First known for making disturbing documentaries that freely intermingled stark realism with a surrealistic edge, Georges Franju went on to use similar techniques for several haunting feature films. Co-founding the world-renowned Cinématheque Française with Henri Langlois provided Franju with his second claim to fame.
Before entering French cinema, Franju worked for an insurance company and in a noodle factory before doing a military stint in Algeria. Discharged in 1932, Franju studied to become a set designer and later created backdrops for music halls such as the Casino de Paris and the Folles Bergére. Two years later, he teamed up with Henri Langlois to make Le Metro, a short 16 mm film. He also created a short-lived film magazine and in 1935, using 500 francs borrowed from Langlois' parents, created a film club, Le Cercle du Cinéma, where the two showed silent movies from their private collection. From this club, Franju and Langlois founded the Cinématheque Française in 1937. In 1938, Franju became the executive secretary of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), a post he held through WWII. In 1945, Franju was appointed secretary of Jean Painleve's Institut de Cinematographie Scientifique.
In 1949, Franju began the series of nine documentary films for which he became internationally famous. From the beginning, the novice director rejected the notion of objectivity in making documentaries. To Franju, a documentary was personal and reflected the views of its maker. Even the most innocent-seeming of Franju's subsequent works would have underlying themes of social protest or outrage, tempered with the filmmakers innate sense of poetry. The Nazi occupation of Paris and the hasty build-up of industrialism following the war would profoundly affect Franju's early works. His first documentary, Le Sang des Bêtes (The Blood of Beasts) (1949), painted a horrific picture of daily business inside a Paris slaughterhouse. Heavily influenced by German expressionism, but simultaneously brutally realistic, the work contained some of the most disturbing scenes of animal cruelty on film and yet, paradoxically tempered them with a certain compassion and grace thereby creating a form unique to French cinema. Some critics have pointed out that the scenes of animals moving in lines towards certain death were subtle references to the Nazi death camps. Indeed, though Franju's early works are hailed as precursors of the Nouvelle Vague movement of the late '40s and '50s, Franju himself avoided labeling his work. His third film, Hôtel des Invalides (1952), examined life inside an infamous national veterans hospital. Commissioned by the French government to pay tribute to the hospital and the War Museum, the film is considered Franju's most subtle and powerful indictment against the glorification of militarism, a feat he accomplished by alternating scenes of proud warrior's icons and monuments with heart-wrenching sequences of actual survivors in all their grim disfigurement and ruin. Franju later called it the favorite of his three "slaughter" films, the second of which was another government commissioned film, En Passant par la Lorraine (Passing By the Lorraine) (1950). This was supposed to be a celebration of Monnet's plan to modernize French industry, but in Franju's hands it became a look at the ugliness spewing forth from monstrous factories. His subsequent documentaries, especially the commissioned ones, while perhaps not as shocking, were just as subversive. Several of these films contained dramatized sequences as exemplified in Mon Chien (My Dog) (1955), a look at the grim fate of abandoned dogs in Paris.
Beginning with La Tete Contre les Murs (The Keepers) (1958), Franju turned toward fully fictional films. Unlike his documentaries, which were forums for Franju's angry world views, these movies both stylistically and thematically were loving tributes to his favorite filmmakers of the past. His lyrical horror film Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face: The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus) (1960), the tale of a surgeon who madly tries to repair his daughter's wreck-ruined face by grafting on to it the facial parts of beautiful women, most of whom, he leaves alive and terribly scarred, was an ode to German expressionism. Judex (1963) honored the silent serials of pioneer filmmaker Louis Feuillade while Franju returned to poetic surrealism with his adaptation of Jean Cocteau's Thomas the Impostor. In the subsequent years his film work was less frequent, though he did occasionally direct for television. In the late '70s he retired from filmmaking to preside over the Cinématheque Française.