Friday, December 12, 2014

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

Saturday Night At The Movies

 German -language poster for Decision Before Dawn,
showcasing Hildegard Knef and Oskar Werner (1951)

Eine Kleiner Redux: I was introduced to some of my favorite films on my parent's black-and-white Zenith, and presented on NBC's Saturday Night At The Movies .

Saturday, January 5, 1963: Two-and-a-half months before, we had escaped the Cuban Missile Crisis.  John F. Kennedy was still President. At 8:00 PM Pacific Daylight Savings Time, NBC 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, 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.

So, who were those German actors? I wondered. What were their careers about? And, what did they do during the war?

The Recap

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 determine the strength, positions and intentions of enemy units. To do so, it trains and handles a team of German POW's who have agreed to act as spies, undertaking missions behind the lines and reporting back. 

Devlin explains to his staff 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 directly 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 return to his own country performing intelligence missions under the code name "Happy", and becomes one of the former-soldiers-turned-spies in 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 has an ego, and a need to dominate whatever situation he's in; Devlin thinks this led to his previous partner's arrest. However, 'Tiger' was born, raised, and has personal contacts in Mannheim, where the operation will be focused.

With time running short, Devlin decides to use 'Tiger', but makes it crystal clear he'll be watched -- because Lieutenant Rennick will be part of the mission; he's the only qualified radio operator available who can replace Tiger's missing partner.

Rennick has always seen every German volunteer -- even the quiet, idealistic 'Happy' -- as lower life forms ("They're all a bunch of lice"), but Col. Develin has told 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 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.

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.

Part Two  
(Click On Images To Enlarge; It's Easy And Fun!)

Maurer is provided with a new identity close to his own; only his new last name (Steiner) and personal details are different -- still a Luftwaffe corporal and a Sanitätsoffizier (Medic), Maurer's cover story is that he is traveling from a hospital after recovering from wounds to rejoin his unit.  In truth, he will go wherever necessary to find the location of the 11th Panzer Corps and then return to the American lines.

Taken out to a nearby airfield, he and Barth / Tiger make final preparations; Barth is asked about his combat decorations ("Bump off any of our guys to get those?") and replies with a smirk, "No sir; I got them in my own special way".

Just before Rennick and Tiger are dropped near Mannheim, Maurer overhears Tiger remind the Lieutenant of the safe house address in the city ("18 Neckarstrasse"). As the plane heads north, Maurer asks for coffee from one of the air crew -- less than pleased to be serving a German. "You hate us, don't you?" Maurer asks. The airman replies, "I've never felt sorry when I see a string of 500-pounders leave the bomb rack."

Maurer lands successfully and makes his way down into Altmark to board a bus for Munich, and its central train station.

On the way, a portly SS Corporal sitting behind Maurer asks for a few Pfenning to buy a copy of a newspaper as the bus stops at a streetcorner. 'Happy' naively pulls out the entire bankroll he was given before his air drop and peels off a Mark note; the Corporal stares at the cash for a moment before handing the Mark to the woman selling the papers ("Here, Mutti; keep the change!"). Finally, the bus stops and Maurer heads into the station.

(Many of Decision's location shots [principally in München, Nürnburg, Würzburg, and Mannheim] show considerable bomb damage and uncleared rubble, even in 1950, when the film was shot.)
Maurer at the Fronsamstelle (Klaus W. Krause, Left)
Any army seems to run on paper, and having your travel orders checked and /or stamped at a transit point was standard for almost any soldier during World War II -- but nowhere more so than in the German army, which had permits, lists and indexes for everything.

Maurer's fictional persona, Corporal Steiner, has to go to the stations' Frontleitstelle (checkpoint for soldiers in transit to forward areas) to have his travel orders checked and stamped. A Sargent checks his papers against an army security 'Blacklist' (names of military personnel to be detained on sight) to check the Steiner name -- the current list hasn't yet arrived, and Karl Steiner isn't on the one they have.

Maurer relaxes a bit, then asks where the 11th Panzer Corps would be located. "Weren't they in Furth?" someone says; the Sargent says no, "They're just outside Nuremberg."

Maurer lines up for another control point to have his transit permit checked in order to board a train -- and runs into the SS Corporal from the bus, who is happy to help Karl, seems to know the lines to Nuremberg are repaired and when the next train is leaving.

Once on the train, the Corporal, Heinz Scholtz (Wilfried Seyferth) reveals he isn't exactly a good samaritan -- or, not one who provides help for free. "Heinz Scholtz! Special courier of the Waffen-SS," he explains. "Sounds good, huh? But, money? No."

Scholz explains he'd seen the "fat roll" Maurer was carrying while they were both on the bus. Karl replies that it isn't much, back pay for three months, but Scholtz proposes that Karl 'loan' him half of it, in exchange for some items he's carrying -- gold.
Dangling a pocketwatch chain, Scholtz says, "The fat stomach this used to go around, I can assure you, is much thinner now," (a clear reference to gold stolen from murdered Jews), then offers Maurer a man's wedding ring as "a better investment for a young man like you... they were together -- thirty-five years. How about it?"

Karl curtly declines, and falls asleep. The next morning, when the train arrives, Maurer slips away, avoiding the Nuremberg Frontleitstelle checkpoint, focused on confirming the location if the 11th Panzer Corps.

Riding a streetcar into the city, Karl ends up in a spy's worst nightmare -- recognized by someone he used to know -- Paula Schneider, a nurse (Helene Thimig), who worked with Maurer's father, a physician, at a clinic in Berlin when his family lived there.
She tells Maurer his father has just been moved to a new hospital, set up in Würzburg. She walks with him to a control point and during a check of identity papers nearly exposes Maurer by using his real name -- but when he admits he hasn't had his travel orders stamped, Karl is told to go to another control point, and slips away.

Ant the next control point, Karl explains to a Senior Sargent in charge (Gert Fröbe) that he hasn't gotten his orders stamped and is looking for the 11th Panzer Corps. Checking the security list -- last week's, like the one in Munich -- the Sargent finds no reference for "Happy"s cover identity, and mentions that the 11th Corps have moved to Glessheim.

Reading through Karl's papers, the sergeant looks up and asks suspiciously, "I see you've been in the army two years. Don't you know you should have your orders stamped?"

Suddenly, a soldier roars up on a motorcycle with a sidecar. "Hey, Heinz!" The Sargent shouts -- it's the SS courier, Scholtz, who identifies Maurer as a friend of his, and the Sargent allows Karl to pass. 

(Above: Publicity Still of Werner, Seyferth and Fröbe, in bomb-damaged Nuremberg.) Karl accepts a lift from Scholtz, saying he needs to get to Glessheim -- and, the courier is happy to oblige, and even knows of a place where they can spend the night... but which might cost a Mark or two.

In Würzburg, Scholtz stops at a petrol station (Above, Werner with original 1944 Volkswagen Kdf Model 87.166 -- worth a whole lot of money, now).  Maurer asks the mechanic, a woman with an eye patch, about the new hospital; she tells him it's "up on the [hill], right next to the factory".  Using her telephone, Karl rings through to the new hospital -- but when his father comes on the line, can't bring himself to speak.

The opportunistic Scholtz stops in a small town, and takes Maurer into a Gasthaus -- which claims to be full, but is really home to a full (if depleted) bar, kitchen, and a number of women who have been forced by circumstances to be good-time girls, down on their luck in the middle of a dying fascist empire at war.

The Gasthaus is lively, with music from a piano and accordion. "Is this place legal?" Maurer asks a barmaid (Elfe Gerhart), who shrugs. "Sure. It's as much a part of the army as you are."

Scholtz knows the woman who runs the place, Fritzi Kollwitz (Loni Heuser), and in short order -- with Maurer's cash -- they both have a room and a meal.

Karl sits next to a radio, broadcasting a report that "the enemy parachutist who landed near Altmark" -- Maurer -- "is still at large". He's joined by one of the girls, Hilde (Hildegard Kneff), who nods at the radio: "That just bores me... One morning we'll open the window, and they'll be here -- the 'Amis'," she says, German slang for Allied troops. She mocks Karl's serious manners and gets him to dance.


Afterwards over dinner, someone begins playing a song about Paris; "We're the 'Bosche' again, now," Scholtz says, and flies into a rage when Karl refers to Alsace-Lorraine as part of France, 'taken' by Germany ("No true German thinks that... We took it back; we took what belonged to us! And maybe a little more !").

Claiming to be tired, Karl quickly excuses himself and leaves for the room he and Scholtz are sharing. Hilde follows, bringing his overcoat, cap and cigarettes, all of which he'd left downstairs. She makes a pass at him;  he stiffly declines -- Hilde assumes because she's a 'loose' woman, so she rounds on him. "Oh, I know your type," she spits. "The little German Burgher, pure and honest! Well, you're as dirty as the rest of us now."

She ends by giving Maurer a shorthand version of her life -- once normal, engaged; then pregnant, her betrothed dying in Norway; a factory job; her child killed in an air raid.  "Afterwards, I ... hated everybody -- but probably myself most of all,"she says, crying, "I'm dirty, miserable; and alone. There are thousands and thousands like me."

Karl softens and offers her a drink (in the German army, medics carried a canteen of medicinal brandy), when Scholtz walks in and tells Hilde to leave. "Thought you were tired," he says to Maurer, who ignores him and goes to sleep.

The next morning, Karl is leaving the Gasthaus; Hilde pulls him aside and tells him that Scholtz ordered her to follow and watch him the previous night, and any unwelcome attention from someone in the SS could mean trouble.

Just then, Scholtz appears, apologizes for his previous attitude and gestures to an open truck parked in the street -- "That truck's going your way; driver knows all about you."

Hilde and Maurer get into the back of the truck, but not before seeing Scholtz exchange a few words with another soldier already aboard, another Corporal, wearing glasses. The truck drives off; after a while, Hilde, points out the man -- "He keeps looking at you".

The Corporal (Arno Assmann) has a thick chunk of bacon, which he shares around -- Germans watching the movie in 1951 would have no trouble remembering that possessing any amount of real food above a rationed allotment was illegal. The bacon was a red flag, automatically marking this character as shady, perhaps involved in the black market, or someone with official connections and protection. 

Then, the truck is stopped at a roadblock manned by armed soldiers and armored cars. All the men are ordered to form ranks in the road and march off for an unknown destination. The roadblock belongs to some military unit, and they're commandeering the men in the truck, no matter what -- a not-uncommon occurrence in Germany toward the end of the war.

Maurer, an enemy spy under a false name and with false papers, is being forced into a detour from his mission. Hilde watches him from the back of the truck as he marches on to who-knows-where.

[See Part One Here If You Missed It; See Part Three Continued Below] 

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