Home-grown Nazi horrors and doomed romance as Nancy Drew’s fertility
is threatened by the Fuehrer. Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection
has released 1943’s smash WWII meller, HITLER’S CHILDREN, directed
by Edward Dmytryk (MURDER, MY SWEET, THE CAINE MUTINY) for RKO, and starring
Tim Holt, Bonita Granville, Kent Smith, Otto Kruger, H.B. Warner, Lloyd Corrigan,
Erford Gage, Hans Conried, Gavin Muir and Nancy Gates. Sensationalism directed
with a lurid eye, HITLER’S CHILDREN delivers the exploitation goods for
fans of “Golden Age” B programmers. No extras for this good fullscreen
black and white standard DVD transfer.
Germany, 1933. A small, dusty Berlin lane — and mile-wide ideologies — separate the American Colony School, run by Professor Nichols (Kent Smith, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, TV’s THE NIGHT STALKER) where happy, laughing kids play baseball and ping pong, and the Horst Wessel School, where row after row of sullen, ramrod-straight Hitler-Jugend listen to lessons about how Germany was betrayed by the Versailles Treaty, and how the Fatherland must one day rule the world. American-born but German-raised Karl Bruner (Tim Holt, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE) can’t help but be attracted to German-born but American-raised Anna Muller (Bonita Granville, NANCY DREW...DETECTIVE, THE LONE RANGER) when she cracks him over the head with a baseball bat, an attraction Anna returns whenever Karl shows up in his Nazi-style hiking shorts. However, Sunday picnics with her and the Professor, and reams of freedom-loving Goethe can’t sway Karl from the Fuehrer’s grip, and he’s soon swept up in the storm of Nazism on the march.
Germany, 1939. Lieutenant Karl, now an aide to silky, evil Gestapo
Colonel Henkel (Otto Kruger, SABOTEUR, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER), is drawn back
into Anna’s world when Anna is declared a German citizen and forcibly
removed to a woman’s camp where she’ll be trained as a mother/soldier
for Germany. With the help of frightened journalist Franz Erhart (Lloyd Corrigan,
THE GHOST BREAKERS, CONFESSIONS OF BOSTON BLACKIE), Professor Nichols tracks
her down, but she insists he leave her alone, lest he be punished — a
sentiment seconded by a conflicted Karl. When Karl tries to help make life “easier”
for Anna by putting her name up for spy school, she balks, and is sent back
to camp, this time as a common laborer. Karl, still in love, begs her to have
his baby for the Fatherland, to save herself. Anna, still in love, refuses to
have a child for the Fuehrer, and escapes the camp. Now on the run, will Anna
and Karl find happiness in the Third Reich?
HITLER’S CHILDREN was a massive hit when released in January, 1943, bringing in for RKO over $3 ½ million dollars in rentals (off an $8 million dollar U.S. gross), on a paltry $200,000+ budget. It was one of the top ten grossing movies of 1943, and certainly the most profitable (budget to gross ratio) movie in RKO’s history. Figuring out why a movie was such a boffo ticket seller is frequently a guessing game, particularly when almost 75 years have since passed (and back when there was little if any reliable audience data from the studios). While it’s tempting to blow off HITLER’S CHILDREN as sensationalistic hyperbole that captured a titillated war-time audience, it’s important to remember the storyline had a basis in then-timely fact: it was very loosely adapted from journalist Gregor Ziemer's well-regarded book, Education For Death, detailing his ten years as an American teaching school in Nazi-run Germany (anyone who’s read even a little bit about Hitler’s Germany will see that the “sensationalistic” material in HITLER’S CHILDREN comes off as positively quaint compared to what really happened there).
There’s no question, though, that RKO sold HITLER’S CHILDREN from a shocking mens’ magazine angle; the one-sheet movie poster copy screams, “WE KNOW WHAT TO DO TO WOMEN WHO ARE NOT FIT TO BE NAZI MOTHERS!” over the image of a jack-booted thug holding a whip (it could easily be an Argosy or True cover). But shocking melodrama alone probably didn’t account for this cheap B’s huge crossover appeal to A-level audiences and grosses; its doomed love affair between feisty, pretty Bonita Granville and wavering sadist/sensitive lover Tim Holt (the underrated Holt is terrific here) must have intrigued the increasingly female-centered home front audiences that didn’t mind a little Nazi perversion to spice up their dime store romance. Except for one or two instances of obviously slipped-in Commie propaganda from admitted Reds Emmet Lavery and director Dmytryk (who took over for fired Irving Reis), the script sticks to a basic Nazi-meets-girl, Nazi-loves-girl, Nazi-loses-girl romantic melodrama framework, with a (now fading fast) all-American context of God-given individual freedom threatened by an all-powerful, dangerous State (“Hollywood Ten” Dmytryk wasn’t lying when he eventually turned rat for HUAC; Communist agit-prop was present in a lot of his early outings — just listen to a strident Granville calling for people to “unite,” because “the whole world is everybody’s business now,” after a fellow student questions the League of Nations’ worth).
After director Dmytryk’s
opening visual rip-off of a Leni Riefenstahl-style Hitler Youth consecration
ceremony (cinematographer Russell Metty nails her fascist schematic, before
turning to a noirish, high-key lighting design), scripter Lavery wisely pulls
back with several humorous scenes...along with the unintentionally funny assertion
from strangely passive narrator Kent Smith that Germany was, despite “some
unpleasant moments,” “still a pretty nice place” right before
1933. Granville and Holt “meet cute”— she tricks him with
a “Heil Hitler” before bashing him — and the audience is effectively
put off guard as to what tone HITLER’S CHILDREN is going to eventually
strike. Gradually, Lavery and Dmytryk quite nicely start pulling out the rug
from under the viewers’ expectations, building their uneasiness with an
assured, steady rhythm as we’re shown how quickly the rot is spreading
in Hitler’s Germany, where debts to the Fatherland are paid off by mothers
having babies, only to have those Hitler Youth children grow up and terrorize
their parents as they declare their undying loyalty to their Fuehrer. Beginning
with S.A. officer Peter van Eyck demanding from Smith the custody of Polish,
Jewish, and German students — including Granville — from the American
school, and the American Embassy’s helplessness to rescue Granville from
the clutches of the Nazi state, the movie effectively conveys a sinking feeling
that things aren’t going to work out for pretty, increasingly threatened
By the time fey Nazi manipulator Otto Kruger is leering at Granville, telling her he’ll find “duties for her that fit her...capacities,” and Holt asking her to have a child with him out of wedlock to save her skin (a pretty shocking suggestion to come from the “hero” in a 1943 movie), HITLER’S CHILDREN goes into full, deliciously pulpy exploitation mode, with trips to the sterilization hospital (where Kruger chillingly — and accurately — sums up the range of Aryan-determined “crimes” that can land a woman there: “color blindness to political thought”), culminating in Granville being tied to the whipping post, her shirt torn from her back, as lover Holt nods for a Nazi goon to begin the fun. If HITLER’S CHILDREN had only been that, it would have made money, to be sure. However, the faintly ridiculous, marvelously swoony/tragic wrap-up that satisfies the viewer both romantically and propagandistically, is probably what kept word of mouth going so strong for this energetic, nervy little B.
Print damage is evident in the form of lots of scratches and dirt in this standard DVD fullscreen 1.37:1 black and white transfer. That said, it’s still a sharp rendering, with decent blacks, adequate fine detail, and acceptable grain structure (it looks like an old movie...but it also looks better than this reviewer has ever seen it, in any other presentation). The Dolby Digital English mono audio track has a bit of hiss and pop, but certainly nothing distracting, with clean dialogue and a nice re-recording level. No subtitles available. (Paul Mavis)
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