Reflections on “The Train”,
directed by John Frankenheimer,
starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield
Is art worth men’s lives?
This is the story of a German officer’s attempt to remove great French works of art to Berlin before the liberation of Paris by the Allies in 1944, and the action by members of the resistance to block this attempt.
Von Waldheim (the German officer) is played by Paul Schofield, and Labiche (leader of the dwindling number of members of the resistance) is played by Burt Lancaster.
This is not a film that is going to appeal to all. Very European in style, but combined with big action sequences (which are somehow less spectacular yet more effective due to the general tenor of the film), this is a character-driven and inherently human piece with a simple plot delivered in gritty black and white detail.
Using quirky camera angles and at no time playing up to any star glamour, this is a homage to the courage, determination and perhaps more importantly, the soul of those members of the French resistance who fought for their country during the Nazi Occupation. We share their fears and anxieties as they plan and execute a variety of strategies to prevent the national pride and glory of French art falling into the hands of the Nazis.
We are reminded frequently of the human cost of such activities, paid not just by members of the resistance, but by randomly chosen hostages as well. At the end of the film, however, there is some hope that common humanity may take precedence over Nazi authority as an officer of junior rank rejects out of hand Von Waldheim’s command to offload wounded and exhausted soldiers in favour of the works of art he wishes to transport to Berlin. However, this hope is short lived as Von Waldheim’s men needlessly shoot a number of French hostages brought along to protect his shipment from Labiche’s attempts to derail the train, an atrocity which acts as the final straw to Labiche.
Taunted by Von Waldheim at the end, Labiche is accused of not being capable of appreciating the very works of art he has made such efforts to protect and which have cost so many lives. It could equally be claimed that Von Waldheim has failed to grasp the true reasons for his failure to defeat Labiche, for he is fighting not so much for the works of art as what they represent – the culture, history and contribution to the appreciation of life of a nation. The Nazis took their freedom, towns and country, but Labiche and the others are determined they will not take their souls, and in fighting to retain the works of art, Labiche is combatting the arrogance, indifference, inhumanity and intellectual elitism of any group that thinks it has the right to conquer another and take the spoils.
Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield play their respective roles with grim determination and total sincerity. Paul Schofield allows you to understand his Nazi’s motivation and even admire his dedication and devotion to these works of art, yet we find his steely inhumanity repulsive (“This train is far more important than the lives of a few men”).
Burt Lancaster seems weary but equally resolute, doubting whether the art should be placed above the value of men’s lives but eventually acting to ensure these deaths will be given some value. Fittingly serious throughout and seemingly pained at each death, Burt Lancaster gives an intelligent, strong and inspiring performance.
This is a highly worthy and at times thrilling and thought-provoking film like few others as it eschews elements of entertainment and levity in favour of making us aware of the causes, actions and cost paid by those who resisted the Nazi Occupation, and does so while inviting us to consider the relative value of art.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film itself or these notes about it. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org