Friday, March 02, 2007


This little WWII gem seems to have been hidden away for years in the Columbia vaults; after reading about it recently in two different books on wartime cinema, I thought it sounded interesting and I was excited to see it in rotation on Turner Classic Movies. Released in early 1944, long before the end of the war, the film is set after the war at a war crimes trial (and the set looks remarkably like the one for the later JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, which was based on the trials that actually did occur). Alexander Knox is a former Reich Commissioner charged with murder and "degenerate atrocities" and the film focuses not on the trial but, through flashbacks given by witnesses, on how Knox became such a willing Nazi. In 1919, just after the First World War, Knox, a German schoolteacher, returns to the Polish village in which he had been teaching, having lost a leg in the war. Though the locals seem to accept him, he feels a lingering prejudice which puts him on his guard; his fiancee, Marsha Hunt, senses his coldness and postpones their wedding. After he overhears his students mocking him for not being good enough for Polish women, he rapes a local girl who then kills herself. Knox is attacked by a group of locals and leaves town; the kindly local priest (Henry Travers) and rabbi (Richard Hale) give him money to get a new start. In 1923, Knox has joined the Nazi party, telling his socialist brother (Erik Rolf) about Hitler's "new religion of blood and race." After the notorious Beer Hall Putsch, Knox is jailed, as is Hitler, who Knox says is writing "a masterpiece" in his cell. By 1933, the Nazis have come to power; when Rolf plans to move his family to Vienna to escape the coming madness, Knox betrays him and sends him to an "indoctrination" camp, while taking Rolf's young son under his wing and entering him in a Hitler youth group. After Germany conquers Poland in 1939, Knox is installed as commissioner of the Polish village and he oversees the deportation of the poor and weak to labor camps. The local synagogue is turned into a barn ("Horses are more important than Jews," says Knox) and the town's Jews are rounded up in train cars. When the rabbi makes an impassioned speech for resistance, Knox orders a massacre. The local women are forced into prostitution, though Knox excuses Hunt's daughter, on whom his nephew (Richard Crane) develops a crush. The inevitable climax involves an incident much like the one that started the film, with rape (symbolic, if not actual), suicide and murder. Back in the courtroom, Knox, unbowed, gives a final snarling rant against the court. The film should have ended here, but a rather anti-climatic speech by the judge, aimed directly at the film audience, weakens the conclusion.

Even though this film was made before the full horror of the Holocaust was exposed, it remains a grim and powerful film. Knox's character is a three-dimensional villain (even sympathetic in the beginning), even as I suspect he is also intended to function as a symbol for Germany, especially given his physical handicaps: he loses a leg in WWI and loses an eye in a confrontation with a Polish villager (who later joins the resistance). Knox himself is excellent, making his character repellent but not melodramatically so. Though most of the acting would be seen as lightweight today for a war horrors film, the supporting cast is uniformly fine, with the standouts the dignified Travers and the baby-faced Crane who moves realistically (and tragically) from casual acceptance of the Nazi philosophy to rejection. Even Hunt, who I've not been terribly impressed with, eventually displays the requisite gravitas for her role. The film, in a truly prescient way, makes the point, more than once, that the Nazis' claims that they were just following orders and could not choose to rebel doesn't hold water--Knox is shown to be a person who finds in the Nazi movement a way of life which satisfied his gnawing feelings (nationalistic and personal) of resentment and revenge. At one point, when Hunt tries to appeal to his humanity, he replies, "Human feeling is the last resort of decadence." One scene seems to provide just a hint of pederasty in Knox's attentions to his nephew. The resolution of the otherwise hard-hitting Jewish slaughter scene is odd: the rabbi collapses and dies in the shadow of a road sign in the shape of a cross. The imagery is obvious and not accidental, though I am at a bit of a loss to explain what it means. Now that this film is in circulation again, I hope it gets the attention it deserves. [TCM]

No comments: