9 February 2019 | friedlandea
An astonishing film, not only for its time; as relevant today as ever.
Inevitably, when one sees this film a comparison with "Judgment at Nuremburg" made twenty years later comes to mind. The second war crimes trial movie, of course, was a grand production peopled with star actors. It makes a powerful impact. It is a great film. But I find the impact of this earlier gem even more profound, not just because it was made while the war was still ongoing and not just because it was the first Hollywood production to admit, and show on screen, the genocide of Jewish people. That, of course, is a powerful reason to see the film. At the moment of its release the United States president and military high command declined to bomb rail lines leading to Auschwitz, being afraid of bad publicity if planes were shot down and pilots lost. It is extraordinary that Rabbi David in the film (Richard Hale) not only exhorts his people to resist - as in the Warsaw ghetto - but he recites, before dying, the words of the Kaddish, in Hebrew. All that is astonishing enough. But the true genius of "None Shall Escape" and its difference from "Judgment at Nuremburg" lie in the motivations of the characters. They are far deeper and more human here. In "Judgment" the accused criminal (Burt Lancaster) is a decent man. He never signed on to evil. He just went along. Now he is repentant. He has "made his life excrement," he laments. Certainly that was the case for masses of people. That is an ancient dilemma; what is a good person to do when his society turns evil? Resist and risk death? Or go along and repress any twinges of conscience? Socrates himself, the great philosopher, faced the dilemma when his own students overthrew Athenian democracy and turned it into a bloody dictatorship. (Spoiler: he did a Burt Lancaster) It is a vital question even today. "None Shall Escape" addresses a more fundamental question. What makes a society, or an individual, turn evil?
The movie, needless to say, has no answer. There is no answer. But it suggests and it probes. We see the proto-Nazi in his larval stage. We see his metamorphosis, then his emergence as a fully-formed monster. He is, unlike Burt Lancaster's later version, entirely unrepentant - a far more plausible end. His metamorphosis is gradual and subtle. Many currents feed it: a need to belong - the alienation he feels as an outsider in the Polish community; a feeling of inadequacy - he sees himself as half a man since his war wound, for which he compensates by rape and brutality; a fragile ego which requires to be fed - he incarcerates his brother and kills his own nephew when he fears their acts will reflect badly upon him. He pretends to be strong, but he is weak. His last two crimes, prostituting Marja's daughter and shooting down his nephew, are imposed upon him by the whispered words of his subordinate (Kurt Kreuger). We come perilously close to sympathy for the monster. But in the end he is irredeemable.
All this Alexander Knox brilliantly but subtly allows to come through. It is a marvelous performance. Note how, in the second half of his characterization he indulges more and more in alcohol, as if he needs to steady himself to keep his life going. Marsha Hunt too gives us a luminous and subtle portrayal. She is the heroine, to be sure. But she is more than a stereotypical steadfast figure. Slowly but surely she becomes beaten down. At first she presents us a strong, determined woman. She can tell him abruptly that he has changed for the worse and leave him jilted and morose. By the end she presents us a lost look. The horror of her life has been too much to bear. I see an earlier comment expresses surprise that Marsha Hunt could play such a serious role. Certainly she could. She was (or should I say, she is, since he I still with us at age 101) a hugely gifted character actress. See the depth of her performances in "Smash-Up" and "Raw Deal."
Marsha Hunt and Lester Cole the screenwriter (and also Art Smith who has a small role) were destroyed a few years later by the blacklist. Ayn Rand and her cohort, the Motion Picture Alliance for American Ideas made sure that groupthink prevailed in American ideas. They condemned all sorts of supposed socialist thought. They condemned "The Best Years of Our Lives" for some mild criticism of businessmen (allusions which if you reach for a handful of popcorn you'll miss entirely). They condemned "A Song to Remember" (biopic on he life of Frederic Chopin) because he sacrifices himself for his country - instead of, as Ayn insisted, putting individual interest ahead of "collectivist" ideology. But Ayn and company missed this one. Lester Cole slipped one through. Gauleiter Grimm's brother (Erik Rolf) says in so many words that he is a Socialist. That is the sin for which he rots in a concentration camp. Lester could have written in any number of reasons to have the character persecuted (or blacklisted) without mentioning the s-word. But he used it, and it wasn't whited out. Yet another reason to applaud the courage of "None Shall Escape."