What could possibly be the motivation to spy on your own country? Captured by the enemy. Resigned to the fact that your country is most certainly losing the war. What would make you decide treason is an option against your homeland? To help give your foe the upper hand. This was a dilemma given to a collection of German prisoners of war during World War Two. To cross back onto your battered boarders to retrieve valuable information for the Allied invasion. An unspeakable betrayal!
Tagline – From the secret files of Military Intelligence, comes one of the war’s most outstanding stories, told as it happened, in the last fateful days of the Third Reich.
This difficult predicament was presented in front of two very different captured German officers. Both with their own contrasting views on how they perceive the task given to them. How did we get to these willing spies?
Around the end of 1944 it became apparent that the tables were being turned and Germany was beginning to lose the war. A team of American military intelligence officers, lead by Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill) and Lt. Dick Rennick (Richard Basehart) had been assigned the unthinkable task of recruiting German POW’s to volunteer their help for the Allies. Two key objectives had arisen. Both of the utmost importance. A certain chance to twist and turn the tide of the war.
Knowledge had been obtained that a high ranking German General was willing to negotiate terms to surrender his whole platoon. First they needed the intelligence to confirm this was true. This would need a collaborator who knew the terrain. To be able to open up the dialogue to help with the negotiations.
The second task was to locate the whereabouts of the 11th Panzer Corps. A whole division of tanks that would play an important part in stopping this huge surrender. This was an extremely dangerous mission and one that would require the collaborate to infiltrate deep within the heart of his own motherland.
It was paramount that both these two missions are coincided and implemented together. What men could do this? To not only carry out treason against your own people, family and friends but to become a traitor to your imprisoned comrades. What would be the motivation?
“Of all the questions left unanswered by the last war, and probably any war, one comes back constantly to my mind. Why does a spy risk his life… for what possible reason? If the spy wins, he’s ignored. If he loses, he’s shot.!“
For the battle worn scarred face of Sergeant Rudolf Barth (Hans Christian Blech) the problem was easy to comprehend. He had been conscripted to fight. He had a cynical nature. He’d certainly be more ready to help if there was a cash incentive. He was a chancer. A thief in his youth before joining the circus before the war. He looked out for number one. One thing that was on his mind? He was more concerned to be on the winning side. Yet could he be trusted? Colonel Devlin and his intelligence didn’t have many options. He was to be trained and renamed with the code “Tiger“. He was given the mission to meet with the General willing to surrender.
Tiger – “My political convictions? I’ve never been able to afford any.“
Col. Devlin – “Then why do you want to work for us?“
Tiger – “Because you are winning the war. Isn’t that a good enough reason?“
The second task needed the skills of a different type of man. This dangerous mission fell to Corporal Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner). A thoughtful intelligent young man. An idealist. He could see his country was about to be torn to shreds. He’d never wished to fight. A pacifist. Compelled to stop more bloodshed after the killing of his friend by fellow fanatical prisoners. His journey would bring constant danger crossing through the bombed out cities of Würzburg, Nuremberg, and Mannheim. Dressed as a medic with a cover story that he was returning to his unit, the 11th Panzer division. Having to navigate check points filled with SS and gestapo with an ever updating list of spies and traitors to look out for. Danger of capture and certain death was around every corner.
Happy – “I believe in a life in which one is not always afraid, in a life in which people are free and honest with each other. And I know we won’t have this in Germany… until… until we have lost.“
A refreshing side of the film is the fact that the parts are all played by actors of their country’s. Plus the authenic location setting are the real bombed out cities of Germany. The tanks, rifles, uniforms etc were actual WW II German military equipment. American actor Richard Basehart might get top billing but it’s really the Oskar Werner show.
Oskar Werner will probably be best known for John le Carré penned The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) with Richard Burton and the François Truffaut directed Ray Bradbury story Fahrenheit 451 (1966).
Amazingly his actual real life personal experiences of the war story reflect his part within this film. As a pacifist he was drafted into the military in 1941. With a posting to Eastern Front and the knowledge of the carnage of that battle he is said to have behaved as stupidly as he could. Falling off horses, making mistakes with ranger finders etc until he was kicked out of training school. Instead he was assigned demeaning duties like cleaning the toilets and peeling potatoes. In 1944 around the time this film is set, he secretly married a Jewish actress with whom he had a daughter with. He deserted the army and fled with them, hiding in the Vienna Woods, until the war had finished. He is said to have quoted “The artillery fire was constant for two and a half days. The shells hit all around our little hut and it was shaking like a leaf … We knew that to go out there would be suicide, but it was better than to have to wait for execution.“. I can only imagine that filming Decision Before Dawn must of brought back many raw and horrible memories.
Decision Before Dawn was directed by Anatole Litvak who’s film before this was the brilliant Olivia de Havilland movie The Snake Pit (1948). It was based on a novel from 1949 called Call It Treason by George Howe. Decision Before Dawn would receive two nominations at the 1952 Academy Awards. One for Best Picture and the second for Best Film Editing which was done by Dorothy Spencer. I’d like to say I’m ashamed I haven’t heard of her before but the reason I do this blog is to learn. I’ve just found out she was a grand master of film cutting. “Four-time Oscar nominee Dorothy Spencer was one of the most versatile stalwarts of the Hollywood studio system” I look forward to reading about her very soon.
What makes Decision Before Dawn such an interesting film is the way it treats the German characters, especially Happy who really draws you into his emotional and desperate plight. To feature a German hero not that long after the war must of come up against some flack I can well imagine? The creative side of the narrative is the fact you feel for this German hero but without any forced sentimentality. You get a different side of the story from the soldiers and the everyday people coming to terms with their dying nation. From disillusioned soldiers hiding, drinking and dancing in underground bars waiting for the war to end. Or meeting proud ladies having to use what ever means they have to require money for food. However, still the dangers of patriotic and fanatical soldiers that won’t surrender until their last dying breathe are present at every turn. The feeling of the uncertainly of being shot by firing squad for their treasonous ways haunts their every move. There’s a very profound anti-war message throughout the core of this very thoughtful and reflective film.
Happy – “Sometimes it takes more courage not to kill.“
Thanks for popping in for a look. Have you seen this one? Feel free to let me know. All the best.. Mikey Wolfman
PS If you’re interested I’ve reviewed an ace Richard Basehart film and two superb Gary Merrill films on my movie blog journey.