Photo: TCM

In 1944, the film 'None Shall Escape' essentially imagined the Nuremberg Trials a year before they began.

One of the hottest tickets at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, with numerous people turned away from a sold-out screening, was the 1944 drama None Shall Escape, premiering in a brand-new restoration. Directed by André De Toth, None Shall Escape was filmed in late 1943, more than a year before the end of World War II, and yet it depicts a post-war multinational tribunal holding Nazis accountable for their atrocities. An opening title card declares, “The time of our story is the future. The war is over. As was promised, the criminals of this war have been taken back to the scenes of their crimes for trial.”

Set in Poland, the movie focuses on a fictional German SS officer, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), who’s being tried for crimes committed during the war. Testimony comes from Grimm’s Polish ex-fiancée Marja (Marsha Hunt), his brother Karl (Erik Rolf) and a Catholic priest (Henry Travers) who knew Grimm during his days as a schoolteacher. Via flashbacks, De Toth and screenwriters Alfred Neumann, Joseph Than and Lester Cole tell the story of Grimm’s Nazi evolution, beginning just after World War I when he returns, injured and defeated, to his teaching job in the Polish village where he’d been living before the war.

Grimm isn’t exactly a sympathetic character, but he’s not a one-dimensional villain, either. He’s resentful and humiliated over Germany’s loss in the war, and embarrassed by his prosthetic leg. He accuses Marja of abandoning him for being less than a man, even though it’s really his bitterness that turns her off. He’s searching for a way to soothe his wounded pride, and he finds it initially in trapping and raping one of his teenage students. Tellingly, he escapes the rape charge due to a lack of evidence; a problem, the movie makes clear, that will not be repeated in the current trial.

Later, Grimm finds meaning in idolizing Adolf Hitler and joining the Nazi party, and the movie is never coy about his ugly beliefs. When Grimm’s brother Karl writes for a socialist newspaper and condemns the rise of Nazism, Grimm has him sent away to a concentration camp. Testifying at the trial, Karl delivers an impassioned speech directly to the camera. “I knew people all over the world would rise up and demand an accounting,” he says, but of course at the time of the film’s release that accounting—the Nuremberg Trials—was still more than a year away.

The last surviving cast member of "None Shall Escape," Marsha Hunt, speaks with Turner Classic Movies' Eddie Muller at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival. Getty Images for TCM

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Grimm is appointed the commanding officer at the village where he used to live, and he uses his newfound power to taunt Marja and her teenage daughter Janina (Dorothy Morris), enacting petty vendettas under the guise of military power. The filmmakers take care to show that Grimm is a small-minded, insecure man, but they don’t limit his misdeeds to just the people in his life he believes have wronged him.

“You are the jury,” the judge says directly to the audience. At the time, he was speaking to people who would be responsible for ensuring that a tribunal like this actually existed.

The most horrific scene in the movie comes as Grimm (using the now-familiar Nazi refrain, “I merely carry out orders”) rounds up the village’s Jews, after burning their Torahs and other sacred materials and repurposing their synagogue as a stable (because “horses are more important than Jews”). The Jews are being herded into cattle cars, sent to a fate that audiences in 1944 might not quite have understood, but that audiences today know only too well.

Although there are no references to gas chambers, the Nazis clearly have no qualms about killing Jews. Ordered by Grimm to calm down his congregants, the local rabbi instead riles them up, invoking the history of Jewish suffering to implore them to fight this latest injustice. In response, Grimm has his soldiers turn their machine guns on the Jews, slaughtering every last one.

The movie ends with another plea directly to the audience, this one from the judge presiding over the trial. “You are the jury,” he says, making it clear that only ordinary citizens demanding accountability will bring about justice. At the time, he was speaking to people who would be responsible for ensuring that a tribunal like this actually existed, assuming the Germans weren’t able to turn the tide of the war. Even today, though, his admonition is relevant, given recent news reports that 22 percent of American millennials aren’t familiar with the Holocaust.

Many of the warning signs depicted in the movie are still eerily relevant, and its calls to action feel different from the kind of rah-rah propaganda films Hollywood produced during the war. De Toth grew up in Hungary and left just before the WWII was beginning. German co-writer Than escaped occupied France in 1941. Hunt, who at 100 is the only surviving main cast member, has spent much of her life as an activist, championing refugees, the homeless, same-sex marriage and other progressive causes, and was blacklisted in the 1950s for her opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

During a pre-screening talk with TCM host Eddie Muller, she modestly referred to None Shall Escape as “kind of an important story.” But the film, which has been largely unavailable for decades, is more than kind of important; it’s a milestone in Hollywood activism and the first mainstream movie to confront Nazi atrocities head-on. The gorgeous new restoration is the first step in introducing it to a whole new audience.

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