Friday, December 12, 2014

Films We Like: Decision Before Dawn (1951), Part One


Title Card, Decision Before Dawn, 1951 (Photo: The Indefeatagable DVD Beaver
You Will Sing, 'O Canada'. Sing It Right Now.)

Saturday Night At The Movies

[Part One was originally posted in 2012. Parts 2 and 3 follow, more recently done.]

I was introduced to some of my favorite films through my parent's black-and-white Zenith, and on NBC's Saturday Night At The Movies, which Wikipedia describes as "the first continuing weekly prime time network television series... to show relatively recent feature films".

On January 5, 1963, at 8:00 PM Pacific Time, they premiered Anatole Litvak's 1951 film, Decision Before Dawn, the story of a young German soldier captured in late 1944 who decides to work for the Americans as an intelligence agent behind German lines. It's a good, if not great, film -- for me, a classic on my Top Ten List.

It was rarely shown on teevee after the 1970's, but released on laserdisc in the mid-1980's. Sadly, that LP-sized technology didn't last; its image and sound quality were amazingly good (better, even, than the DVD technology that replaced them, until the advent of Blu-Ray). The range of titles available on Laserdisc were never matched by DVDs, either.

It took twenty years for Decision to be made available on DVD; the image quality isn't bad, but compared with the laserdisc version I used to own, the sound on DVD isn't as crisp as I know it can be. Just one Dog's opinion.

Morals, Movies, And Mitwissers

Watching the film in 1963, I understood that many of the actors were actual Germans, and their uniforms; the bombed-out buildings in the background of various shots, all looked realistic -- because they were.

I've read some criticisms of the film, made when it was released in 1951: that Decision was made for political reasons -- an attempt to rehabilitate a people who had crossed a moral line which placed them beyond redemption. The real raison d'etre for the movie was to humanize them, so that Western Germany (just founded as a Federal Republic) could become more palatable as a proxy state of the U.S., a bulwark against the new Soviet Russian empire.

It was propaganda, and of the worst sort  -- because to accept it, you would have to ignore what Germany, and Germans, were responsible for in Europe during the twelve years of the Third Reich. The Holocaust topped the list of crimes, but it was a long list.

The U.S. government gave assistance to the film's producers and distributor, 20th Century Fox, by allowing use of U.S. Army vehicles, and active-service troops as extras -- a continuation of Hollywood and the government's collaboration during the war. It was just political expediency.

Creating sympathetic characterizations of Germans ... yes, the war was over; people just wanted to get on with living -- but should anyone try to paper over the ovens, and everything that led to them? The actors in this movie... well, what exactly did they do during the war?

Reichstheaterkammer (State Theater Bureau) ID; Nazi Germany's Equivalent Of A SAG Or AFTRA Card. If Employed During The War, Decision's German Cast Members Would Have Carried One.

Germans after the war went through a denazification process (depending upon whom you talk to, unnecessary, or one which didn't go far enough. I agree with the latter -- and particularly so in places like Austria or the former East Germany) to weed out former nazi party members from positions of authority or influence in public life. Prominent filmmakers and actors (such as G.W. Pabst, Leni Reifenstahl, Emil Jannings, Hans Albers or Zarah Leander), already famous in Weimar Germany and who publicly embraced the nazis, found themselves reviled and out of work.

The political backgrounds of German cast members in Decision had been through that same scrutiny; but like any person living in Germany after 1933, and unwilling or unable to leave, they became accomplices by association, proximity. The word in German is Mitwisser,  "Knows-With", and in law this can mean a person with knowledge of a crime -- as culpable as the ones who actively commit it; they were in the room when things happened.

I asked myself that same question, for years, and a while ago started researching the backgrounds of as many German cast members of Decision as I could find. It's the basis for the notes about them that follow in the description of the film.

The notes are interesting but only show the broad outlines of an actor's career -- unsatisfying for a film biographer, or a historian. As far as I'm aware, only one member of Decision's cast ever put themselves at risk with the nazi regime (who that is may surprise you). Many had been actors before the nazis came to power, or had just broken into the business, and continued trying to develop their careers right through the war.

Life is rarely lived in bold, dramatic moments. It's lived in the spaces between the highs and lows we experience; it's collective, and it does catch up to us. We'd like to believe that if we were faced with similar choices, that we'd act as courageously as any of our film heroes -- maybe, and maybe not.

But we're here to talk about films.

The Director: Anatole Litvak (1902 -1974)

Anatole Litvak (Wikipedia)

Anatole Litvak, Decision Before Dawn's director, was born Kiev in the Ukraine, and directed silent films for the new Communist Russian state in what was then Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) -- but after Lenin’s death in 1924 the revolution began turning even more into a dictatorship, and Litvak fled for Berlin.

Litvak made several films in Germany (A previous version of this post credited him with directing the 1932 classic, Menschen Am Sontag [People On Sunday] -- actually the work of another gifted director, Robert Sidomak, and his brother; screenplay by Wilhelm ['Billy'] Wilder. My apologies; Mongo does not know everything). When the nazis stumbled into power in 1933, as a Ukrainian and a Jew, Litvak knew what was coming and moved to Paris.

In 1936 he directed the film, Mayerling, based on the real-life story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (French actor Charles Boyer) and his affair with a 17-year-old Baroness (Danielle Derrieux) and their double suicide. It was an international success, making Boyer a full-fledged star; within a year, Warner Brothers offered Litvak a four-year contract in Hollywood.

Litvak quickly became known as one of Hollywood's leading directors, and after the U.S. entered WW2, Litvak co-produced and directed a string of films in support of the war effort -- including, with Frank Capra, the famous documentary series, Why We Fight.

Immediately after the war, Anatole Litvak directed two classic films, Sorry, Wrong Number and "The Snake Pit", both released in 1948 -- and arguably the best performances of Barbara Stanwyck or Olivia de Havilland's careers.

After completing Decision Before Dawn, possibly sensing another political change in the McCarthy Era (a circus that had been running since 1948; the Hollywood Ten, the blacklist, was something he couldn't ignore), Litvak moved back to Europe. He continued to direct films there -- including Anastasia (which resurrected Ingrid Bergmann's career) in 1956.

His last film, "Night Of The Generals" in 1967, with Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif (working together for the first time since Lawrence Of Arabia), raised a few eyebrows -- it was filmed almost entirely on location in Warsaw, at the height of the Cold War.

The Project

In 1949, 20th Century Fox optioned a novel by George Howe, set during WW2,  'Call It Treason'. The studio used Peter Vertel to write a sceenplay under the title Decision Before Dawn  -- Vertel was a playwright who would go on to write the novel, "White Hunter, Black Heart" (made into a 1990 film by Clint Eastwood), based on his experiences with John Huston while shooting the 1956 film The African Queen. The character played by Robert Redford in 1974's The Way We Were was based on Vertel.

Fox needed a director to take on the project. It would be the first film production in Germany since the end of the war, with a few recognizable American stars, but primarily featuring German actors and actresses. It would be set in the final months of the disintegrating Third Reich, filmed in German cities still scarred by Allied bombing, and the film's real star would be a German. There were plenty of underemployed Germans, and also U.S. Army troops based in Germany, available to act as extras.

20th Century Fox asked Litvak to direct; he accepted. He was a good choice to direct a film that dealt with both moral ambiguity, and making a moral choice even at the risk of your own life. Like Hitchcock, Litvak's films always had a rising level of anxiety that was resolved, if not perfectly, then (within the limits of the medium) realistically.

Another aspect was that Litvak's anti-communist, pro-American film pedigree was spotless. He had run away from the Soviets, and the nazis -- if Litvak, a Ukrainian Jew, had stayed in Europe after 1936, he would have been swallowed up by the Holocaust. I always wondered what Litvak thought of returning to Europe, and of being in Germany at all, making casting decisions from a pool of persons who had done -- what? -- during the war.

The Film

The Classic Opening: Before Little Rupert Fouled The Name (All Screenshots © 20th Century Fox)

The film opens early in the morning with a line of German soldiers, a firing squad, marching out with a prisoner beside an older building in an urban area of a German city.


Over the sound of a church bell ringing, we hear Richard Baseheart's voice narrating:
Of all the questions left unanswered by the last war -- maybe any war -- one comes back constantly to my mind: Why does a spy risk his life; for what possible reason? If the spy wins, he's ignored. If he loses, he's shot.
... and the prisoner is shot, falling just as distant church bells start to ring. At an order, the firing squad turns and marches away; two other soldiers drag the body to a shallow grave recently dug, shovels still propped against a fence.
But a man stays alive only if he's remembered, and is killed by forgetfulness. Let the names of men like this remain unknown -- but let the memories of some of them serve as keys to the meaning of treason.
Artillery shells begin falling, and the two men hurriedly dump the body into the grave and run for the safety of Somewhere Else.

Baseheart continues his narration, now telling his own story: On the 8th of December in 1944, Lieutenant Rennick (Baseheart), wounded during the campaign across France and now assigned to an intelligence company as their communications officer, gets lost (thanks to his driver’s lack of direction) on the trip to find his new unit. The driver was played by one of the U.S. Armed Forces' personnel detached to appear in the film. His acting wasn't terrible, but unschooled.

While stopped, they flush two German soldiers, Paul Richter (Robert Freitag) and Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), out of the woods who are just as lost, taking them prisoner. Rennick and his driver get back on the road, and deliver the two Germans at a POW cage. Rennick asks for directions from a Black First Sergeant, carrying a rifle and presumably a combat NCO -- impossible in the American army in France in 1944; a fiction of racial equality for the audience... in Europe, or at home.

Rennick finds his new unit identifies German POWs who could be trusted and train them for Allied intelligence-gathering missions behind enemy lines. Rennick finds this distasteful; he doesn’t like Germans, doesn’t like traitors, and says so. His commanding officer, Colonel Devlin (Garry Merrill), brings Rennick up short -- then orders him along on a trip to the same POW cage where he had dropped his two prisoners earlier that day, to look for new volunteers.



They interview older men (Arnulf Schroder), a whining nazi (a young Klaus Kinski in his first film role), and finally strike pay dirt in an amoral and opportunistic ex-sergeant, Rudolf Barth (Hans Christian Blech).

Arnulf Schröder: "No Sir, Not Me."

Klaus Kinski: "They Forced Me To Join The Party..."
Hans Christian Blech: "My Political Convictions? I've Never Been Able To Afford Any."
Devlin gives instructions to keep the volunteers separated; but they're watched by other POWs -- including Richter and Maurer, who recognizes Rennick as the officer who captured them. Other prisoners say the volunteers will be remembered and dealt with after Germany wins the war; surprised, Richter disagrees.
Jaspar von Oertzen, Charles Reginer; Freitag: "After We've Won?You Still Believe In That?"
That night, Richter is called to meet with the Amis (a slang term from the First World War; using the French, "Ami" [friend], it's a sarcastic reference for British and Americans). But it's a trick; some of the same loyal nazis in the yard that afternoon give Richter a two-minute courts martial, and throw him out a window.

Young Maurer shows up at the offices of the intelligence company ten days later, asking to speak with Lieutenant Rennick and to volunteer for -- whatever it is; "Doesn't matter," Maurer says. Rennick shoots back, "Well, what is it you believe in; do you know? Or does it change when your crowd's taking a beating?"

[A historical note: If Rennick reported to his unit in Mormemntiers on December 8, and Maurer came to see him ten days later on the 18th... On December 16th, the German army began its last offensive in the West, the Ardennes 'Battle Of The Bulge'. In the film, we hear nothing about it.]


"You Know What You're Getting Into?"

Colonel Devlin walks in; he asks Maurer what it is he believes in, and the young soldier convinces them: "I don't know exactly how to say it, but... I believe in a life where we don't always have to be afraid -- where people can be free, and honest with each other. And I know we can't have this in Germany, until -- until we have lost."

Despite an initial skepticism, Maurer is accepted as a volunteer. Because he is outwardly solemn and reserved, is given the code name, "Happy", and turned over to Monique (Dominique Blanchar) for processing. A Frenchwoman with a vague role on the American intelligence team, Monique begins falling for Maurer. Devlin sees it, and later transfers Monique as a result.


Werner And Blanchar



Meanwhile, Barth, accepted as a volunteer under the code name, "Tiger", despite his opportunistic cynicism, returns from a 'tourist mission' (a quick scouting behind the lines), but another agent, a radio operator, who accompanied him was arrested. Devlin is unsure whether Tiger is telling the truth; he has to be, because another mission is coming up that Devlin needs him for -- and Happy.


"Barth, Before Long We're Going To Be In Germany, In Every Village And Town, 
And If You've Been Lying ..."

Devlin explains to his team that a General Jaeger, commander of a key sector of Germany's Western front, has made an offer to surrender -- allowing U.S. troops a route into Germany. A key unit is the Eleventh Panzer Corps; American intelligence doesn't know where it is.

Karl Maurer / Happy's assignment will be to locate its headquarters. The team's radio operator had been arrested, working with Tiger -- and Lieutenant Rennick is the only qualified radioman available. Tiger will have to hide him at a safe house in Mannheim to meet with General Jaeger's representative about the surrender. All three men will be parachuted into southern Germany in the next two days.

No one is sure how well Happy will perform -- but if he fails, or is unmasked as a traitor, the consequences will be considerable.

[Continued In Part 2 Below]


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