Friday, December 12, 2014

Films We Like: Decision Before Dawn (1951) Part Three

Saturday Night At The Movies

 American theater poster for Decision Before Dawn,
Werner and Kneff billed after Baseheart and Merrill (1951)

Redux:  Saturday, January 5, 1963: At 8:00 PM PDST, NBC's Saturday Night At The Movies aired the television premiere of Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn, a story of a young German soldier captured in late 1944, who decides to work for the Americans as an intelligence agent behind German lines.

The film was important as Hollywood's first German-American co-production in the aftermath of a world war and twelve years of nazi atrocities.  Stretched out on my family's living room floor watching the film on television, I didn't have a more nuanced view of the world.  I was aware that I was watching a movie (and a war film! Neat!), a story portrayed by actors -- and that almost every one of them were German, not American.

Years later, I became interested in the production as an artifact of European, and American, film and culture.  Most of the Germans acting in the movie were anonymous; they received no screen credit, something SAG or AFTRA would never allow in a production made in Hollywood. Who were those actors? I wondered. What did they do during the real war, and where did their careers take them?

It's mid-December, 1944. An American officer, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Baseheart), joins the staff of an American intelligence unit based in France as its new communications officer. Commanded by a Colonel Devlin (Garry Merrill), the group's mission is to train and handle German POW's who have agreed to act as spies, undertaking missions behind the lines and reporting back.

Devlin explains that a General Jaeger, commander of a key sector of Germany's western front, has made a private offer to surrender units under his command -- opening a huge hole in the line that would allow Allied forces a route over the Rhine and into Germany.

One wildcard is the Eleventh Panzer Corps -- American intelligence believes it's in the area of Jaeger's command, but if it doesn't surrender when the rest of Jaeger's troops do, any U.S. forces pushing forward to exploit the sudden opening in the German lines could be walking into a trap.

Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), an idealistic young German, has volunteered to perform intelligence missions under the code name "Happy", and joins Devlin's unit. 

 Devlin (Merrill, At Right) Tells 'Tiger' (Blech, Left) That
Lt. Rennick (Baseheart, Center) Will Be Part Of The Mission

The team's German radio operator had been arrested on a previous mission with another volunteer, Rudolf Barth (Hans Christian Blech), code-named "Tiger".  Devlin isn't certain he's reliable -- Barth needs to dominate whatever situation he's in. However, 'Tiger' was born, raised, and has contacts in Mannheim, where the operation will be focused.

With time running short, Devlin decides to use 'Tiger', but includes Lieutenant Rennick on the mission; he's the only qualified radio operator available who can replace Tiger's missing partner.

Rennick sees every German volunteer -- even the quiet, idealistic 'Happy' -- as a lower life form ("They're all a bunch of lice"), but Col. Develin tells him bluntly that his personal opinions don't matter: They have a job to do, "and from now on the only (opinion) is the right one for the job."

'Tiger' will have to hide Rennick at a safe house in Mannheim to meet with General Jaeger's representative about a surrender, while  'Happy' is assigned to locate the 11th Panzer Corps' headquarters, return to Allied lines and report back in six days -- before the surrender operation begins. All three men will be parachuted at night into Germany;  'Tiger' and Rennick near Mannheim, and Maurer / 'Happy' outside the town of Altmark, near Munich.

Maurer has a new last name (Steiner), but still a Luftwaffe corporal and a Sanitätsoffizier (Medic). His cover story is that he's traveling from a hospital after recovering from wounds to rejoin his unit.  In truth, he will have to travel wherever necessary to find the location of the 11th Panzer Corps.

No one is sure how well Maurer will perform -- but if he loses his nerve and is unmasked as a traitor, the mission will fail.

Maurer lands successfully, makes his way to Munich, and along the way learns the 11th Panzer Corps has moved near the town of Glessheim.  Also, Karl finds himself in the company of a portly SS Corporal (Wilfreid Seyferth), interested in benefiting from some of the three months' back pay Maurer is carrying as a part of his cover story.

He takes Karl to a Gasthaus in Glessheim, with rooms and food (for a price), and a number of women looking for whoever can provide a good time, love, or safety as the war is coming to an end.  Karl also learns the 11th Panzer Corps has moved, but no one knows where.

He meets one of the women, named Hilde (Hidelgard Kneff), and also makes the SS corporal suspicious of him.  Alone with Karl, Hilde at first confronts and then confides in him. The next morning, the Corporal has arranged a ride for Maurer on a truck; it's also clear the SS Corporal has arranged for another soldier to watch him.


The truck is stopped at a roadblock set up by a military unit looking for replacements, and not above coercing them into service. The officer commanding the roadblock (Werner Futterer) orders Maurer and the others marched off to an unknown destination.

Part Three (Click On Images To Enlarge; Nett und Spass !)

The march ends at the headquarters of a panzer unit; the officer commandeering troops spots Maurer's red cross armband, orders him to step forward, and sends him off with a senior sergeant (Til Kiwe) dressed in full black German army tanker's uniform, a bit of a rarity at that stage in the war. 


Kiwe (Not Identified) Interviewed 
For The BBC Series, World At War, 1972

Maurer is clearly going to be kept in this unit; his mission for the Americans is now in jeopardy. Taken into a former baroque mansion, now transformed into a military headquarters, he watches a lieutenant (Walter Ladengast) beg a Colonel not to have him shot -- by returning late from leave, the man is charged with desertion. 


The Colonel, von Ecker (O.E. Hasse), tells the condemned man that military law can make no exceptions; the lieutenant begs for his life, but the Colonel only gives the man a cold stare and a cutting remark, then orders him taken away.


Von Ecker leads Maurer into his quarters / office and asks him to identify items on a tray. Karl sees a digitalis-based drug and replies it's used to treat symptoms of angina; the Colonel has heart disease.  Satisfied, von Ecker tells him that in the event of an episode, the dosage needs to be precise -- "an overdose or delay could be fatal."

He shows Karl a sofa in the office where he can sleep; Maurer overhears the Colonel on his telephone directing his adjutant that, even though his troops are "in General Jaeger's area, that they will not take orders from anyone but me."

Maurer also sees a tactical map, with the position of the 11th Panzer Corps (which von Ecker's unit is part of) clearly marked. It's also clear the corps is converging on Mannheim -- where General Jaeger was planning to surrender his forces, allowing the Americans to cross the Rhine.  von Ecker's remarks tell Maurer that Jaeger's plans are known, and that American forces are walking into a trap.

The information 'Happy' now has is critical. He must get out of the headquarters and back to American lines -- and an opportunity presents itself that night, when von Ecker has an angina attack. Karl hesitates in preparing the injection of digitalis, but for only a moment ... he administers the dose and saves the Colonel's life.

The next morning, von Ecker is awakened by his adjutant (Harald Wolff), and reminded to sign the order for the lieutenant's execution.  von Ecker thanks Maurer, asking if there is anything he can do to show his gratitude; Karl immediately asks him to spare the lieutenant's life.

The Colonel says, with regret, he can't. "Your job is to save lives, even the unworthy; my job is to take them, even the worthy."  The war is lost; victory against the allied armies is impossible, von Ecker says, but before the execution he will have to tell his troops the exact opposite.

Then, he telephones his adjutant and orders that Maurer be put on transport to rejoin his unit; "That's what you wanted, isn't it?" As his truck leaves the headquarters, they pass the body of the dead lieutenant, hanging from a tree with a sign around his neck, "So become all traitors to the Fatherland".

Maurer is in a column heading for Mannheim (while the trucks are German, the tanks are not; the U.S. Army supplied American M47 tanks and drivers for the film).  Outside Heidelberg, the column finds a bridge has been bombed out; it stops, and all troops are ordered to dismount.

Somehow, riding on Maurer's truck is the Corporal with eyeglasses (Arno Assmann; see Part Two) who had  been watching him when he had left Glessheim. As they dismount, the man loses his glasses; Karl helps him find them, and the man introduces himself as Ernst Randemann -- just as the column is strafed by allied fighter-bombers.

As he and Randemann take cover on the ground, Maurer suddenly realizes the man is shooting at him with a revolver; he misses -- but the fighters make another strafing run and Randemann is wounded. "I'm finished -- but you won't get away," he tells Maurer. "We know about you!"

Maurer draws his own pistol, kills him, and searches his body as the air raid continues. There is an Erkennungsmarken identity disc around Randemann's neck, showing him as a member of the Gestapo; Maurer also finds a page from the Wehrmacht security 'Black List' -- the current list -- showing his false identity, Karl Steiner. His cover is blown; as 'Steiner', he is liable for immediate arrest.

Maurer tries to cross a bridge into Mannheim, but runs into a control point and tosses his "Karl Steiner" identity papers into the river.  Telling a skeptical SS officer (Erik Jelde) he'd lost his papers in an air raid, and is passed on for detention.

Placed under guard with a group of detainees, Maurer gives his true name -- but forgot that his own identity disc around his neck shows his name as Karl Steiner. When it's checked, Karl runs -- into a crowded rail yard, between trains, and on into Mannheim.

In the city, he's challenged by a roving security patrol and runs into (ironically) the ruins of the Mannheim State Theater, and is only able to escape by chance when air-raid sirens go off and the patrol rushes to a shelter.

With the air raid still on, 'Happy' runs through a bombed-out urban wasteland, then stumbles into a street sign pointing to Neckarstrasse. He suddenly remembers the address of the safehouse in Mannheim -- 18 Neckarstrasse -- and eventually finds it.

Sargent Barth, 'Tiger', is not happy to see Maurer, but Lieutenant Rennick listens with interest to Karl's information about General Jaeger's surrender being a trap.  Suddenly, there's a knock at the door -- Jaeger's representative, an officer in civilian clothes named von Schirmeck (Peter Lühr), comes in and calmly reports the surrender is off; the General has been wounded and taken to a hospital -- one surrounded by SS guards.

Rennick suggests that von Schirmeck and other officers on Jaeger's staff could still go through with the plan, but the officer says it isn't possible; the risk is too great. "And besides," he adds, "we should have done something a long time ago."


Rennick says that as German officers, they never acted against the nazis in the past. "They're right to call you traitors -- you've betrayed yourselves".  Von Schirmeck leaves, but not before telling Rennick "it's easy for you to talk; you've never been in our shoes."  Rennick adds, "And I hope we never will".

The radio brought in by Rennick and Barth was damaged in an air raid.  The supposed 'surrender' of Jaeger was supposed to occur within the next 24 hours, and Maurer's information has to be reported back immediately.  Mannheim is on the Rhine, which separates the German and American armies; "You expect to swim?" Barth says, and to his surprise Rennick agrees."Why not? You afraid of a little water?"

The three men go the apartment belonging to Barth's brother in the same Neckarstrasse building; they'll need his help to get close to the river, Barth says. The brother is out; they're met by Barth's nephew, Kurt (Adi Lödel), a 13-year-old wearing a Hitlerjugend armband.

Kurt overhears Rennick discussing escape with Barth and Maurer, and runs out of the apartment. Barth follows and grabs the boy in a stairwell; it's clear he may kill his own nephew to keep him quiet. Rennick stops Barth ("He's just a kid!"); the panicked boy runs into the street and raises an alarm with a column of armored vehicles. An officer orders the immediate area searched.

Maurer, Barth and Rennick hide in the ruins of a nearby building. Kurt joins in the search -- then spots Rennick in the shadows. For a long moment, they look at each other... and instead of shouting for help, the boy turns away, walking back to the officer in charge of the armored column.

The "spies" the boy had reported aren't found; a sergeant tells the officer, "Max, he probably made it all up". The boy says nothing; the officer agrees and calls off the search.

The Rhine is divided by a large island, meaning Rennick, Barth and Maurer will have to swim the river twice and evade any German troops.  Getting down to the riverbank for the first leg of their journey, Barth tries to run; Rennick shoots him, which draws the attention of a squad of soldiers. Maurer and Rennick run into the river through a hail of rifle shots and swim out to the island.

Tired, both men take a short break in the shelter of some rocks. Maurer has told Rennick a new factory has been moved into Würzburg; it's operational intelligence and that's his mission. Karl asks if the factory will be bombed. "I hope so; why?" Rennick asks, and Maurer tells him that his father has just been assigned to the hospital, next to the factory. Suddenly uncomfortable, Rennick suggests they keep moving.

Reaching the other side of the island, Rennick and Maurer can see the west shore is being fortified. Trying to make it under barbed wire and back into the river, they're spotted by a patrol. Rennick gets through the wire but Maurer is caught; he waves Rennick on, then stands up and runs towards the patrol, sacrificing himself, as Rennick swims for the far bank and safety.

Rennick makes it to shore, only to be fired on by some defiladed American troops until his shouts suggest he's an American, too.

In a hut beside the river, Rennick is put next to a stove, given a shot of brandy and a blanket. His commander, Colonel Devlin, has appeared and telephones the news that the 'surrender' of German forces in the area is a fiction. While on the phone, Devlin learns that in northern Germany, another army group had seized a bridge, intact, at Remagen; "We're on our way into Germany."

Devlin sees Rennick is affected by Maurer's death -- but for him, that's being soft. The mission was everything; "the kid" was just another method of ensuring Allied victory. He sends Rennick back to their new unit headquarters for a short leave, turning him over to his old driver.  "Too bad about the kid, sir," the driver says, "But, he was just another Kraut."

At this point, we hear Rennick / Baseheart's voice in narration, mirroring the movie's opening sequence:
They say a man can only be killed by forgetfulness -- and lives, so long as he's remembered. So long, 'Happy' -- let your true name remain unknown. But let your deeds be a key to the meaning of treason. It was for me.
The camera pans in on Rennick, with a typical roadside shrine in the background, as the soundtrack swells: The End.


Afterword: History, or, What About This Movie? [Warning: Still Under Construction, This Bit]

British film director Mike Leigh was interviewed last week on France24 about his most recent movie, and answering a general question, made the observation that "There's world cinema -- and then, there's Hollywood." Each creates something in an identical medium, but with totally different goals and frames of reference in translating the experience of life.

In 1949, Stalin was alive; the Soviets tested their own Atomic Bomb that year; Mao's Chinese Communists seized control of mainland China. What would seem like the beginning of WWIII was about to happen in Korea. In the U.S., Senator Joseph McCarthy (when he wasn't blind drunk) had been dragging actors and screenwriters in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to demand they answer the musical question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?"

Hollywood promised to 'clean its own house'. A blacklist of anyone named (or even suspected) as a Red quickly sprung up -- a simple extension of power the studios had always had. But Hollywood could also perform another service -- with a new enemy on the horizon, our former enemies in WWII were needed as 'strategic partners' to contain the expansion of Russia and China.

Hollywood had spent the war convincing the American public in scores of B-films that Germans were rapacious, evil monsters. It was typical war propaganda... until newsreels in late spring of 1945 showed images from Europe's concentration camps and killing centers. To anyone watching them, the sketch Hollywood had made about the Germans seemed pale; what kind of people could do that?

Now, that same public had to be educated, convinced, 'sold' on a sudden about-face that might have made George Orwell's smile. (At the same time Western intelligence agencies, and industries, were using former nazis as assets in our shadow war with the Red enemy. The Russians, of course, had their "own" Germans [an American joke at the time was, 'Our Germans are better than their Germans'].

(And past a certain point, East Germany (the DDR) would just cease looking at it's immediate past; only the glorious Socialist future mattered.  In West Germany (the BRD), only the glorious American-style 'free trade' future mattered -- and its attempts to grapple with the nazi past and what it had really done to Germany and its people were initially awkward, but at least they took place.)

The Big Lift

Decision Before Dawn was a classic Cold War marriage of film studio and government expediency to humanize former enemies, but it wasn't the first film of its kind 20th Century Fox had made. The Big Lift was released in 1950, starring Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas as USAAF pilots flying food into a divided city during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49.  The movie quickly establishes them as a couple of typical American Everymen; just two Joes doing a job.

All of the film's location shots were made in Berlin during May and June of 1949, a month after the Russian blockade of the city ended, and -- like the cities in Decision -- Berlin still clearly showed damage from years of bombing and weeks of street fighting.

Douglas' character already has a German girlfriend, but he treats her like a pet or a child; Clift meets a war widow and falls in love. Through Clift's interactions with the 'widow' (Cornell Borchers), he's a stand-in for American audiences who were asking themselves the same questions after watching those newsreels a few years before: How could something like the nazis, the war and the Holocaust, happen? Who are these people? and, After all that, how do we treat them now?

Montgomery Clift And Cornell Borchers, The Big Lift (1950).
[Cornell has the Mongo Seal Of Approval™]

Paul Douglas' character had been a POW during the war, and while out with his German girlfriend sees a former Stalag guard who tortured him; Douglas nearly beats the man to death -- but his character shows remorse, and his attitude changes towards Germans in general. Specifically, his demeanor changes towards his girlfriend, whom he begins to treat with more sympathy and equality-- and at the end of the movie Douglas' character has arranged to be posted to Berlin.

In the script, Borchers' character fails to manipulate Clift into a sham marriage, because other Germans see it as immoral, dishonest, and tell Clift the truth. She also seems connected to a shadowy, pro-nazi underground -- and the German characters are seen to reject that, too. By the end of the film, Clift has had his heart broken, Borchers is left with her shame, and Berlin Bleibt Berlin -- the American, British and French sectors, anyway.


Fox hired Litvak, a man with unimpeachable personal and artistic credentials, to direct a film with some simple messages: It was clear what Hitler and the nazis had done across Europe, and specifically to their own country. The German people should have taken whatever risks to remove them from power. They didn't -- and so deserved whatever they got. Most viewers in an American audience would share those feelings.

By comparison, in Vertel's script the film's main German character would make moral choices and act from them, even at the risk of his own life. It was a heroic stance, something both German and American audiences could identify with, if for different reasons. And, every story needs a hero.

But in addition to the hero, one of the film's goals was to convince viewers that there were "good" Germans -- essentially decent people who tried to live their lives, even though they (as the Maurer character says) "just closed our eyes and went along". They would have to live with the shame of that choice, but they were the ones who would build the new, prosperous, "free" Germany from the ashes of the old -- with America's help, of course.

Decision, like The Big Lift, is a curious artifact of American - European collaboration in filmaking at a time when the world was being shaped by two global superpowers. The currents driving Hollywood shifted from one form of wartime propaganda to another. 

A couple of notes about timing:  Decision supposedly  starts on December 8, 1944. Baseheart's character reported to his unit in Mormemntiers on that date, and Maurer came to see him ten days later on the 18th. On  December 16th, the Ardennes 'Battle Of The Bulge' began, but in the film, we hear nothing about it.

Maurer is trained for his role as an agent, and other action occurs before he, Barth and Rennick are parachuted into Germany for their mission -- but we don't have any sense that much time has passed. At the end of the film, when Rennick is sitting in a hut after swimming the Rhine, his commander hears that a bridge at Remagen has been captured intact.  That actually happened on March 7, 1945, four months after the film begins; Vertel may have been playing with actual chronology a bit.

1 comment:

  1. 1) good to see you posting again

    2) a search at my local public library for this film found the following book listing instead

    Title: The Pope's Jews : the Vatican's secret plan to save Jews from the Nazis
    Author:Thomas, Gordon, 1933-
    New York : Thomas Dunne Books, [2012]
    Physical Description:
    xx, 314 p. ; ill. ; 25 cm.
    A way to die -- Pope Pius XII and the Jews -- The code breakers -- Decision on piazza venezia -- Eyes which have wept -- Nothing sacred -- Pius goes to war -- The sanctuary seekers -- Hitler's plot -- Gold rush -- The executioner -- Final preparations -- Round up -- Black Saturday -- Before the dawn -- Living with God and the devil -- Aftermath.


    A revelatory account of the Vatican's efforts to save thousands of Jewish people during World War II refutes beliefs about Pius XII's neutrality.


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