Fear and Suspicion | The Seventh Cross (1944)
Seven prisoners escape from a concentration camp and struggle across Nazi Germany. Six are captured, tortured, and strung up on one of seven crosses in built in the camp. The seventh cross remains empty.
That’s some powerful, if heavy-handed symbolism, especially for a film made in 1944. The Seventh Cross is not a war film, per se. There are no action-packed fight scenes or dazzling examples of daring-do heroics. As a matter of fact, the war itself doesn’t even rank a bit part in this film. The Seventh Cross is also not a the kind of now-familiar meditation on the horrors of the holocaust and the charnel house concentration camps. The camps are bad, for sure, but play out as the symptom of the underlying illness. But the movie is a ruminative, moody set piece on the claustrophobia and paranoia present when the consequence of dissent, or even mild disagreement, is death.
The Seventh Cross is the first feature film of director Fred Zinneman, and boasts a stellar 1944 cast including Spencer Tracy in the lead. But the movie deploys a rather odd narrative device. Ernst Wallu, a wise schoolteacher and the first escapee to die, narrates the film from the beyond. He reassures us that he “can see everything.” So the first half of the movie is a dead character explaining Spencer Tracy’s interior thoughts and feelings. As I was watching, I thought why not let Tracy, a fine actor, just act the role of George Heisler? As the film rolled along (plodded, at times), I kept waiting for the emotional payoff of this device. Instead, it kind of peters out. By the time that Heisler arrives in town and connects with those few still brave enough to aid his flight, the dead-man voice over peters out and leaves the connotation of emotion to Tracy’s wonderfully expressive face.
And what an expressive face it is! Even without the baggage of ghostly narration and with very little dialogue or interaction, Spencer Tracy manages to convey so much with such economy. The subtle threat in his posture when he meets a young girl on the road tells me to what depths of despair and hopelessness his imprisonment has brought him. Yes, he would kill her if he had too. As he shuffles across the Germany countryside and finally plods into Mainz, his fatigue is palpable. You want him to find respite, shelter, and help as much as he does. And when Heisler seeks aid from a former love and she threatens to expose him, you comprehend that the rules of the game have changed just as profoundly as he does.
This being Hollywood, Heisler does, of course, eventually connect with those still willing to buck the trend and help. From an old and loyal friend Paul Roeder (a fabulous Hume Cronyn), who must extract his head from the political sand, to a cowardly former resister Bruno Sauer (George Macready), to a sympathetic maid who risks her life and forfeits a $5000 reward, Heisler’s reappearance forces a varied collection of “Good Germans” to confront the consequences of appeasement and obedience. This strikes me as a very nuanced and brave film for 1944, when the world had yet to confront the myriad of horrors sown by World War II. The war is still raging in 1944, after all.
Though deeply flawed in some ways, The Seventh Cross is a movie with a mission, and one well achieved. It offers respite for other rah-rah, the Germans are evil war movies are the period. With suprising insighfulness, pulls back the curtain on an easy us vs. them categorization and digs into the true black heart of totalitarianism. If a genial factory worker with pretty wife and three adorable children can transgress the bounds acceptable behavior just by offering an old friend some strudel and place to stay for the night, who’s safe?