tableaux of children at play, an old man sitting in the sun and young lovers kissing. It’s a short casual trot over to the abbatoir where, after viewers get a quick look at the workers’ tools of the trade, we and they get down to business: killing the animal, draining its blood, skinning it and cutting out the meat, viscera and other parts either for human consumption or other uses. The scenes are very graphic but filming in black-and-white reduces the gore factor of what we see and replaces that loss with a clinical, dispassionate look at the workers as they go about their necessary tasks. Seeing the hot blood draining away in channels on the ground beneath the slatted frames where the sheep and calves have their throats cut, the light and dark tones of the liquid swirling in a psychedelic monochrome pattern, strikes me as a lyrical, almost meditative scene: blood as the fluid of life ebbing away into a larger, perhaps cosmic river that might power the universe.
The men working in the abbatoir are shown as ordinary humans, neither degraded untouchables nor heroic beings, performing hard but necessary work using skills that are as specific and specialised as the skills needed to be an electrician, a blacksmith, a carpenter or a plumber. The way the men work looks casual but then they’ve had years of experience to hone their skills; even so, the voice-over narration informs viewers that there are health risks (for example, a cyst on the wrist that that suggest repetitive strain injury) involved in carrying out often repetitive and heavy work.
Two narrators, Georges Hubert and Nicole Ladmiral, were employed for this documentary: Ladmiral describes the environs of Paris and Hubert in a neutral tone observes the abattoir workers’ activities. The narration intrudes only when necessary to explain some aspect of the work that’s not obvious on the screen to viewers and very long sections of the film are completely without speech. There’s very little music apart from one worker singing “La Mer” (the tune is familiar to Australians as it has been used in TV commercials promoting tourism in South Australia) who might have been thinking of his former job as a sailor while washing away streams of blood into the abattoir ground channels with water from a pressure hose.
It becomes apparent to viewers that violent death and its horror are much closer to us than we realise and that every time we eat meat and wear or use leather and other animal-derived products, we condone the deaths of innocent creatures that have been conceived, born and raised simply to die for our material benefit and comfort. The horrors also of the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Poland which occurred several years before the film was made also spring to mind.