Thursday, June 19, 2014

Two "Good" Germans

An entry in my continuing examination of the changing portrayal of Germans and German-Americans in Hollywood films during and after World War II.

The German Underground

Poldli Dur, “They Came to Blow Up America,” 1943.
     Poldi Dur, the screen name of Austrian born actress Elisabeth Reisch (nee Handl), has a small but interesting role in this B-film.  George Sanders stars as Carl Steelman, the German-American son of German immigrants living in Milwaukee.  Unbeknownst to his fiercely patriotic parents, loyal to America, their new country, Carl is working as an FBI spy investigating the German-American bund groups accused of supporting the Nazis.  The FBI sends Carl to Germany to impersonate a German named Ernst Reiter who is learning how to be an expert saboteur.

     Once in Germany Carl/Ernst meets Helga Lorenz, played by Dur, when she tries to buy stockings in a shop.  He uses his ration card to buy her the stockings.  After a few dates he discovers that she is working for the German underground, leaving anti-Nazi propaganda around the city.  One note reads “GERMANS!  The Nazis are plundering the Father-land to its doom!  Vast fortunes are deposited in Swiss and Italian banks by Nazi leaders!”

     He suggests that she stop her activities before she is caught, even hinting that her work isn’t significant enough to make the risk worthwhile.  Of course she refuses to quit.  Carl/Ernst is cautioned by his Gestapo colleagues to stop associating with known trouble-makers.  When she is eventually brought in for questioning, to her surprise he testifies against her.  

     But Carl/Ernst has a plan to free her.  He stops the car she is being transported in by blocking the road, then knocks out the two Nazi agents that had been guarding her.  He then gets back in his car and drives away with Helga, letting the Nazis chase them.  (Inexplicably he uses one of his bombs from saboteur class to blow up the Nazi’s car - it’s triggered to blow-up when it hits 70 MPH.  I wonder, wouldn’t the Nazis figure out that he blew up the car, as he is a known saboteur, and a known acquaintance of Helga’s??)

     Anyway, he gets her safely to a boat piloted by the German underground and she escapes.  He promises to see her again - but he never does!  This happens about halfway through the film, and Helga, with her interesting story of being a “good” German fighting the Nazis, at risk of her life, is left unexplored.  I was reminded of the terrible risks the Berlin protagonists of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone take, as they leave notes decrying the Nazis around the city for people to discover.  They feel they must do something to fight the Nazis, and all the can do in protest is leave notes - which eventually gets them killed.  Helga’s plight is real - it would have been interesting to explore it in another kind of film.  I’m not sure Americans were aware of how terrible Nazi Germany was, even to it’s own German citizens, until well after the war.

     After Helga escapes. Carl/Ernst’s real wife appears, and tries to turn him in to the Gestapo as a spy, but Carl convinces the bumbling Gestapo head that she is mentally ill.  Eventually the Gestapo figures out they have been had.  It turns out that Carl’s dad, ill because of his son’s disloyalty to America, is told by the FBI that Carl is on a secret mission, and his father blabs to his friend, who is secretly an American Bund member loyal to the Nazis.  But by then Carl is on an U-Boat headed back to America, with the other newly minted saboteurs, with plans to “blow up America.”  Carl manages to keep his identity a secret, and he arrives in time to stop his fellow saboteurs and see his proud, loyal, German-American parents.

     So there are a number of “good” Germans in this film, including the folksy immigrant parents, Carl himself, as a first-generation American, and of course Helga, who has the most to risk in this film.  In a more realistic story she would not have escaped, and her resistance would have been in vain - but I think her insistence to carry on, despite Carl’s warnings, is interesting.  She is loyal to a country that is betraying her.  That takes courage.

     And it's also quite surprising for an American film, made during the war, to show any German with sympathy.  I think the filmmakers get away with it because the Helga character is so innocent.  There are also some comedic elements in this film (the oddest moment is when the Gestapo head throws darts at a photo of Winston Churchill), so this isn't a "serious" film.  Maybe that made it easier to show some elements of the enemy in a positive light.

     Poldi Dur had a brief career in Hollywood, mainly playing German accented supporting characters.  Her Austrian born husband was “Ninotchka” writer Walter Reisch, who also wrote “Gaslight,” “Comrade X,” and “Niagara.”   Surprising couple.

Sources:  Poldi Dur biography:
Walter Reisch filmography:

Shared Guilt and the German Character

Marlon Brando, "The Young Lions," 1958.

     The Young Lions (1958) is an interesting film.  Directed by Edward Dmytryk, it reveals the experiences of three different soldiers in World War II.  Dean Martin is an entertainer, hesitant to join the war and face combat.  He’s loyal and patriotic, but he’s worried more about his own safety than the fate of his country.  Montgomery Clift is a soft-spoken Jewish kid, shy around women.  After he enlists he encounters prejudice from his fellow soldiers, and even his superiors, at boot camp.  He wants to defend America, at risk of his own life, but his fellow Americans stand in his way.  Both Martin and Clift have romantic interests that develop their characters.  Martin has a girlfriend who wants to marry him before he gets drafted, but he has cold feet.  She eventually helps encourage him to leave his soft assignment behind the lines and get sent to the front.  Clift falls in love with a girl who isn’t Jewish - but he gets accepted by her family and they marry. 

     Marlon Brando plays a German soldier who excels at his job.  He’s a good officer, and a good tactician.  But he’s ultimately not a “good” German, as far as his more ideological colleagues are concerned.  He meets and falls in love with a French girl, after the occupation of Paris.  Brando’s character has a friend who also falls for a French girl, and near the end of the war his friend deserts the German army to live with the girl.  His friend doesn’t understand why he’s fighting, and is basically apolitical.  He cares more about his own pleasure - and his own life - than any bigger ideas about country.  But his friend doesn’t see that this stance is actually political.  If anything his friend is a clueless existentialist.

     Brando, on the other hand, feels a duty to his country.  His idea of being a good German is following orders and doing his job.  He ends up as a subordinate to a cruel Captain played by Maximillian Schell.  Schell recognizes that being a “good” German during the war isn’t just following orders, but embracing the harsh ideology of Nazism.  Brando rejects Schell’s ideas, but he can’t see that staying in the war, even as something of an outsider, still makes him complicit in the Nazi’s crimes.

     It takes a visit to a death camp to change his mind.  Near the end of the war, separated from his unit, he wanders into a concentration camp looking for food.  At the camp he meets the camp commandant, who reveals to Brando that he’s got to get the executions moving before the Americans arrive.  Brando is sickened by the idea that he is eating bread while the camp inmates are starving to death and soon to be murdered; and he finally sees that this is what the Captain meant about being a good German. 

     There’s an interesting scene after the Americans - including Martin and Clift - liberate the camp.  The Jewish prisoners want to perform a religious service, but the local burgermeister and other officials are afraid it will get the local people worked up, and they want to deny the service - as if it’s the fault of the Jewish prisoners the local people will be offended.  The American Army officer in charge is appalled and throws the locals out.  I think this is shown to reinforce the idea not that Germans didn’t know about the camps, but that they continued to blame their victims for their fate, instead of seeing the problem was in themselves.

     Unfortunately Brando’s character is killed when he is caught by an American patrol (Clift and Martin, conveniently) in the woods near the camp.  Apparently the author of the original novel on which the film was based was displeased with Brando’s character.  In the novel he never has the epiphany Brando has.  Instead the audience must come to the conclusion about the German national character that Brando instead reveals to us.  But I think that’s the difference between film and novels.  In film we try and reveal change through a character, and that’s what happens in The Young Lions.  What we don’t get, though, is some kind of resolution for Brando.  He learns something but he doesn’t get to have any experiences afterwards - there no real closure.  Maybe that’s another point of the film, though.   People don’t always get a second chance to be good. 

     Also, in Hollywood in the 1950s, perhaps the studios were trying to find a way to deal with collective German guilt over the war and the Holocaust in particular.  Brando's character must suffer a fate that meets the weight the of Germany's crimes.  He's the sacrificial lamb, made even more sympathetic, perhaps, because of his earlier epiphany.

All drawings by J. Betke

Monday, June 2, 2014

Third Coast Comics Promo

Here's a short video I did promoting Chicago's Third Coast Comics.

See more about Third Coast here: