Monday, October 21, 2013

DVR Diary: VERBOTEN! (1959)

Samuel Fuller is sometimes described as a cinematic primitive. What that means is that he is often unsubtle in his writing or direction, but also willing to try anything for an effect. Another way of looking at it is that Fuller could wallow in camp nearly as often as he achieved heights of insight. Verboten! is camp Fuller. Like proper camp it's written and filmed -- and in this case produced -- in earnest. Fuller simply knows no other way to address his subject than with rhetorical howitzers. The subject is the occupation of Germany by the Americans at the end of World War II. It opens with Fuller on safe ground: gritty war action on a budget with touches of authenticity based on Fuller's own experiences. Then the opening credits roll and we get the Love Theme from Verboten! Town Without Pity this isn't.

We have a love theme from Verboten! because Verboten! is a love story. G.I. David Brent (James Best) is wounded while fighting to take a German town but is rescued by Helga (Susan Cummings), one of the local frauleins, despite the hostility of her younger brother, a Hitler Youth who has already lost an arm in the war. After the surrender, David marries Helga and takes a job as a civilian administrator for the occupation. That puts Helga in a lucky position and however sincere her feelings for David may be, she can't help but be a little smug and cynical about her luck when a family friend, Bruno (Tom Pittman, who died in a car wreck before the film's release), returns from demobilization. She persuades David to vouch for Bruno so the German can get a job as a policeman. Part of his job is to ferret out Nazis, but Bruno has a secret agenda. He's part of the Werwolf, the vaunted resistance organization that the Nazis predicted would rise from their ashes. Now he's in a position to recruit Werwolves, steal supplies and arms, and build forces for an uprising against the Americans. Fuller apparently took the Werwolf more seriously than history justifies; Verboten! would have been a comfort to those who wanted to argue a decade ago that there was so resistance to the Allied occupation, so that the resistance in Iraq didn't look so damning by comparison.

The main problem with Verboten! is that the romantic plot and the Werwolf plot don't fit so well together. As Bruno stirs things up behind the scenes while continuing to play the loyal stooge of the occupiers, David's marriage threatens to fall apart when the American loses his job for provoking a riot. Bruno has informed David of Helga's cynical comments about David being a "goldmine" to her, and now the American sees her urging him to find work back in the U.S. as a way to dump him. Meanwhile, Helga's brother has joined the Werwolf but has second thoughts once the group starts hijacking medical shipments. He has third thoughts after seeing Bruno execute a man for criticizing the hijackings. He has fourth thoughts after he and Helga take a day trip to the Nuremberg trial. Large parts of Verboten! are filmed in glorious StockFootageScope, so we see the celebrity Nazis take their seats in the dock of the historic courtroom before we see Helga and her brother take their seats in what looks like a separate, more spartanly furnished venue, where they get to see a digest version of the evidence against the Nazis as narrated by Fuller. How coincidental that this presentation of the evidence quotes Nazi leaders using some of the exact phrases Bruno does in his pep-talks to the Werwolf. That, and the films from the death camps, turns the brother against the Nazis for good. Repentant, he rushes to rat Bruno out to a still-sulky David, but it's up to the one-armed kid himself to fight Bruno to a finish in a burning railroad car before David finally comes to the rescue and the film basically comes to a stop.

James Best, who continues to work in his eighties, will have the dubious honor of going to his grave remembered most (if not best) as Roscoe P. Coltrane, the hapless sheriff on The Dukes of Hazzard. For a generation before that show, Best had built himself up into a dependable character actor and a welcome presence in western films and TV shows. He's the best thing (sorry!) about Verboten!, and his best moment (sorry again!!) comes when David has to face down a small mob protesting food shortages. This scene boasts Fuller's liveliest writing, expressing the auteur's own ambivalence about Germany. When a protester mocks America's claim to have liberated Germany, David blows his top. You're damn right we're not liberators, he roars; "We're conquerors and don't you forget it!" At moments like this Verboten! becomes an authentic document of a moment when Americans were torn between the imperative to reconcile (a Cold War context is only hinted at) and lingering outrage over Germany's crimes against humanity. The postwar international family can only be restored when the Germans recognize and repudiate their country's crimes; then they can be forgiven in time for the happy ending. That's a historic burden Fuller's plot can't quite bear, given the flimsiness of the soapbox it stands on. His heart was in the right place but his skills mostly eluded him this time.

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James Best said...
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