Le Sang des Betes (1949)
Directed by: Georges Franju.
Written by: Georges Franju.
Anyone who has seen Georges Franju’s infamous 22 minute short documentary, Le Sang des Betes (Blood of the Beasts) is unlikely to forget it. After a brief prologue, in which Franju sets up the time and place – the outskirts of Paris, shortly after WWII – a calm, beautiful, even romantic place – he plunges us into a series of slaughterhouses, and his camera unflinching watches as a horse, a cow, a number of calves and finally a number of sheep, are killed, bled, skinned and slaughtered. It is a difficult film to watch for sure, yet it’s value goes beyond shock value – while some describe it as one of, if not the first “shockumentary” – this film is more than that – it’s more than a PETA film meant to bring attention to the suffering of animals (a worthy cause of its own – although perhaps not one that lends itself to art) – it exposes something deeper in humanity.
Part of its effect is due to that brief prologue – the setting up of the seemingly peaceful city of Paris, on the outskirts, a place for relaxation, fun and romance – tellingly, the last image Franju focuses on before cutting over to the slaughterhouse is a scene of young love – an innocent kiss between two young people. We then go inside the slaughterhouse, and with little warning or setup, we see a man put one of those bolt guns to the head of a horse and fire – the horse twitches, and falls to the ground in an instant. While this is largely a bloodless moment (that won’t last long), it is also clearly the film’s most shocking – the one most likely to cause you to gasp as you watch it because we’re not used to seeing that image. From there, Franju doesn’t cut away – he watches as the workers go about their work – slitting the throat of the horse, bleeding it out – because it’s winter, the blood steams as it comes out, as is either gathered in troughs or just let to run into a ditch. The workers are matter of fact about this – one smokes a cigarette as he saws an animal in half (as the narration tells us, in the time the clock takes to strike 12). This is common throughout the film – no matter what they are doing – workers go about it in an emotionless way.
It is those two elements – the contrasting of the bucolic splendor close to the slaughterhouses, where the people either don’t think about, or don’t know about what is happening in their neighborhood, and the emotionless way the workers go about their job, that I think make Le Sang des Betes more than a shockumentary – and something that is disturbing on more than one level. You can draw your own conclusions about what Franju is doing here – making a portrait of the banality of slaughter, in which go about killing animals as if it is a normal job – thus perhaps showing us a way in which, just a few years earlier, Germans did the same to Jews. When something is a job – when you do the same thing every day – it becomes banal, no matter what that is. It is also a portrait of how we are able to not think about the things we do not see – logically, we all know what happens in a slaughterhouse, and yet all of us who eat meat (and I do) are rarely confronted with the reality of it – we are the people at the outset of the movie. Franju – who made a series of these short docs before turning to feature filmmaking (his most well-known film is Eyes Without a Face – the shocking 1959 horror film) – was a surrealist, and did want to shock and disturb people. But if that’s all there was to this film, it would more than likely be forgotten by now, replaced by other, more shocking documentaries (that would almost undeniably be in color – the decision Franju made to shoot in black and white was deliberate, as it allows a just a little bit of distance from the action to be there – in color, that would be impossible). Le Sang des Betes is not an easy film to watch – and that’s a deliberate choice. But it is a great short film, in part because it is so difficult to watch, and on more than just one level.