Just six years after WWII, Decision Before Dawn brings a somewhat sympathetic look at Nazi Germany. Director Anatole Litvak, who’s work we’ve seen earlier in The Snake Pit, seems more than capable of a war film after directing several war documentaries in the forties. He filmed in Germany, using the real rubble and leftover guns in the backgrounds.
The setting and our main character, Happy (Oskar Werner) feel real. It’s mostly the dialogue and dopey self-important American army jargon in the beginning that bog it down. For the first twenty minutes it feels like everyone is just running around trying to kiss Lt. Rennick’s ass. It makes little German boy with the uber masculine nickname Happy look like he’s got more balls.
The basic plot is that the Americans hardly have any information on the Germans. Just maps and hearsay of where they’ve been. When Lt. Rennick (Richard Basehart) and a private lacking a sense of direction stumble upon a couple Germans separated from their troop, they are taken as prisoners and trained to infiltrate the German army from the inside.
The two Germans are nicknamed Tiger (Hans Christian Blech) and Happy, due to once being a tiger trainer in a circus and just being optimistic. Their mission is to parachute in, infiltrate the army, and meet up in five days with information.
The film follows Happy, who’s very young, respectable and honest. Along the way, he runs into a few familiar faces, who offer to help him. Happy cannot accept, a moral tug starts within him as he realizes that he’s duping his own people and doesn’t want his friends responsible for helping a traitor. This moral dilemma grows and isolates him throughout the film.
A constant obstacle for Happy are checkpoints for papers at very city’s boarder. It’s a bureaucratic way of adding tension, where we watch Happy dispose of old papers and pull new ones out of hiding. With all these efficient points of checking who he is, he’s sure to get caught sooner or later.
In the end, this film is alright. I enjoyed the sympathetic look at a young German, the moral dilemmas he faces and the realistic look at war devastated Germany. But everything else just sat there, boring and unsatisfying, like a limp and spongy piece of celery. Plus, that little voice over monologue that sandwiches in the very beginning and ending that says something about a soldier living only as long as they’re remembered is a little too corny and feels like Uncle Sam propaganda.
“Do you know what you’re getting into?”