Monday, 5 January 2009

None Shall Escape (1944)

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Surprising late WW2 propaganda film has a unique hook: it’s set after the war, during anticipated war crimes trials. On the stand is Nazi bigwig Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and people in his life testify and help chart his career back to the end of the Great War, when he was a lowly German schoolmaster teaching in a small west Polish town. He has come back from service with a limp and a chip on his shoulder, despised by some of the more chauvinistic locals, and he slowly alienates those who still respect him, including his fiancĂ© and fellow teacher Marja (Marsha Hunt). The film’s first interesting touch is to portray Grimm as a victim of PTSD, behaving erratically and self-destructively, giving into the temptation to take his rage out on the world. He molests one of his teenage female students in revenge for another student’s insults, and the girl then commits suicide. He is arrested, and loses an eye when a stone is thrown his way. When he’s let off from lack of evidence, the village priest (Henry Travers) and rabbi (Richard Hale) give him money to escape to Germany. There, he’s taken into the house of his socialist brother (Erik Rolf), just at the same time he’s becoming involved with the Nazis. He’ll eventually betray his brother when, in 1933, he plans to flee the country: Wilhelm sends him to a concentration camp, and adopts and tutors his nephew, Willie (Richard Crane) to become his SS underling. Finally, when Germany invades Poland, Wilhelm takes great delight in pillaging the village he once called home, repaying the kindness shown to him by the rabbi by rounding up his flock and shipping them out, and prostituting the village’s daughters to his soldiers.

The film’s attempts to build a psychological portrait of a mass-murderer are broad but detailed: Knox offers a terrific portrait in intelligent, resentful sullenness that turns by shades into iron-hearted megalomania. Grimm’s life story seems to have been cherry-picked out of several Nazi leaders (Hitler’s rootless early life; Heydrich’s sexual transgressions) to encapsulate the appeal of a philosophy of brute force and table-turning. The melodramatic story refrains hinder it (it’s not so far from an Edna Ferber-esque tale where anti-hero loses girl, goes away, becomes powerful, returns to see history repeat in next generation, leading to tragedy), but even here it has a kind of uniquely merciless quality, as Grimm consumes the lives of everyone around him with demonic totality. Willie romances Martja’s daughter Janina (Dorothy Morris), who then dies at the hands of another officer, causing him to reject his uncle’s creed – and his uncle promptly shoots him in the back. None Shall Escape is impressive in the detail it offers for its time of Nazi repression, climaxing in the startlingly grim sequence when the rabbi calls for revolt as his people as they’re being loaded into cattle cars, only to see them machine-gunned down, in a massacre scene quite amazing for its time (it’s interesting to note though that though the filmmakers’ understanding of what was going on is almost dead on, in the film Jews are generally being killed by starvation: the idea of the gas chamber was too obscene to be believed even here). Andre de Toth directs with his customary vividness and unflinching feel for violence: his work here excels the likes of Jean Renoir's rhetorical This Land Is Mine. The very end of the film is a bit cute – a direct-to-camera appeal by the judge of the court calling for the judgment of all the peoples of the “United Nations” – but also prescient.
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