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From its suspenseful start to its explosive finish, Verboten! (1958) is Sam Fuller in his prime, directing a cynical drama about the American occupation of Germany in the months following World War II. James Best stars as Sgt. David Brent, who is wounded by a gunman while his ill-fated squad explores a bombed-out village. When a young German woman(Susan Cummings) saves his life, Brent falls in love with the pretty fraulein and, since soldiers were forbidden to fraternize with the Germans, decides to quit the military. Rather than return to the States, he signs on with the American Military Government (AMG), dispensing food and other rations to the devastated German people. Once married, Brent and Helga'shappiness is threatened by the harsh economic conditions of war-torn Germany and the rise of neo-fascism in the form of young underground Himmlerites calling themselves the Werewolves, who scavenge food, commit sabotage, and threaten the newly-forged peace.
Because gung-ho WWII movies had largely fallen out of fashion in the late1950s, Verboten! was instead promoted as a juvenile delinquent film,at a time when leather-clad, marauding youths were the hot-button topic ofparanoid parents and low-budget filmmakers alike.
Part love story, part war movie, Verboten! is an angry attack on thecomplacent mentality that allowed fascism to flourish in 1930s Germany andto continue long after the war had ended. Fuller's cynical view of Germandenial was not something he had read about in newspapers, but had witnessedfirst hand. "I did not meet a single German, from the day we invadedGermany to the end of the war in Czechoslovakia, who said he was a Nazi,"Fuller told biographer Lee Server, "The one exception was a fifteen- orsixteen-year-old girl...who told us she was a Nazi and told us to go tohell."Fuller served in the First U.S. Infantry Division during WWII (thelegendary "Big Red One") and was part of a military unit that liberated aNazi concentration camp near Falkenau. Corporal Fuller shot 16mm homemovie footage of the camp, and this material later became the centerpieceof the 1988 documentary Falkenau, the Impossible, in which hereturns to the site and recounts the experience.
The memory of the death camps was scorched in Fuller's mind and he wantedothers to witness the same, lest we forget. When Helga's teenage brotherand aspiring Werewolf Franz (Harold Daye) refuses to believe the horrorstories of the Third Reich, she takes him to the Nuremberg trials, where heand the audience are subjected to a no-punches-pulled, documentary-stylesummation of the atrocities committed by the Nazis -- narrated by Fullerhimself. Seldom were moviegoers of 1958 subjected to such horrific images,especially woven into the fabric of a traditional war movie. The audaciousscene is quintessential Fuller -- a cinematic punch in the gut. "I usedthe contrasts in shooting to help maintain chaos," Fuller toldServer.
Fuller often flirted with contrasting styles in his films, mixing Molotovcocktails of emotion, imagery and messages, none of which were everadministered with much subtlety. Verboten! typifies this recklessapproach to filmmaking, a hard-boiled war movie that opens with a syrupylove song ("Verboten!") sung by Paul Anka. Once this ends, the Americandogfaces are shown advancing upon a bombed out, sniper-ridden village,their dance of death eerily choreographed to the strains of Beethoven'sFifth Symphony (a favorite piece of Fuller's, which also appearsprominently in The Naked Kiss, 1964). Fuller also flavors the filmwith the grandiose works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operatic workshave come to represent the sweeping power of German legend, even as itreminds us of the anti-Semitism lurking beneath.
At times, Fuller seems to be offering an olive branch to the German people,while at other times, he merely wants to crush those weak-willedsympathizers who allowed the Nazis to take over their country in the first place. In one powerful sequence, Brent becomes fed up with hearing the Germansblaming the Americans for their misfortune, demanding food and medicinefrom the AMG. "We're not here as liberators!" he shouts at the angry mob,"We're here as conquerors! And don't you forget it!" Immediatelythereafter he dives, fists swinging, into the crowd of ungrateful"krauts."
One reason this jumbled and angry film manages to succeed as entertainmentis the central performance by Best, who portrays Brent as a hopeful,lovesick, loyal puppy of a sergeant, absolutely dripping with sincerity.When, near the film's climax, he is fired from his government job andbegins to suspect that Helga has only married him for his politicalconnections, the painful disillusionment he suffers is heartbreaking, ashis boyish idealism crumbles into bitter resentment. Originally, Fullerintended to have Brent shot by military police in the end (after being mistaken for aGerman), but this conclusion was considered too pessimistic.
Best was a talented character actor who provided Southern color to many aWestern and war film during the 1950s and '60s (including the asylum inmatewho thinks he's a Confederate General in Fuller's Shock Corridor,1963). Unfortunately, this delicate character work has been overshadowedby his most famous role, that of the bumbling Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane onTV's "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Director/Producer/Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction: John B. Mansbridge
Music: Harry Sukman
Film Editing: Philip Cahn
Cast: James Best (Sgt. David Brent), Susan Cummings (Helga Schiller), TomPittman (Bruno Eckart), Harold Daye (Franz Schiller), Joe Turkel (Infantryman), Paul Dubov (Captain Harvey), Steven Geray (Mayor).
by Bret Wood