None Shall Escape
US (1944) Dir. André De Toth
This surprisingly little known film is a prime example of “Life imitating art”, setting quite a chilling precedent with its undeniably eerie prescience due to its subject matter. Made while World War II was still going, this film is set in the near post-war future presenting a fictionalised account of a Nazi war criminal standing trial for his crimes. In other words, None Shall Escape effectively predicts the Nuremberg Trials!
Representing the Nazis is Reichs Commissioner Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), who chooses to handle his own defence at the hearing at a UN court in a Poland. Three witnesses are to testify against him, all from Grimm’s past. First is Polish Catholic priest Father Warecki (Henry Travers), recalling Grimm’s change in attitude when he returned to the small Polish village of Litzbark after serving the German army in World War I.
Testifying next is Grimm’s younger brother Karl (Erik Rolf) with details of how Wilhelm returned to Germany, joined the Nazi party and rose through the ranks. Wilhelm eventually turned on his own brother while brainwashing his nephew Willi (Drew Roddy) into following his ideals. Finally, Grimm’s ex-fiancée Marja Paeierkowski (Marsha Hunt) takes the stand to recount the days the Nazis returned to occupy Litzbark under Grimm’s command, including the expulsion and persecution of the Jews.
While a contained story one can imagine how indicative it may have been in many a country that fell foul of the Nazi rampage, in both the shocking events and the myopic delusions of the perpetrators. This film may not paint Grimm or the Nazis in a positive light but the central theme is that of humanity and the differing effects the atrocities of war has upon it.
As the flashbacks reveal, Grimm was once a respected schoolteacher in Litzbark, but upon returning after World War I, he could only feel the frustration of his country’s defeat and the injuries he incurred. At the same time as his return Litzbark has been declared independent of Germany and the locals cannot hide their joy, further irking Grimm.
His attitude darkens towards the other villagers, upsetting Marja with his name calling of “idiots and clowns”. She calls off their wedding and Grimm hears the people say Marja is “too good for a German”, so he has his revenge by raping a teenage pupil Anna (Shirley Mills). This is blamed on her boyfriend Jans Stys (Elvin Field) but before Anna commits suicide by drowning, the truth is revealed and Grimm is arrested.
This establishes Grimm as a hate filled man hell bent on avenging the villagers. In brother Karl’s testimony, he explains how he opposed Grimm’s beliefs, with Karl referring to Hitler as “that creature”. Grimm had however become so indoctrinated in the Nazi ideal that he becomes a creature himself over time, eventually betraying his own brother to the Reich, inculcating the same pernicious rhetoric into the mind of the impressionable Willi.
Karl’s character presumably was to address the balance in acknowledging that not every German was blindly loyal to the Nazis, although the man himself remains passive even in his testimony – answering the question as to whether he is speaking for the prosecution or the defence, Karl ambivalently replies “That is for the court to decide. I want only to tell the truth.”
The persecution of the Jews is explored during Marja’s testimony. She had returned to Litzbark after her husband had been killed in action, bringing her daughter Janina (Dorothy Morris) with her. The village is now under German occupation and Grimm is the commander with Willi (Richard Crane) is a Lieutenant, where history – and tragedy – repeats itself as Willi falls for Janina, but his instilled hatred for the Jews (“They’re not people”) pushes her away.
Many films have dealt with the subject of the holocaust and the plight of the Jews but this was the first. The verbiage is still potently upsetting, as is the brief massacre in the third act, despite looking tame by modern standards. Grimm and his officers are steadfast in believing their actions being just, although when challenged the old classic “I’m just following orders” is their best and seemingly only defence.
A running motif on the subject of humanity is the constant pleas by everyone who knew the “old” Grimm to show mercy and have pity, hoping some vestige of his warmer personality might resurface. As his final statement in court demonstrates, Grimm lives up to his name and has become something of a monster, his humanity destroyed while on the battlefield.
Quite how this film remains under the radar is a mystery as it carries much historical significance – albeit fictionalised – while providing much food for thought on the moral and psychological issues raised. At 82 minutes the film rushes by but we get to know as much as we need to about the characters, each of them coming across as credible as possible in this brief allotted time.
The script by Lester Cole, based on the Oscar Nominated story by Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than, is occasionally a little pointed and contrived in places but is bolstered by some impressive speeches and trenchant monologues. Hungarian-American director André De Toth had filmed news footage from the frontline in 1939, making his appointment rather apposite.
Putting aside how everyone speaks English, the cast deliver strong performances, with Marsha Hunt impressing as a defiantly robust Marja. Henry Travers – best known for It’s A Wonderful Life – brings the gravitas as Father Warecki while Erik Rolf channels his Grand Hotel era Lionel Barrymore as Karl Grimm. Finally stage actor Alexander Knox takes a while to feel comfortable as Wilhelm Grimm, but by the end is an authentically hateable sociopath.
A concise if controlled look at a historical atrocity, None Shall Escape makes for decent war based melodrama as well as a bold confrontation of the issues of the day. A criminally overlooked work.