powered by AFI
To one degree or another, Germany will forever wrestle with the moral collapse that occurred during Adolf Hitler's reign of terror. World War II-based movies did little, at least in the immediate aftermath of the War, to alleviate any lingering sense of guilt, or to change the rest of the world's inaccurate assumption that all German citizens were in agreement with the reprehensible attitudes and tactics of the Third Reich. Anatole Litvak's powerful examination of the courage inherent in dissent, Decision Before Dawn (1951), is the exception that proves the rule.
. Richard Basehart plays Lt. Dick Rennick, an American soldier who, under the command of Col. Devlin (Gary Merrill), helps recruit German prisoners who are willing to become counter-intelligence agents for the Allied cause. Rennick eventually encounters Cpl. Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), a German infantryman who is willing to spy against his own country when his friend is shot by Third Reich soldiers for suggesting Germany is on the verge of defeat. Maurer also wants to end the suffering of his fellow countrymen, and to stop the devastation generated by the war.
Upon orders from Rennick and Devlin, Maurer parachutes into Germany for a harrowing mission that will bring him into close contact with variously shattered Germans, most of whom would kill him if they knew of his new allegiance to the Allies. (Viewers should look closely for future Werner Herzog collaborator, Klaus Kinski, in one of his first screen appearances.)
Decision Before Dawn is a minor landmark in movie history, in that it was one of the first non-German productions to treat World War II-era Germans as something more than bloodthirsty combatants who all blindly followed Hitler's whims. The movie went into production just five years after World War II ended, so the German population's physical and psychic wounds were still quite fresh. In fact, the film was originally going to be called Legion of the Damned; the producers even received special permission from the MPAA/PCA to use a profanity in their title. But this caused a minor uproar in Germany, where the prevailing feeling was that the negative title referred to the country's entire population. Although he was disappointed by the misconception, Litvak finally decided to call the picture Decision Before Dawn to appease the masses.
Filming wasn't exactly a cakewalk. Shooting was initially delayed due to intensely bad weather, then Litvak was in a car accident that laid him up for a while. Soon thereafter, he developed a case of pneumonia. The mayor of Wurzburg, where some of the picture was shot, also held things up when he objected to a planned sequence that would depict his city being bombed by the Allies. He eventually agreed to cooperate with the production after German censors perused the screenplay. Litvak also had to secure the cooperation of the Allied High Commission, the German Federal government, and Bavarian State Government before he could film. Wisely, citizens in Wurzburg, Nuremberg, and Mannheim were warned via newspaper and radio announcements when battle scenes, some of which were overseen by the U.S. Air Force, were to be filmed.
Despite the general misunderstandings, all evidence suggests that Litvak was anything but insensitive to the feelings of the German people while making the picture. He was even sure to pay a visit to the parents of the actual soldier who inspired the character of Cpl. Maurer. The soldier's parents told Litvak they were disappointed the Americans didn't treat them more honorably after the War, given their son's courage in serving as a spy. Surely, the dignified portrayal of Maurer in Decision Before Dawn met with their approval. One hopes that, in some small way, it eased their pain.
Director: Anatole Litvak
Producer: Anatole Litvak, Frank McCarthy
Screenplay: Peter Viertel (based on the novel Call It Treason by George Howe)
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Music Orchestrator: Leonid Raab
Art Direction: Ludwig Reiber
Sound: Alfred Bruzlin, Harry M. Leonard
Cast: Richard Basehart (Lt. Dick Rennick), Gary Merrill (Col. Devlin), Oskar Werner (Cpl. Karl Maurer aka "Happy"), Hildegard Knef (Hilde), Dominique Blanchar (Monique), O.E. Hasse (Col. Von Ecker), Wilfried Seyferth (Heinz Scholtz), Hans Christian Blech (Sgt. Rudolf Barth aka "Tiger"), Helen Thimig (Paula Schneider).
by Paul Tatara