Monday, January 30, 2012

"The Devil Makes Three"

The first entry in my series on Germany and Austria in Pre- and Post-World War II Films.  I'm interested in how Germany and Germans were portrayed in these Hollywood films before and after the war.  Of particular interest is how "good" Germans are often presented in opposition to "bad" Germans.

 "The Devil Makes Three" (1952) starred Gene Kelly and Pier Angeli, and was directed by Andrew Marton (originally from Budapest).  This is the same year Kelly made "Singin' in the Rain," so he was at the height of his popularity with MGM.  Angeli was an Italian actress with a limited career.  In this she plays a German girl whose family Kelly's character, a soldier, helped during the war.  Kelly has returned to Germany to see what's become of the family.  They all died in a bombing run, except for Angeli, whom Kelly is surprised to see is now a beautiful young woman.

Much of the film takes place on location in Munich, Berchtesgaden, and Salzburg.   The girl is mixed up in a smuggling ring, moving lenses and needles for the black market between Germany and Austria, and she's using her American friend as cover.  He knows she's smuggling, but thinks she's just doing it to support herself.  Kelly's superiors try to enlist him to inform on the girl and finger her superiors.  But he's falling for her, of course, so he refuses.  Instead he tries himself to discover who's really behind the smuggling ring.

It turns out the car they are using to smuggle the little things is actually partially made from gold, stolen and melted down from Jewish prisoners.  It's a little macabre.  The smuggling ring is being led by a singer in a cafe Kelly and the girl frequent (which Kelly calls a clip-joint).  The singer is tall, lanky, silver haired.  He looks like an ex SS guard.   Ultimately Kelly and the girl are captured as they try to bring the car back to Germany, and the singer/ringleader tries to have them die "accidentally" at a motorcycle rally.  They survive, the girl is shot, and the ringleader escapes, pursued by Kelly and other American soldiers.

The film has lots of nice touches.  Besides the on-location footage of post-war Germany and Austria, the motorcycle race that concludes the film occurs on ice and snow, and there's a good little bit of accordion music late in the film.  There are shots of "normal" Germans enjoying music in the cafe, too.

It ends up being a little optimistic about a romance between a German girl and an American.   There's much discussion about how her parents fought against the Nazis (always a dubious claim in these films).  More likely is that the girl, who was probably just a young teenager during the war in the film's narrative, was too naive and young to be a true Nazi.   That makes the romance between her and Kelly okay.

Also interesting is an allusion to fascism late in the film.  At the motorcycle racetrack where the film concludes, the racers wear armbands with an insignia clearly inspired by the swastika, and there are banners with the insignia as well.  The black market ringleader rides in a convertible Mercedes, standing, as he looks through a crowd.  It looks as if he's inspecting the troops.  And he seems to use the motorcycle riders as his own personal Hitler Youth.   And finally, the film ends at Hitler's Eagles Nest in Berchtesgaden, where Kelly refuses to shoot the bad guy, denying him a "heroic" death.

Ultimately the film is consistent with how Germans were portrayed in post-war Hollywood films.   There is a leader who can't let go of the past, but he might really be using fascism just for his own wealth.  There are "good" Germans who fought the Nazis, including both the girl and a young police officer who is helping uncover the smuggling ring.  And American soldiers are generally honest and there to help.   When Kelly and others are pursuing the singer, the driver of his jeep gets shot and killed.  It's a good reminder that the evil of the recent past was still there, lurking beneath the surface.

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