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You'd expect a film with a title like Hitler's Children (1942) to be an exploitation picture, not a prestige production and you wouldn't be wrong in most respects. But this sensationalistic melodrama about a Nazi youth and his American girlfriend struck a resonant chord with audiences of its era, making it the highest grossing film of all time for RKO Studios, surpassing even the box office receipts of King Kong (1933) and Top Hat (1935).
The real intent of Hitler's Children is to show the indoctrination process of young Germans and how their minds are poisoned with fascist ideals. The love story between budding storm trooper Karl Bruner (Tim Holt) and his childhood sweetheart Anna Muller (Bonita Granville) is merely the vehicle which carries the film to its defiant yet grimly determined climax. Along the way we witness various well-staged atrocities from the enforced sterilization of women prisoners deemed unworthy to have Nazi babies to Anna's public flogging at a concentration camp. There's not an ounce of subtlety in Edward Dmytryk's tautly paced programmer but there's plenty of lip-smacking villainy and rabid anti-Nazi propaganda that is so extreme it almost works on a level of pure parody.
Dmytryk actually ended up on the film by accident. In his autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living, he wrote "A friend of mine, Irving Reis, had prepared and actually started shooting a film called Hitler's Children, an exploitation B. Irving was rather headstrong and somewhat touchy - a bad combination in Hollywood. After a few days, he got into a fight with producer Doc Golden. Getting his back up, he quit the film, expecting, so he told me later, to win a quick apology and a free hand. Instead, the studio said, "As you wish," and asked me to take over the direction. He gave me his blessing, asking only that his name be completely removed from the film's credits. The studio was willing and I went to work. I finished on schedule, cut and dubbed it, and turned it over to the distribution department. None of us at the studio was sure of what we had."
From Hitler's Children, Dmytryk went directly to Universal to shoot Captive Wild Woman (1943), a horror film starring the Venezuela born actress, Acquanetta, whose beauty was concealed by her special "monkey woman" makeup. But once Hitler's Children opened theatrically, the director soon found himself in demand. In his autobiography, he recalled: "Taken from a novel titled Education for Death, its story concerned the treatment of youthful nonconformists in Nazi Germany. A title with the word "Hitler" in it was considered box-office poison, and the exhibitors asked [producer] Doc Golden and RKO to change ours. Doc was stubborn - and he was right. The film cost a little over $100,000, and, running only in England and the Western Hemisphere...grossed, by some accounts, $7,500,00."
Seen today, Hitler's Children is clearly a melodramatic but predictable propaganda effort for its era. Nevertheless, it remains an irresistibly compelling B-movie and it helped launch Dmytryk's career. He would go on to direct one more propaganda melodrama for RKO - Behind the Rising Sun (1943) - and then hit the big time the following year with Murder, My Sweet, one of the best film adaptations of a Raymond Chandler detective novel. As for Bonita Granville, she always cited Hitler's Children as her favorite film. Even though she went on to make more upscale movies like Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1947) and The Lone Ranger (1956), she liked Hitler's Children because it was one of the rare times she got top billing and got to play an adult character.
Producer: Edward A. Golden
Director: Edward Dmytryk, Irving G. Reis
Screenplay: Emmet Lavery, based on the novel ‘Education for Death’ by Gregor Ziemer
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Cinematography: Russell Metty Editing: Joseph Noriega
Music: Roy Webb, Constantin Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Tim Holt (Karl Bruner), Bonita Granville (Anna Muller), Kent Smith (Prof. Nichols- narrator), Otto Kruger (Col. Henkel), H.B. Warner (The Bishop), Hans Conried (Dr. Graf), Nancy Gates (Brenda), Lloyd Corrigan (Franz Erhart).
By Jeff Stafford