Saturday, September 1, 2012

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

Some of my favorite films appeared on my parent's black-and-white Zenith in the living room, 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, they showed Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn, the story of a young German soldier, captured in early 1945, 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 was released on laserdisc in the mid-1980's. Sadly, that LP-sized technology didn't last a decade; the image or sound quality, and range of available titles, were never as good with the new DVDs. It took twenty years for Decision to be made available on DVD; the image quality isn't bad, but compared with a laserdisc version the DVD's sound isn't as crisp as I know it could be. Just one Dog's opinion.

Moral Movies, And Mitwissers

When I first saw the film, I understood that many of the actors were actual Germans, and bombed-out buildings in the background of various shots looked extremely realistic -- because they were.

I've read some criticisms of the film, made when it was released in 1951 -- that Decision was 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 Soviet Russia in Europe.

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
As Actors During The War, Decision's German Cast Members
Would Have Carried One.

(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.)

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 believe 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), 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; they were in the room when things happened. As far as I found, only one member of the 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 such as the ones Decision portrays. 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're faced with similar choices, that we'd act as courageously as any of our film heroes -- well; 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 direction for 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 in Europe -- 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), 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 set during WW2 by George Howe, 'Call It Treason', and engaged Peter Vertel to write a sceenplay under the title Decision Before Dawn. They 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, its main character, would be a German. There were also U.S. Army troops, still 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

Classic Opening: Before Little Rupert Fouled The Name
(All Screenshots From The Film, © 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.

We hear Richard Baseheart's voice in narration:
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 -- who, we don't know. His acting wasn't terrible, but unschooled.)

Baseheart, Freitag, Unknown Actual U.S. Soldier, And Oskar Werner

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 Asks Know How To Get To Mormentiers. Really.

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.

Merrill As Devlin (Bette Davis And Rita Hayworth? Woof.)

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 to British and Americans, who used the word). 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]


  1. A wonderful article, very helpful for me as a (German) Hollywood researcher! But where is part 2?


  2. Great article great research!


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