Saturday, November 28, 2015

They Live in Fear (1944)

Director: Josef Berne                                     Writers: Samuel Ornitz & Michael L. Simmons
Film Score: Victor Young                               Cinematography: George Meehan
Starring: Otto Kruger, Clifford Severn, Pat Parrish and Hugh Beaumont

While there were a number of films critical of Nazi Germany that appeared before 1942, most of them tread a delicate line so as not to lose their German audiences. But once Hitler declared war on the United States after Pearl Harbor, all bets were off and Hollywood was free to be as vicious in the characterizations of Nazis as they wanted. The irony is, subsequent history has proven that despite some exaggeration, the caricature was not far from the truth. They Live in Fear is unique in presenting America with a sanitized glimpse inside a concentration camp, even if only for a few minutes in the opening. The film is a straight up propaganda piece and eschews any hint of subtlety in its portrayal of the Nazis as evil. The film was co-written by the staunchly anti-Nazi Samuel Ornitz, a screenwriter with openly Communist sympathies and most notable for being one of the Hollywood Ten who were blacklisted after the war. The real audience for the film seems to be Americans who are intolerant toward German immigrants, something that was more prevalent during the First World War. The other audience is teenagers themselves, who wind up exhibiting intolerance because of propaganda demonizing the Germans. Thus wartime propaganda is a fine line, especially in a country that gave into their fears and interred Japanese-Americans.

The film begins in a German classroom, with Nazi professor Frederick Giermann teaching his class of Hitler Youth that the West is weak and that strength is the only thing that determines right. When one of his classmates informs on his mother for wearing mourning clothes, Clifford Severn is upset by his actions and Giermann calls him a weakling. He then informs the class that they will be going to Dachau concentration camp to continue their training. When Severn gets home, he can barely contain his outrage. His father, Egon Brecher, urges prudence, but it’s clear that Severn’s patience is wearing thin. The first order the students are given by commandant George Sorel when they arrive at the camp is to take their shovels and kill the traitors lined up before an open pit and bury them. But before they go, the victims protest that they never received a trial. Severn is gentle with his victim, Wolfgang Zilzer, and wants to help him escape after the others go. Instead, he tells Severn to leave him and seek out the help of Otto Kruger in the United States. It turns out Kruger is the principal of an all-American small town high school, and in a letter to him Zilzer asks if he’ll attempt to show the boy how he’s been brainwashed in spite of his better nature. The first thing he witnesses is a student court run by Pat Parrish in which students take care of the discipline at school. And in a science class taught by Hugh Beaumont, Severn learns that science doesn’t have to be used for military purposes.

Eventually Severn comes into conflict with the school sports star, Jimmy Carpenter. Parrish wants him to get help from Severn in math so he can play football, but Carpenter bristles at Severn’s strict ways and shows him he needs to be more tolerant. But it’s Carpenter who needs to learn tolerance after he wrongly becomes convinced that Severn is still a Nazi at heart. As a film, it’s clear that this is one of Columbia’s poverty row efforts. The only real actor in the film is Otto Kruger, who doesn’t really get to show what he’s capable of because of the banality of his character. The other solid, though brief, performance is by Hugh Beaumont, a B-list actor who is best known as the supportive father on Leave it to Beaver. As for the teenagers, they are painfully inept, and the pair that acts as comedy relief is even more so. Interestingly, the direction by Josef Berne isn’t half bad. Berne had almost been exclusively a director of short films, and some of that is certainly present here, but given the limited budget and acting skills he does about as good as could be wished for. He’s assisted by studio veteran George Meehan behind the camera. Stock music is used throughout, some of it composed by Victor Young. As a World War Two propaganda film, They Live in Fear holds some interest. As piece of cinematic art, however, it’s clearly a failure.

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