So, I’m currently in the process of cleaning out my DVR by watching the 40 films that I recorded from March to June of this year. Yesterday, I watched the 14th film on my DVR, the 1951 film Decision Before Dawn.
Decision Before Dawn aired on April 9th on FXM and I specifically recorded it because it was nominated for best picture. It only received one other nomination (for editing) and it’s one of those nominees that often seems to be dismissed by Oscar historians. Whenever Decision Before Dawn is mentioned, it’s usually because it’s being unfavorably compared to the other nominees: A Place In The Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire, and An American In Paris. I went into Decision Before Dawn with very low expectations but you know what?
Decision Before Dawn is not a bad film. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that it’s actually a damn good film. If you’re into war films — and, admittedly, I am not — you will love Decision Before Dawn. If, like me, you’re a history nerd, you’ll be fascinated by the fact that, since this film was shot on location, Decision Before Dawn offers a chance to see what Europe looked like in the years immediately following the destruction of World War II.
As I mentioned, I’m not really into war movies but fortunately, Decision Before Dawn takes place during World War II. World War II is one of the few wars where there’s no real ambiguity about whether or not the war needed to be fought. When it comes to picking a villain that everyone can hate, Adolf Hitler and his followers are petty much the perfect villains to go with.
In Decision Before Dawn, Oskar Werner plays Karl Maurer, a German soldier who deserts after his best friend is executed for insubordination. Though Karl loves his home country, he hates the Nazis who have taken it over. Karl surrenders to the Americans and volunteers to return to Germany to act as a spy. Karl finds himself in a strange situation. Though he’s fighting against the Nazis, he is also mistrusted by the Allies. He is literally a man without a country.
When word comes down that a German general is willing to surrender, Karl and another German soldier-turned-spy, the greedy and cowardly Sgt. Barth (Hans Christian Bleth), are sent into Germany to both find out if the information is true and to find out where another division of German soldiers is located. Accompanying the two Germans is a bitter American, Lt. Dick Rennick (Richard Basehart). Rennick doesn’t trust either of the Germans.
While Rennick and Barth track down the surrendering General, Karl is sent to track down the other division. Along the way, Karl visits many bombed out German towns and meets Germans of every political persuasion. Some of them still vainly cling to hope for victory over the Allies but the majority of them are like Hilde (Hildegard Knef), a young war widow who just desperately wants the fighting to end. Thanks to the deeply empathetic performances of Werner and Knef, the scenes between Hilde and Karl elevate the entire film. In those scenes, Decision Before Dawn becomes more than just a war film. It becomes a portrait of men and women trapped by circumstances that they cannot control.
Decision Before Dawn is an exciting and well-acted thriller, one that starts slow but then builds up to a truly thrilling conclusion. Anatole Litvak directs the film almost as if it were a film noir, filling the entire screen with menacing shadows and moody set pieces. Decision Before Dawn is a war film that does not celebrate war but instead mourns the evil that men do and argues that sometimes the most patriotic thing that one can do is defy his or her government. It may be one of the more obscure best picture nominees but it’s still one that deserves to be rediscovered.
By the way, if you do watch Decision Before Dawn, be sure to keep an eye out for Klaus Kinski. He only appears for a minute or two and he’s not even credited but you’ll recognize him as soon as you see him. The eyes give him away as soon as he shows up.