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A Work of Art or a Human Life? Choose.

Today we visit our Department of Unsung Treasures to recall a great, gritty, all-but-forgotten thriller: The Train, directed in 1964 by John Frankenheimer.

Imagine you are French. And imagine this is August 1944 and the Germans are pulling out of Paris. In the general chaos, a colonel of the Wehrmacht takes a particular interest in the art treasures of France. He’s having them loaded onto a train bound for the fatherland. The crates, hundreds of them, are filled, nailed shut, stenciled:  4 RENOIR, 2 BRAQUE, 4 LAUTREC, 4 MATISSE . . .

What will happen to them, the irreplaceable works? In a sense these paintings are the soul of France, but in some larger sense they are also the soul of humankind. Regardless of how the war ends, once in Germany these paintings may be lost to France forever. They may—horrible thought—be irretrievably lost to all of us: hoarded, perhaps bombed in an air raid, perhaps just burnt for spite.

So…would you risk death to save them?

This is the theme of The Train (which you can watch, in its entirety, here). Paul Scofield is von Waldheim, the German colonel. His adversary—reluctant at first, then indominable—is the taciturn railway inspector, Labiche.

Labiche is played by Burt Lancaster, who, I’ll concede, is utterly unconvincing as a Frenchman, but riveting as the Resistance leader who must commit precious lives to the task of stopping the train from leaving France, yet make sure no harm comes to its cargo. Von Waldheim, his voice dripping with contempt, tells him, “A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape.” And the German is right. But he is also a monster. A dilettante monster.

That’s all I need to tell you about The Train. It’s in black and white, mesmerizing from first to last, a thriller for grown-ups. But the reason I don’t need to tell you more is that it’s not the Nazis and the Frenchmen that interest me. It’s the moral question: What’s worth dying for?

You’d risk death for your kids. Would you risk death for your best friend? Would you risk death to save your dog? You’d die for your country, no? What’s “dying for your country” mean? Would you die to save the population of some city? Would you die if it meant democracy would survive, or might you get used to living under some other form of government if it meant you’d live a while longer? Idle questions, but every once in a while life turns them into real ones, and then you have to decide.

That’s what happens to Labiche. At first he can’t imagine risking his life and the lives of his comrades to save some art. Art has no meaning to him. But he’s already been risking his life and the lives of his comrades for other things, things the value of which could be debated forever. In the end it’s all got the same taste to it, the risk and the blood and the reckoning.

An an interesting article on “The War Over Plunder: Who Owns Art Stolen in War?” appears in the current HistoryNet.  The answer’s more complicated than you might have thought.

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