None Shall Escape, the first Hollywood film to explicitly portray Nazi crimes against the Jews, has long existed as a footnote of film history. Although a flop in North America upon its release in 1944, the drama is notable for confronting the horrors of the Holocaust more than a year before the war’s end.
The film will screen at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto on Sunday Feb. 26.
Director André De Toth’s film, produced by Columbia Pictures, imagines (for the time of its release) a postwar future when Nazi perpetrators go to trial for war crimes.
The film focuses on one of these Nazis, the fictional Wilhelm Grimm, played by Canadian actor Alexander Knox. Much of None Shall Escape takes place in flashback, as figures in Grimm’s life testify in court, recounting the accused’s descent into Nazi ideology.
Chronologically, the story begins in 1919, when Grimm returns to the Polish village where he used to work as a teacher, after years of fighting in the trenches. He is missing his right leg and bitterly complaining about the German defeat.
Grimm’s rude comments to fiancée Marja (Marsha Hunt) makes him an outcast in town. The town’s priest, Father Warecki (Henry Travers), wants the schoolteacher to embrace the Church, but Grimm relents.
After leaving Poland, Grimm makes his way to Munich and finds shelter with his brother Karl (Erik Rolf). He speaks proudly of Hitler’s ideas at the dinner table, worrying the outspoken Karl, a left-wing journalist, while arousing curiosity in Karl’s son, Willi, to become a member of the Hitler Youth.
The latter half of the film takes place shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. He has been made an SS Commander, and uses his position to enact revenge on the townspeople who drove him out two decades earlier.
These final sections of None Shall Escape are the most disturbing – and were incredibly daring for a film of its time. The Nazi characters speak casually about their hatred of Jews; in one scene, a Polish synagogue becomes a horse stable because, in Grimm’s words, “Horses are more important than Jews.”
Moreover, a sequence at a concentration camp contains startling gunfire – including a point-blank shooting of the local rabbi, a supporting character played by Richard Hale.
While scenes of graphic violence is not uncommon in more contemporary films about the Shoah, one can only imagine how audiences responded to this moment in 1944.
In another scene set in Nazi-occupied Poland, officers coerce the villagers to smile as they stand in line to receive food rations. There is a camera filming these reactions, but as soon as the camera is off, the officers dismantle the wagon that was giving out the food.
That scene was likely inspired by De Toth’s time in Europe. He worked as a newsreel cameraman in Warsaw after the Nazis occupied Poland. Then, Nazis forced De Toth to film scenes of locals lining up and smiling, for propaganda purposes.
Joseph Than, who received an Oscar nomination for None Shall Escape’s story, escaped from occupied France in 1941.
Despite the filmmakers’ proximity to the horrors of Nazi Germany, the U.S. State Department still had to look over the screenplay to ensure its portrayal of Nazi atrocities was accurate.
Of course, some of None Shall Escape’s story elements do not hold up perfectly today. A love story subplot between Willi (Richard Crane) and Marja’s daughter, Janina (Dorothy Morris), feels tacked on. Some of the overpowering musical cues also seem gratuitous given the solemnity of the subject.
Meanwhile, the trial at the centre of the film does not contain any Jewish witnesses who can testify to Grimm’s actions.
Nevertheless, None Shall Escape holds up quite well, aided by superb acting and dynamic cinematography. The two screenings on Feb. 26 will provide curious cinephiles a chance to catch up with a film that was ahead of its time – and one with a message that continues to endure nearly 75 years after its release.
As the presiding judge explains to the tribunal at the start of the film, “We must be aware of our great responsibility not only to the past but to the future.”n
The Toronto Jewish Film Society is presenting the film at 4:00 and 7:30 p.m. The box office will be open at the Al Green Theatre an hour prior to each screening. Advanced tickets for the 7:30 p.m. screening are available here.