Part prophecy, part educated guess, None Shall Escape is a one-of-a-kind film: the only wartime Hollywood production to depict what would later be called the Holocaust—a flash-forward to an unimaginable event somehow imagined on a backlot at Columbia Pictures in 1943. Viewed today, the machine-gun slaughter of a group of Polish Jews being rounded up for deportation and herded into boxcars plays as docudrama. In its time, it must have seemed wild fantasy or jingoistic propaganda.
Unavailable on (legal) DVD, seldom screened on the repertory circuit, and cropping up only sporadically on TCM, a serviceable 35mm print of None Shall Escape is now in circulation. It played in May at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival and will be shown tonight, Nov. 1, at the Wasserman Cinematheque at Brandeis University. The 35mm screenings are prelude to a full-on restoration for Home Entertainment release and on DCP for wider theatrical exposure by Sony Pictures.
Directed by Hungarian émigré Andre DeToth, shot by ace cinematographer Lee Garmes, and scripted by Lester Cole from an original story by Joseph Than and Alfred Neumann, None Shall Escape was an ambitious, albeit low-budget, project from the often B-movie-class specialists at Columbia Pictures. After a couple of title changes (in preproduction the film was called The Day Will Come, and then Lebensraum), the studio settled on None Shall Escape, a callback to a promise made by FDR to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.
Shot and edited from Aug. 31 to Oct. 26, 1943 (not until June 6, 1944 would the Allies storm the beaches at Normandy), the film looks forward to a postwar reckoning in which a United Nations-like Tribunal sits in judgment of a Nazi war criminal whose twisted course is traced in flashback from 1919 onward. “The time of our story is the future,” reads an introductory scroll. “The war is over. As was promised, the criminals of this war have been taken back to the scenes of their crimes for trial. In fact, as our leaders promised”—and here the screen devotes full frame to the boldfaced imperative—“None Shall Escape.”
Three witnesses, all aged and beaten-down survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe—a village priest, the defendant’s brother, and his former fiancé—unreel the life of a brutal SS officer whose story stands for the descent of a nation into savagery from civilization.
Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox, in his screen debut), a German teacher in a folksy Polish village, returns after four years in the trenches of the Great War. He has come back a changed man, physically (lost leg) and psychologically (embittered, already infected with a toxic poison born of defeat). He spews venom at the doltish Polish peasantry, a breed inferior to the glorious Aryan. Understandably, the attitude alienates the affections of his Polish fiancée Marja (Marsha Hunt), who breaks off their engagement. Because he can, Grimm seduces a smitten schoolgirl who, disgraced, commits suicide. Despised by the village, he turns to two men of the cloth—a Catholic priest (Henry Travers) and a Jewish rabbi (Richard Hale)—to lend him money so he can flee to his native Germany.
In Munich, a new philosophy and a new leader offer an outlet for Grimm’s sadistic streak. Already an Alter Kämpfer, he participates in the Beer Hall Putsch and serves time in Landsberg Prison with the man writing Mein Kampf in the cell directly above his. Grimm’s ruthless will to power is rewarded with quick promotion in the Nazi hierarchy and the attendant perquisites of power. He does not hesitate to consign his brother, a liberal journalist for a socialist newspaper, to a concentration camp, or to indoctrinate his nephew into the black arts of Nazism.
In 1939, when the Nazis invade Poland, Grimm is appointed Reichskommissar of the town he fled from in disgrace. With his Nazified nephew as right-hand man, he orchestrates a campaign of vengeance and oppression. The girls of the town are taken to the “officers’ clubhouse”—code for brothel—“for recreational purposes.” The Jews are beaten and rounded up for deportation.
Shot in noirish night-for-night photography, the deportation sequence shows the Jews of the village, and a shipment from Warsaw, being herded into box cars for transport to what can only be a death, not concentration, camp; the wails of the terrified victims ring out on the soundtrack. Grimm orders the rabbi to quiet his people, but the man has no intention of facilitating the Nazi depredations. Richard Hale, the actor who plays the rabbi, would later accrue countless credits as a character actor in film and television, but he never again commanded a moment so powerfully as in this, his first screen role. Framed in close-up, with minimal cutaways, he delivers a searing indictment of anti-Semitism—and a rousing call to arms:
My people! Be calm. Listen to me.
Let’s prepare ourselves to face the supreme moment in our lives. This is our last chance. It doesn’t matter if it’s long or short. For centuries we have sought only peace. We have submitted to many degradations believing that we will achieve justice, for a reason. We have tried to take our place honestly and decently alongside all mankind to help make a better world, a world in which all men would live as free neighbors. We had hoped, and prayed. But now we see that hope was not enough. What good has it done to submit? Submission brought us rare moments in history when we were tolerated.
Hale spits out the next words:
Tolerated! Is there any greater degradation than to be tolerated? To be permitted to exist? We have submitted too long. If we want equality and justice we must take our place alongside all other oppressed peoples, regardless of race or religion. Their fight is ours. Ours is theirs.
The actor pauses a beat:
We haven’t much time left. By our actions we will be remembered. This is our last free choice. Our moment in history. And I say to you let us choose to fight! Here! Now!
The Jews run from the box cars and attack their guards, but the cause is hopeless: In an extended and excruciating bloodbath, the rebels are mowed down by Nazi machine guns. After the massacre, the unbowed rabbi tells Grimm, “We will never die—it will be you, all of you!”
Grimm shoots him point blank in the stomach, but the rabbi is a hard man to kill. As the camera scans the bodies strewn on the ground and in the boxcars, he stands up and recites kadish over his people.
This being classical Hollywood cinema, even a proto-Holocaust film must have some boy-girl stuff. Grimm’s nephew has fallen in love with a local Polish girl—Marja’s daughter. When she is shot at the “officers clubhouse,” presumably for resisting rape, the sight of her dead body ignites the nascent decency in the boy. As he walks to an altar to pray over her body, he rips off the Nazi insignia from his SS uniform. Grimm shoots him in the back.
Returning to the diegetic present, in the courtroom, Grimm is unrepentant and defiant. “You cannot crush us!” he yells at the tribunal. “We will rise again!”
Surprisingly, the film denies us the satisfaction of a Nuremberg ending: the hissible Nazi war criminal is not hanged, not even sentenced. “You are the jury,” the presiding judge says into the camera. It is left to us, the custodians of the postwar world, to render a verdict.
None Shall Escape was stark, depressing stuff for wartime audiences already overloaded with stark, depressing stuff in the newsreels. Whatever satisfaction might be taken from the prospect of an assured victory was more than tempered by the litany of Nazi horrors and the future necessity of dealing with the perpetrators.
Early reviews speculated that the story was based on “the career of notorious anti-Semite and pornographer, Julius Streicher,” publisher of Der Stürmer, but Streicher, for all his rabid anti-Semitism, never personally ordered the killing of a Jew. No matter: the Nazis offered real-life models aplenty for cinematic sociopaths and two of the creators of the film had firsthand knowledge of the type.
Joseph Than, the co-writer of the original story, was a German refugee who escaped to Hollywood from Occupied France in 1941; he received the Croix de Guerre for helping a pair of French soldiers escape the Nazis. With playwright Alfred Neumann, likely the English language half of the writing partnership, he rendered an on-the-ground account of a Nazi Occupation. Film scholar Jan Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archives, notes that reports of Nazi genocide also filtered into Hollywood’s sizable refugee community by way of Freies Deutschland, a widely circulated German-language Communist newspaper published in Mexico.
Like Than, director Andre DeToth, the 31-year-old Hungarian refugee who had come to Hollywood in 1942, brought a grim expertise to the subject, being all too familiar with the killing field that was Poland under the Nazi jackboot. In 1939, as a cameraman, he had been in Warsaw and was forced by the Nazis to film propaganda scenes of starving Poles, whom the Nazis lined up, whipped, and forced to smile for the cameras. He remained traumatized by the memory—and his role in the fabricated footage—for the rest of his life. “They showed these things all over Germany, all over the world,” he lamented in an interview in 1994. By way of catharsis, a nearly identical episode unspools in None Shall Escape: the Nazis corral hungry Polish villagers around a food wagon, order them to smile, and dispense food for a propaganda film. After the newsreel cameraman gets the shot, the villagers are rousted away.
Screenwriter Lester Cole was given the assignment to adapt the story for the screen. Initially, Columbia Pictures chieftain Harry Cohn had qualms about Cole, an out-front and party-line Communist, figuring the writer would let dogma overrule drama, but associate producer Burt Kelly and executive producer Sam Bischoff stood by their choice. Cole thus got one the few chances he ever had in Hollywood to contribute to what he deemed “a film that was important.” (In 1947, with nine like-minded comrades, Cole would be cited for contempt of Congress, jailed, and rendered unemployable for refusing to answer the $64,000 question posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”)
Cole admired Than and Neumann’s original story (it was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award), but from his point of view it lacked an essential element: agency. “The Jews were passive; they went to their deaths without a struggle,” he recalled in his 1981 memoir Hollywood Red. “True, some did; but others did not.” Producer Kelly agreed that “passivity was horror but not drama.” Hence, the rabbi’s defiant monologue.
Marsha Hunt—the great Hollywood actress who played Marja and just celebrated her 99th birthday Oct. 17—gave credit to the screenwriter. “God bless Lester Cole,” she told me recently, recalling None Shall Escape proudly. “It was a privilege to be in it,” she said. “We all felt very passionately about the subject.” She remembered Cole as being outspoken about his beliefs, but she is too modest to mention that so was she: Hunt was blacklisted for years for her progressive activism. She is delighted that, after decades in hibernation, the film is getting a second life.
Before being deemed fit for exhibition, None Shall Escape, like all wartime Hollywood cinema, had to pass muster with two censorship regimes—the Production Code Administration (PCA) and the Motion Picture Bureau of the Office of War Information (OWI). The PCA was responsible for morality, the OWI for wartime values. Either could suck the lifeblood out of a gritty drama.
Against expectations, the PCA passed the film with barely a murmur of objection. The harsh realities of World War II had inured even censors to the kind of material that might have once been unthinkable—the level of casual brutality, the frank utterances of Nazi anti-Semitism, and the scope of Nazi depravity. Predictably, the depiction of the seduction and suicide of the Polish schoolgirl was the main focus of concern. “We believe this element could be handled so as to be acceptable under the provisions of the Production Code, provided of course, that there was no attempt to dramatize the action further than what is already indicated in your outline,” PCA chief Joseph I. Breen informed Harry Cohn during the preproduction vetting of the script. Breen also suggested that the age of the girl be at least 16 years, “for obvious reasons.” In good Codely fashion, Grimm’s crime is committed off-screen and referred to so elliptically that a naïve viewer might not understand what had transpired.
The Breen office knew that a more formidable hurdle for None Shall Escape—“on account of its unusual premise”—was the OWI’s Motion Picture Bureau. The agency gave legally unbinding but culturally coercive advice to Hollywood on how best to serve the war effort, examining scripts along guidelines articulated in a 167-page guidebook, The Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry.
Even more than the Breen office, the government film reviewers gave None Shall Escape a bright green light. “I think there are potentialities in this story for one of the greatest war pictures conceivable,” the Los Angeles bureau head told producer Sam Bischoff after a once-over of an early script. “By projecting the pledges made by President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and other United Nations leaders, that those guilty of atrocities and violations of international law will be tried and punished, new hope could be given to the peoples of those countries now occupied by Axis forces.” Viewing the final print, the bureau was no less upbeat: “The first picture dealing with the punishment of Nazi war criminals to be made in Hollywood, None Shall Escape has emerged as a thoughtful and intelligent examination of this important postwar problem.”
Anticipating box-office gold and critical acclaim, Columbia gave None Shall Escape an elaborate publicity roll out, pre-releasing the film to 19 New England theaters prior to a national release on Feb. 3, 1944. To ballyhoo the film, one enterprising exhibitor marched his ushers in mock-up Nazi uniforms, wrists tied together in ropes, through the local Main Street. Naturally, though, sexual not jurisprudential enticements dominated the ad-pub strategy. “Thank heaven your daughter wasn’t there!” shouted the taglines. “But what about the women who were there?” Hollywood was just discovering the erotic menace of a Nazi in uniform—a trope that would serve postwar cinema, not to mention entire tributaries of the porn industry, quite well in the years to come.
Wartime critics could not help but be impressed by the audacity of the project ( “If the film had no more than its ‘firstness’ with which to claim the interest, it would merit public attention,” observed the Film Daily), but the critical consensus was not all Columbia had hoped for. Though admitting the “precedentially important” aspects of the film, Motion Picture Daily felt that it “adds nothing consequential to the technique of anti-Nazi pictures, but does raise the question of whether the entertainment screen can deal successfully with postwar issues at this point in the calendar.” New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was struck by the moments of “genuine horror when a group of Jews are slain,” but astutely dissected what would be a perennial Hollywood problem in depicting the nature of Nazism: “By drawing its hate to just one person, it condemns the specific but tends to let the general go.”
Despite the tepid response, Variety speculated that films dealing with postwar problems would probably be “the screen’s next cycle.” It was not to be: Powerful considerations militated against a cycle of postwar films made during the war.
First, there was always the distinct possibility that a predictive scenario might be overtaken by events: The Master Race (1944), written and directed by Lester Cole’s future Hollywood Ten comrade Herbert J. Biberman, produced in the blush of confidence after D-Day and released in September 1944, prematurely forecast a victory in Europe in November 1944.
Second, the moviegoing public wasn’t buying. Harsh, soul-searching melodramas about Nazis ruthlessly oppressing the peoples of Europe made for a bleak night out in an era craving uplift and diversion.
Above all, assuring America that a victorious outcome was a foregone conclusion might lull the nation into complacency. Why struggle and sacrifice if victory was a done deal? In 1944-1945, as the Nazis tenaciously fought the Allied advance, the OWI, initially so enthused about the postwar forecasts, had second thoughts about telling the homefront—and the men and women on the front lines—that the war was effectively over.
In June 1944, William R. Weaver, the Hollywood editor for the trade weekly Motion Picture Herald, summed up the downside of prematurely postwar cinema. Hollywood producers, he reported, “are leaving the blueprinting of the postwar world strictly to the politicians and pundits whose blueprints cost them about a million dollars less than the million dollars per copy which the producer would be compelled to pay for his with no brighter prospect of seeing it adopted.” He referred to two additional factors weighing against venturing into geopolitical prophecy. One was a pertinent case in point: “Columbia’s experience with None Shall Escape, which ran up something of a box office record in reverse.” The other was the fact that “Washington has let it be known that there’s no eagerness there to have Hollywood touch the matter in any way.”
With no box office mandate and understandable government resistance, Hollywood backed off. Best not to get too concerned with the postwar era until the era was truly postwar, the surrender documents signed and sealed. The industry would not chase after Nazi war criminals again until after victory in Europe, notably in Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946), in which a War Crimes Commission investigator played by Edward G. Robinson pursues an architect of the Holocaust to a bucolic college town in Vermont.
Finally, an ugly experience precipitated by None Shall Escape must have made Hollywood uneasy, if not heartsick, for reasons that were closer to home than war-torn Poland. Variety was appalled to report that scenes in the film where the Nazis are shown desecrating a synagogue and insulting the rabbi were “not unsympathetically received by certain bigoted individuals in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other localities. … Reports from some theaters said that hoodlums applauded and cheered.”
Interreligious fellowships condemned the antics, but the outbreak of brownshirt-like disruptions in stateside theaters in the middle of WWII was a reminder of the homegrown version of the hatred still thriving in Europe. The in-house anti-Semitism also pointed ahead to a reckoning that, in the postwar era, neither Hollywood nor America could escape.
Thomas Doherty last wrote for Tablet magazine about Nazi propaganda films.