The Seventh Cross is probably one of the more under-rated movies out there. It is at once haunting and challenging. The challenging nature is not the quality of the production but the subject matter. Released in 1944, this film deals with the subject of the Nazi concentration camps, the victims of those camps and society’s reaction to the camps, the people in them and the ruling regime. You are immediately reminded of the writings of Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), also we see reflections Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic “M” with the use of the public in hunting down the suspect.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, 1966) and based on the book by Anna Segher, the film is based in 1936. In the one production we see the how the Nazi infrastructure had already subsumed German culture within a few short years, those who dared to stand were removed, all others either turned a blind eye or betrayed those most at risk, rather than subject themselves to the regime. Although released in 1944 and viewed from the early 21st century where we can understand the evil to the Jewish people and all those others who suffered. In the early 1940’s this would not have been so appreciated, a fact that strengthens even more-so the power of the movie.
The film is narrated by Ray Collins (Touch of Evil, 1958), who plays the part of one of the recent escapees. Zinnermann uses this device to introduce our seven heroes and give us the background of their lives, including the events which brought them to this point. The film opens with the aftermath of their escape. The seven crosses are for each of the escapees, each will be crucified by the camp commandant.
One by one they are hunted down, caught and tortured. Against this George Heisler (Spencer Tracey Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967) must continue to run to freedom. As he makes his way to his old home, he sees how Germany has changed, how the people have changed. Helped by a little girl, betrayed by a bar keeper, contacts gone. Alone and without help he finds himself in Meinz and tries for help from a former girlfriend, Leni (Kaaren Verne, All through the Night, 1941) who although having promised to wait for him, is now married and refuses to help. Again alone he witnesses one of his fellow prisoners being dramatically arrested. Knowing one of his contacts Heisler goes there for help, which he receives. Despite this things do not improve and he soon learns he has been betrayed by an old neighbour, he is running again. Not knowing where to turn, he calls to an old friend, Paul Roeder (Hume Cronyn, Cocoon, 1985) but turns away before the door, only to meet the friend approach. Welcomed in to Paul’s home he meets his wife Liesel (Jessica Tandy, fried Green Tomatoes, 1991) Paul initially does not realise Heisler is on the run, but when he learns the truth, he still helps. This is a turning point.
From here help is found, willingly given in some cases and reluctantly in others, one old friend, Sauer (George Macready (Peyton Place, 1964) only helps after being forced to do so by his wife, played by Katherine Locke, People Will Talk, 1951). Heisler through the help of other old friends and underground movement members eventually gets a passport and the way to The Netherlands looks clear…
It is interesting to note that when this was made, the US was at war with Nazi Germany. We see not just the usual war movie but the conflict from the perspective of the civilian population, those that supported, feared, detested the regime.