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Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood wasn't uncertain how to characterize the war in Europe, a confusion that led to some fairly embarrassing movies when the subject of Hitler's concentration camps came up. Clark Gable, John Wayne and others starred in films about reporters escaping from detention or carrying messages from the camps, often inadvertently downplaying conditions inside. Although activists had been giving accurate reports on these camps since their establishment not long after Hitler took power, much of America chose to look the other way: Germany was an important trade partner. Only after Austria was annexed did the studios begin producing anti-Nazi films, very carefully. The almost unique independent production So Ends Our Night, an excellent drama about the plight of political refugees pushed from one country to another as German influence advances, was reviewed with respect. But did not become a major hit.
Made in 1944, MGM's adaptation of Anna Segher's novel The Seventh Cross was conceived as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy, the top star that "acted without acting". With expatriate German talent in several key creative positions and a cast list heavy with refugee German actors, this story of a desperate escape from a fictional German concentration camp called Westhofen is a sobering attempt to dramatize conditions in Germany. MGM's polished production values add to the drama, even if the actors playing the desperate escapees seem too well fed. Less than a year later the American public would be shocked when horrifying news film from liberated concentration camps reached theater screens.
Set in 1936, The Seventh Cross deals with concentration camp escapees before Germany invaded its neighbor countries. Seven internees cut a wire fence and slip into the woods that surround the Westhofen Läger. All were imprisoned for political activism. Several are soon caught, and crucified on a row of trees outside the Commandant's office. One of these is the escape leader Wallau (Ray Collins). Wallau's voice narrates the bulk of the story, even after he is dead. We follow escapee George Heisler (Spencer Tracy) as he evades capture and tries to contact friends in the town of Mainz. Heisler is rejected by an old girlfriend (Kaaren Verne) and given furtive aid by a seamstress (Agnes Moorehead). A doctor (Steven Geray) doesn't report a cut on Heisler's hand, but complies with the new laws by informing his patient that he is Jewish. Heisler watches as another escapee, an acrobat (George Suzanne) plunge from a roof rather than be taken alive; he also encounters a colleague (Konstantin Shayne) who simply decides to give himself up. Heisler's contact in Mainz has been arrested, so he drops in on his old friend Paul Roeder (Hume Cronyn), his wife Liesel (Jessica Tandy) and their brood of children. The apolitical Paul is satisfied with the economic improvements brought by the Nazis and can't believe that Heisler is a fugitive until he is himself detained for an afternoon by the Gestapo. While waiting to contact the growing resistance movement, George is sheltered in a small room by a barmaid, Toni (Signe Hasso). They become lovers. He tells her that moving among his fellow Germans has revived his faith in human nature -- he believes his country will recover.
As American audiences had already seen two years' worth of anti-Nazi movies featuring vile German villains and gross injustice, The Seventh Cross must have come as something of an artistic oddity. On just his third feature, Austrian-American director Fred Zinnemann was handed the reins of a show starring one of MGM's biggest names. He handles the script with discretion and tact: no slavering S.S. goons or preening Nazi fools are in sight. The screenplay adaptation's use of Ray Collins' voice-overs to describe characters and comment on the action is interesting, if not wholly successful. Collins also narrated part of the previous year's The Human Comedy as a similar, if more sentimental ghost. In this case the device allows Spencer Tracy's Heisler to wander about without speaking through most of the picture. At a certain point Wallau simply says that he is no longer needed and is heard no more; that's when George Heisler begins preaching his optimism for the future of his country. MGM throws in a hopeful, if unlikely, romantic note that pulls the film even further away from the apocalyptic horrors occurring on the continent. To scramble the words of the cynical Rick Blaine, the problems of two people are not a hill of beans in this still-redeemable world. Heisler's optimism must have come off as a feel-good dodge, even in 1944.
The show doesn't go in for intrigue or man-on-the-run thrills, but instead focuses on saying something about the human character. Naïve Paul Roeder doesn't see beyond the false prosperity around him; as soon as Germany goes to war the Nazis will lock him into an ever-more demanding work regimen, and he'll be prohibited by law from leaving his job. Activist Bruno Sauer (George Macready) turns Paul away, suspecting a trap; his wife Hedy (Katherine Locke, later of the doom-laden noir Try and Get Me!) shows him the door. Director Zinnemann uses an interesting natural split screen with a mirror to depict Sauer talking to Paul without facing him. A few minutes later the activist leader Franz Marnet (Herbert Rudley of Decoy) tries to talk to Liesel Roeder, with a chained door splitting the screen in a similar fashion. The film's margins are populated with well-known European actors helping with the war effort. Bertolt Brecht's wife Helene Weigel plays an informing janitress; she was also the torch-throwing worker women in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, twenty years earlier. Max Reinhardt's wife Helen Thimig also plays a small part, unbilled.
Director Fred Zinnemann uses the graphic imagery of men hanged on the tree-crosses as a substitute for the usual scenes of torture and barbarity. As the film does not try for realism it shouldn't be judged against later films about the atrocious camps, or real conditions under Nazi rule. The aim seems to be to assure Americans that Germans are not all monsters, and that justice and decency will eventually prevail in post-war Europe. In place of action or a strong dramatic resolution, The Seventh Cross concludes with a few speeches and a question mark as to George Heisler's fate. Unfortunately, Heisler's endorsement of the primacy of human decency isn't particularly compelling, which leaves this well-intentioned and tasteful picture lacking a memorable ending.
Tracy is his familiar solid presence, although watching him be so serious for two hours isn't exactly a treat. The interest will be found in the large, expert and motivated supporting cast. This is reportedly Jessica Tandy's first American movie and the first of several roles she played opposite her real-life husband Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his likeable German everyman.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Seventh Cross is a very clean and sharp transfer of film elements in excellent shape. Karl Freund's cinematography is detailed and dramatic, while Roy Webb's music track contributes an appropriate mood of somber menace. The WAC includes an original trailer that almost ignores the film's dark subject matter, to instead sell the star power of Spencer Tracy. Much of the trailer is a re-cap of the actor's MGM career highlights.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Seventh Cross rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.