Friday, August 19, 2011

Hollywood Exculpates Nazi Germany: "Decision Before Dawn"

So sensitive, so beautiful, so elegant: How could you hold a grudge against Germans like this?
In "Decision Before Dawn," Hollywood and Washington demanded that America embrace Nazi  Germany.

Poster for the Hollywood film "Decision Before Dawn." 

Chapter Seven of "Bieganski" explains why America, the West, and Israel needed to exculpate Germany for its Nazi crimes. It also goes into some of the reasons why Poland made a perfect repository for Holocaust guilt.

"Decision Before Dawn" is a black-and-white, Hollywood combat film starring an impressive American and German cast including Oskar Werner, Klaus Kinski, Hildegard Knef, Gary Merrill, and Richard Basehart. It was directed by Anatole Litvak, who was born in Kiev of Jewish parents. "Decision Before Dawn" is similar to film noir. It is gritty, its protagonist is doomed and dies at the end, major scenes are shot at night in grim urban landscapes, and there is voiceover narration.

Film critic Leonard Maltin praised "Decision Before Dawn" as a top-notch WW II espionage thriller" with a "perceptive script." The New York Times called it "as stirring a drama as you'll any you'll want to see." "Decision Before Dawn" was nominated for an Academy Award for 1951's Best Picture.

"Decision Before Dawn" does include scenes of combat and genuinely arresting footage of bombed-out cities in Germany. It's not really a movie-movie, though – its main reason for existing is not entertainment or art or clever plot. Its main purpose is propaganda. "Decision Before Dawn" exists to manipulate American hearts and minds vis-à-vis Nazi Germany.

"Decision Before Dawn" does not take place *after* World War II, but, rather, *during* World War II, when American GIs are still being killed by Nazi soldiers. "Decision Before Dawn"'s tough assignment: win American hearts and minds, not just for Germany, but for Nazi Germany.

"Decision Before Dawn"'s purpose is announced, loud and clear, in several features: its didactic voiceover narration, its awkward story-within-a-lecture structure, and exhortatory onscreen text. "Decision Before Dawn"'s purpose as propaganda is also underlined by the film's support. The US Armed Forces supported it. Several cast members are actually American GIs. And "Decision Before Dawn"'s status as a propaganda film is revealed in the games it plays with its audience. Again and again, "Decision" introduces Germans who *might* be bad guys, but who turn out to be good guys. With this game, the film says to the audience – if you conclude, based on available evidence, that this German is bad, we will prove you wrong. You don't want to be proved wrong, now, do you?

The film plays this game most significantly with a character named "Tiger" played by Hans Christian Blech. Again and again, for no reason central to the plot, Blech is made to look suspicious, and again and again, he is proven trustworthy. One character, Gary Merrill, even comments on this.

The film plays this game shamelessly with a cute little Nazi boy, whom the film first makes you hate and fear, and then cajoles you into loving and forgiving.

The film begins with a little lecture, the first of many. Onscreen text informs the viewer that "a regime" – Nazism is not mentioned by name – "brought destruction to its own country." The destruction Nazism wrought was not, in fact, primarily, directed against Germany, but, rather, against Jews. "Decision Before Dawn" never mentions that. I don't think the word "Jew" is ever spoken in the film, though I can't swear to it. The Holocaust is merely alluded to when the one bad German character mentions that he has gold for sale. One can guess that he stole the gold from Jews, though Jews are not named.

In this film's view, Germans did not vote for or support Hitler. They did not participate in the Holocaust or the 1944-45 Battle of the Bulge against American troops just a few short years previous to this film's release. Rather, "a regime" "brought destruction" to Germany.

Germans are victims.

But Germans are more than just victims. Germans are beautiful, poignant, heroic, and willing to sacrifice their very lives in order to help Americans defeat Nazism. And the Germans who are victims? They've been victimized, not just by that nasty "regime," but by American bombs. Oh, America, you naughty country. Don't you feel bad? Don't you feel sorry for the German babies your bombs killed? That's okay, you can take care of that by forgetting all about Nazism and those pesky Jews and giving Germany the Marshall Plan.

The film's awkward structure betrays its purpose as propaganda. The very first scene shows Germans shooting a spy. Who is this spy? We don't yet know. But this scene emphasizes that the German spies in this film are facing death. In short, they are noble, self sacrificing, heroic.

Interestingly, the voiceover narration informs us that we will never know the true name of the heroic German spies the film will introduce us to, even though they are real people and the filmmakers know their real names. This feature hammers home the sermon's point. Any German might be a good German. We haven't told you the names of the good Germans, so you can't be sure. Don't judge any German negatively.

At first, Richard Basehart is positioned as the Angry American who won't support the recruitment of Germans as spies to help the Americans. Gary Merrill is the cool, hip, progressive American who is ready to recruit German spies. Merrill gives Basehart a little lecture on how essential Germans are to the American war effort.

In the next scene, Basehart is shown shooting at Germans. This is just plain silly, the film points out. These Germans are wounded, surrendering, nice, and handsome. One of the Germans is Oskar Werner, one of the most beautiful and sensitive males ever to grace the silver screen. He has the trembling nostrils of a young colt and lush, curvaceous lips that evoke sensual feeling. His large eyes recollect dreams and poetry, not mass rallies – or graves. He's definitely German, though – he has ultra blond hair and a German accent. This is Young Werther's tender German accent, though, not Hitler's. Werner goes out of his way to thank Basehart for kind treatment.

In a subsequent scene, Gary Merrill is shown interviewing potential German recruits for the American effort. Klaus Kinski, acting creepy, says he joined "the party" – the party in question is not named, just as "the regime" was not named – just to get a promotion.

Hans Christian Blech, a German recruited to spy for Americans says, "I have no political convictions. I could never afford any." "Shouting seig heil" was "one swindle I never fell for." It's clear this guy wants to spy just for the cash. Blech jokes about how he spent his time in the war, not killing Americans, but seeking out widows to romance.

"We just closed our eyes and went along," another German says. "Like most, I talk, but I do nothing."

In fact, throughout its runtime, "Decision Before Dawn" acts as a defense attorney for Nazi Germany. Again, I emphasize "Nazi." This film's action took place *during* the war. It demands that we embrace, not a postwar Germany, not apologetic, post-Nuremberg Trial Germans, but Third Reich Germans. No defense attorney for a New Jersey Mafioso has ever been so bold in his demands on a jury.

The film produces a running line-up of adorable, beautiful, sexy, poignant, needy, vulnerable, decent, honorable German Nazis. Its script is a series of harangues directed at the viewer. This poor Nazi lady had a baby that was killed in American bombing. How could you be so cruel as to reject her? This poor Nazi officer has a bad heart and could die a horrible death before your very eyes. How could your humanity allow you to deny him that hypodermic full of nitroglycerin?

When you really think it can't go any further, the film tosses in an adorable Nazi cherub, a perfectly beautiful, blond boy child sad because his daddy has been away at the front for a year. What's next? An adorable Nazi puppy? Litvak never goes quite that far.

You've got the whole catalogue of excuses here: I never said "seig heil." I am just a follower. I just did it for my career. Your American bombs killed my baby!

Back to the film's plot, such as it is.

When he volunteers to spy against his fellow Germans, Oskar Werner says, "Fighting against Germans now is fighting for them. I believe in a life in which one is not always afraid. In which people are free and honest with each other. I know we won't have this in Germany until we have lost." So noble you just want to puke, ya know?

There is one really bad German in "Decision Before Dawn": Wilfried Seyferth as Scholtz. This real Nazi is low class. He is fat. He is unshaven. He wears ill fitting clothing. He is a rude bully. He traffics in gold stolen from Jews. The word "Jew" is never said – I don't think it's ever said in the entire film. It's just implied that he stole his gold from dead Jews. Scholtz menaces Oskar Werner, the hero.

Ah, so that's it. There was ONE bad German. And the rest were regular guys, just like us. And because these Nazis were so pushy, obnoxious, and low class, Germany's really sensitive, polite people, its Oskar Werners, don't quite know how to get them to stop doing that bad Nazi thing.

Now that's revision. In fact, of course, Nazis, Nazi supporters, and those who provided Nazism with its foundations included royalty, PhDs, and world-class scholars.

As is usual with propaganda films, "Decision Before Dawn" includes a character who voices the audience's misgivings. This character is proven wrong.

The job of expressing the audience's misgivings about embracing Germans is Richard Basehart's. He resists Gary Merrill's plan to recruit Germans to help the Americans. The words Basehart is given to voice his, and the audience's, misgivings about embracing Germans are interesting, "I think they're all a bunch of lice," Basehart says.

It's an odd thing to say. "Lice" is not a common insult in American English. Basehart would more likely have said, "bastards" or sons of bitches."

"Lice" is, of coruse, the word Nazis themselves used in propaganda against Jews.

Ah. So, "Decision Before Dawn" is saying that any American who resists its embrace of Nazi Germany is just as judgmental as the Nazis themselves. Clever!

"He's kidding himself about why he's working for us." Basehart argues about one German.

Oh, come on, Merrill cajoles. Let's not be prejudiced! "I think you are wrong about the boy." Note the endearing diminutive word "boy," rather than the correct word, "man." Merrill insists that Basehart accompany Oskar Werner. "It may do you some good." Oh, boy. This film really announces its purpose as propaganda.

Basehart is not the only one to get a lecture about how lovable Germans really are. The team includes a very beautiful French girl, Monique, who is utterly gratuitous to any plot. She is just the very good looking French girl who succumbs to Werner's undeniable charm. Monique and Werner have almost no contact, but what little contact she has with Werner is enough to make her French knees weak.

Merrill confronts Monique. "Are you in love with him?" he asks Monique, in a fatherly way.

"He's a bastard, like all the others. We have too much to forget before we can love any of them," Monique insists. But Monique really is in love with him.

So, some of the people who don't like Germans are bigots who need some good done to them by contact with Germans. And the rest are secretly in love with Germans, or at least with Oskar Werner.

There is, alas, no consummation of Monique's love. Before Werner parachutes into Germany, Monique supplies him. He gazes at her in an utterly romantic, pure way as she puts a compass, German cigarettes, and Benzedrine tablets into his travel kit, and her eyes betray that she wishes she could slip herself into his backpack, as well, as he marches off to his dangerous, heroic mission.

Werner parachutes into Germany on a mission for the Americans. In his wanderings he encounters a German officer with a heart problem. In detailed scenes, Werner is shown caring tenderly for this man. Germans are nice the film keeps telling us, Germans are nice!

Again, the film's structure betrays its purpose as propaganda, not as plot-driven entertainment. At one point, as he's skulking around Nazi Germany, like Snoopy behind enemy lines in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," Hildegarde Knef invades Werner's hotel room. She's young, beautiful, sexy, and utterly German. Her room invasion has nothing to do with the plot, but there really is no plot, other than showing off Werner's combination of undeniable Teutonic identity and sweet, sweet soul – and using those hot qualities to teach the Richard Baseharts of the world a lesson about how nice Germans really are, and how the whole Nazi thing was just a matter of "a regime" that harmed its own country while people just like you and me were too scared to protest.

Hildegarde Knef apparently invaded Werner's hotel room not to seduce him, but rather to give a speech. Her speech is bathetic. She has been victimized by war. She cries visible tears. Her face scrunches up in sorrow. She really plays this scene for the hardest of hearts in the very last row of the theater. Your hands are not clean, she tells Werner. Now you are as dirty as the rest of us are. Why is Hildegarde Knef dirty? Her child was killed in a bombing raid. "I just hated everybody. I was hungry. I was looking for a little kindness and love. Here I am, dirty, miserable, and alone, and there are thousands and thousands like me." At this point of moral relativism – don't we all have dirty hands? Which one of us is clean enough to judge this grieving mother? – don't you just want to hug Nazi Germany to your bosom?

As Werner picks his way through a tragically bombed-out Mannheim – America, look what your bombs did to these poor, nice people – his path crosses with a German woman out after curfew. She has gone out in search of medical supplies – iodine. Please don't turn me in, she begs! God bless you, she says, when Werner says he won't. Oh, these poor, sad, victimized Germans. See how they invoke God!

A sweet little boy tries to denounce Werner and his team – at first we hate and fear this kid – but in the end he can't do it. Ah, yes, another Nazi we at first thought was bad – silly us! – but who turns out to be really, really good.

When discussing films one is not supposed to reveal the ending, but if you don't know how this movie ends by now there's no hope for you. Werner gives his all to defeating Nazi Germany. Not only does he give his all, he sacrifices his father's life, as well. He serves as a decoy to allow Basehart to complete the mission. He is heroic and noble. And Richard Basehart changes his mind about Germans. Just in case the audience wonders whether or not that really happened, a speech is tacked on to the end. See? Basehart sermonizes. They really aren't all bad. We, the American audience, must change our minds, as well. The film leaves us no other choice.

"A traitor's always a traitor," Merrill says, in an effort to shake Basehart out of his sadness over Werner's death. "In a war, you use whoever you can to save lives."

"He was just another Kraut," a young soldier says.

Not so, says the movie. Basehart is shot next to a crucifix – yes, that's right, a crucifix, standing up incongruously in a Third Reich battlefield – a crucifix. In the final scene, all you see is Basehart as he eulogizes Werner's sacrifice, and this crucifix as obvious as a thumb in your eye. Werner is a Christ figure who gave his life to save his friend, and his country. In case the viewer is too dumb to get all this, Basehart, in a voiceover, reminds the audience that it does not know Werner's real name – this film, we have been told, was based on a true story of a real German whose name we have not been told – and that his "sacrifice" must always be remembered.

World War II was horrific. The Holocaust was nightmarish beyond words. Someone must be guilty. Now that we've exculpated the Germans, who can we blame? Hmm… As a young Israeli is quoted as saying in Tom Segev's "The Seventh Million, the Israelis and the Holocaust," We have to blame somebody, and we've already made up with the Germans.

That youngster's solution? Blame Poland. 

Monique, how could you not love me! I'm Oskar Werner!
Oh, but Oskar, I do love you, I do, but consummating our love would violate your status as a German Christ figure.


  1. People love closure--I hear them always talking about "getting over" this terrible event or that horrendous event. The mother that died? Get over it. The tsunami that killed 150,000 people? Get over it. The war that left 50,000,000 dead? Get over it.

    I guess sometimes Hollywood is in the same business. Telling us to get over it so we can go out and do business as usual. You see the same kind of push in the film Life is Beautiful. What's the film tell us about The Holocaust?

    It lasted for about 3 days.

    The work wasn't so bad if you could stand the drab outfits.

    Slapstick comics didn't survive but their deaths allowed them to play the serious roles they had always dreamed of playing.


    They waited for the G.I.s who let them ride on the tanks and gave them chocolate bars.


    Was it 6 Jews that died there or 7 ?

    I'm not sure but they all deserved Oscars for best supporting actors and actresses.

  2. PS--Enjoyed the review--all of America should be reading you. I don't understand why it isn't.

    By the way have you heard about Exorcising Hitler -- a book about denazification. I've been reading reviews and look forward to reading the book as soon as the financial crunch is over and my local library starts buying books again. Here's a link to a review of the book.\

  3. I think the time this film came out, the Cold War was the primary issue. Germany had to be rehabilitated as an ally. Poland was part of the Soviet sphere of influence, so allied (by force) with the Soviets. It became easy to scapegoat Poland, and Poles, due to the political landscape of the Cold War.

  4. From: Michael Bobkowski

    The German's got a limited pass as a result of the Cold War, but nothing compared to the pass Japan got when the Korean War broke out. Japan never went through the same post-war treatment or comparable catharsis as Germany. That said, it does not change the issue of the Bieganski view of Poland. I believe the Bieganski prototype predates the Cold War, as Dr. Goska's writings have illustrated.

    Here is another good book showing the brutal treatment of Germans under both West and East occupation immediately after the war.

    No doubt Germany had a different experience than Japan.

    Of special interest to me, on the topic of "Polish Anti-Semitism", is a current Polish news story that shows "Anti-Polish" sentiments and Bieganski-like views are not only expressed outside of Poland. It seems that Poland's "intellectual elites" are sometimes not much different from their global brethren: it’s apparently cool to label Poles anti-Semitic, even in some Polish circles.

    In focus is Mr. Zygmunt Bauman, who has been selected by Poland's Minister of Culture to make the opening speech at this year's European Culture Congress, to be held in Wroclaw. Mr. Bauman was born in Poland in 1925. He joined the Red Army during WWII and became a member of the Stalinist Secret Police (Military Branch), in Poland after WWII. He faced early troubles in post war Stalinist “People's Poland” as a result of his father's open Zionism. Zygmunt's career was disrupted but he remained in Poland and in Communist Party activities until leaving during the Party's (PZPR) Moscow backed anti-Jewish purges in the late 1960's. After moving abroad Mr. Bauman became well known in Europe as an author and lecturer in the field of Sociology. Mr. Bauman never strayed far from Marxist views and is today a figure in the "anti-globalization" movement.

    Among other things, Bauman has been accused of making the following anti-Polish statement while living abroad after 1968: "mówiąc w Wielkiej Brytanii i Niemczech, że po 1945 roku zwalczał w Polsce "terrorystów i antysemitów". To translate broadly: Mr. Bauman made speeches abroad, in which he made statements such as: "after 1945 the fight in Poland was with terrorists and anti-Semites". By "terrorists" Bauman must have meant AK Freedom Fighters opposed to the Soviet occupation of Poland. It’s not clear exactly who he meant were "anti-Semites", but it must be Poles since he was talking about Poland.

    Below is the recent Polish newspaper article regarding Poland's hosting this year's European Culture Congress (an EU event) entitled: "Art for Social Change", noting Mr. Bauman's role as opening speaker. The article is highly critical of Mr. Bauman's selection for such a keynote role at an EU event in Poland.

    At any rate, it shows that the fires of Bieganski-like, anti-Polish views are being stoked even in Poland, making the fight that much more difficult for those of us on the side of enlightenment.

    From 'Nasz Diennik" 23 August, 2011:

    "Kultura dla zmiany społecznej" ("Art for Social Change") - to hasło tegorocznego Europejskiego Kongresu Kultury, który odbędzie się we wrześniu we Wrocławiu. Organizatorzy chcieliby, żeby był jednym z najważniejszych wydarzeń polskiej prezydencji w obszarze kultury w 2011 roku. Jednak sądząc po liście zaproszonych gości, szykuje się porażka: znaleźli się na niej były marksista oraz twórcy promujący w swym dorobku antywartości i antypolskie akcenty.

    Link to article:

  5. Thanks so much for that post.

    Forgive me for asking, but have you read "Bieganski"? It talks about the stereotype's roots, and they are not in the US, but rather in Europe, and elite Poles were also quite capable of viewing their fellow Poles as stereotypical lowlifes.

    Also, I wonder if you've read the blog post about Miss Wales, Phil Green's secretary in "Gentleman's Agreement"? The blog post title is "the kikey ones." Miss Wales was eager to differentiate herself from "kikey" Jews.

  6. You are welcome. I really appreciate your viewpoints and the blog overall. I have not read Bieganski as I noted in the previous blog today. I just found out about you and I live in Korea. I have read most every post including the Miss Wales. I did get a chance to see just one real-life example of of an oh so haughty elite Polish-American when I was at KUL. He ended up being unable to withstand the deprivations of life in the eastern regions of the PRL circa 1979 and went back to the US after about a month in Poland...

    My experiences in a small US Polonia atmosphere in the 1980's were quite different. As a result of Martial Law and the general turn of events in Poland, a fairly large number of Poles made it to the US about that time. Our little group in a small Central Pennsylvania town, outside the coal region and lacking any prior Polish-ness, consisted of anyone from a Phd. math professor, to a long haul truck driver to a retired post -WWII immigrant former forced laborer in Germany, to an unskilled factory worker. I can't say we always spent time as a group, but we certainly did on occasion and everyone got along well, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I was the only US born "member" and I learned something from everyone.

    BR, Michael

  7. Actually, this film was made in 1951 and was adapted from a book which was written by a former OSS agent who worked with German P.O.W.s to get them back into Germany so they could help the Allied troops strategize their attacks. Apparently, the Allies had been using German P.O.W.s for counter-intelligence operations for the last two years of the war.

    Also, keep in mind, that the Russian Army was also headed for Germany and was claiming every city and town in its path -- that's why there became "two" Germanies after the war.

    This film was not an effort to portray the Nazi regime as sympathetic-- rather it was the story of one young man who sees the futility of fighting in a war that's been lost and hoping that his helping the American Army by gathering intelligence for them would help shorten the war.

    But the real thread running through this film, was the story of this young man returning to his homeland where he could not connect with any part of his past -- not his father who worked in a hospital within walking distance of where he was standing; not his home town -- he had to pretend he was a stranger in his homeland. Oskar Werner got the pain and confusion of that experience across so beautifully in this film.

  8. Just saw the film, and the forum on IMDB which led here.
    I dont agree with the OPs perspective. It seems to me the movie shows a devastated Germany, populated by soldiers and civilians who are selfishness, scared, manipulated, confused, immoral and in total denial. A German soldier is executed for complaining about the war. An SS soldier tries to sell Jewish gold. Another soldier is a disguised gestapo agent. Loyal Nazis are ironically juxtaposed with maimed women civilians. One child is so indoctrinated that he tries to turn in his own uncle. Evil Germans dominate the film. The Happy character seems the lone exception, who constantly shows his dismay, sadness and confusion, even at the risk of his own safety. One German woman becomes sympathetic only after Happy confronts her behavior. It seems to me the movie is not to excuse the behavior of Nazi Germany. It actually highlights it, but also shows that not all Germans were evil. Maybe to give hope to an America in 1950 that Germany could change for the better. In hindsight, it seems that hope was not misplaced.

    Beautifully written, acted and directed.

  9. Look deeper. Co producer Frank McCarthy was General Marshall's aid in WWII. He then worked for the State department and was an OSS operative, remaining with the CIA, as needed, for most of his life. He remained in Hollywood and produced the acclaimed movie Patton McCarthy had great support for the movie's production from the departments of State and Army. Connect the dots.

  10. Just saw the film and thought the "true story" bit in the beginning was a stretch. I couldnt agree more with this blog. Im not Jewish but it is painfully obvious that the film was pure propaganda to make the murderous Germans our new friends in the new fight against communism. These Germans caused two world wars and horrors beyond anyone's worst nightmares yet within the the course of a few years after the great war, they were given a pass, propped up and made rich. All for geo political reasons. Im so glad Isreal has the Nukes. Dont mess with the Jews again!


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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