Christ Decrucified

THE SEVENTH CROSS was Zinnemann’s first major studio picture, after umpteen short subjects and two B pictures, and by his own account he lucked into it. He’d encountered the novel, and thought it would make a great film, and then was sent the script as a subject by pure coincidence. He liked Helen Deutsch’s treatment of the story, although he felt it added sentiment and commercial elements he’d have preferred to do without, but as this was his first major production, there was a lot of studio supervision and changing anything about the screenplay was not an option.

He was also extremely pleased to get Spencer Tracy as star, and writes enthusiastically in his autobiography about Tracy’s masterful subtlety. I sometimes find Tracy’s minimalism to be a kind of maximalist minimalism, everything reduced to simple form but writ large, but here he’s genuinely low-key, aided by a script that keeps him speechless for the first half hour, before allowing a few whispers and then more sustained speech as the character rediscovers his humanity after years of brutalization in a concentration camp. The same arc, kind of, gets a more realistic treatment later in Zinnemann’s haunting THE SEARCH.

THE SEVENTH CROSS neatly does two things. (1) it tells the story of seven escapees from a German camp. The commandant (Yay! George Zucco!) swears he’ll find them all and display them on crosses nailed to trees, and one by one, he does. But the last cross remains empty, as Tracy weaves his way across country and finds help to escape. (2) it tells the story of Tracy’s slow reawakening, his recovery of the humanity stolen from him, which is slowly developed by the small acts of kindness he receives from friends and strangers who help him.

The movie uses Christian imagery throughout, although at least the persecution of the Jews gets a couple of  mentions. I think Louis B Mayer and his colleagues felt that the war effort could best be served by stressing the universal nature of Nazi evil rather than focussing on anti-semitism, which maybe some American audiences might dismiss as someone else’s problem. So the issue is Christianized — there is the title cross, but also a lot of other imagery, such as the hero’s hands, injured while scaling a wall early on, so that he is marked out from his fellow men by stigmata. Requiring a pseudonym, he calls himself Krauss (Cross/Christ). This appeal to the common man is arguably a little dishonest, but it’s propaganda with justification.

An early encounter with an innocent child seems like a deliberate reference to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN — Tracy is mute, large and animalistic, a possible threat to the innocent. But she’s also a threat to him. Maybe somebody recalled the Christ imagery Whale had applied to his monster?

Handshakes are also a motif in this film — see how many of them you can spot.

I would fight any man who tried to call the above a video essay, but I don’t think there’s much risk. It’s a highlights clip reel, emphasizing a couple of motifs. I’m hoping to re-hone my editing skills…

What a good movie — it has a big heart and combines modesty of scale with huge ambition for emotion and a little politics. “You need to know a lot to do the right thing these days,” muses former Nazi Hume Cronyn to his wife, Jessica Tandy (in her first movie — another great actor introduced to the screen by F.Z.). Also enjoy Steve Geray, Felix Bressart (above), Eily Malyon and George MacReady —

Ah, George! Hume Cronyn (the real heart of the film) visits George to get help for his friend Spencer. All we know about the man he’s seeing is he’s a successful architect who once swore he’d do something for the cause. Hume, a naive factory worker, stares at the decadent cubistic art on the wall and nearly goes crosseyed. This art marks George as a non-Nazi, but also, in Hollywood code, as genuinely decadent — MGM are no more forgiving of modern art than Hitler. Summoned into the architect’s bathroom, Hume finds him shaving, and we go “Oh fuck, it’s George MacReady, you’re screwed, Hume.” And sure enough, George is a vacillating aesthete with no moral backbone, which is good news in a way, because the only other role he’d be likely to get would be sadistic Nazi fiend.

Already thrown off-balance by the weird painting, Hume is utterly disoriented by George’s attitude, AND his bathroom, which breaks up space using mirrors in a way that echoes the multi-viewpoint art on his wall. Hume struggles to find his way out the door, nearly colliding with his own reflection. Left is right, up is down.

BUT the movie is even smarter than that, as George has a change of heart and attempts to man up and do the right thing — only he has no way of contacting Hume. Throughout the film, the struggle to create connections between different good guys, under the glare of their fascist overlords, is a major source of tension.

An underrated movie — shot by the great Karl Freund in true expressionist manner — which ought to be at least as celebrated as ACT OF VIOLENCE — not that that movie gets the credit it really deserves either.

This film also has the nerve to dissolve from George MacReady to a small child looking at a cake.


10 Responses to “Christ Decrucified”

  1. Hooray! An absolutely cracking start! I’m very excited about the rest of this week, particularly since I’ve only seen two of his films.

  2. Hilary Barta Says:

    I love Act of Violence, and as it is lumped into the noir category I’ve been able to see it many times. I’ve only caught Cross once, a looong time ago, but remember liking it. No doubt my take on Zinneman has been influenced by the auteurist critics dismissal of him, and I’ve generally preferred his earlier, more modest efforts. Hey, I like kid Glove Killer.

  3. Me too! Fred was fairly fond of it also — it certainly got him where he was going.

    The Seventh Cross has a particularly fine structure, where three main groups (Tracy, his friends, and the pursuing Nazis) all motor about pursuing their different goals, unable to connect effectively to solve their simple dramatic problems. Harder to do in the age of the cell phone, perhaps, but somebody should try it.

  4. Hilary Barta Says:

    After reading your essays this week I’m sure I’ll want to track down Cross and Zinnemann’s other early films.

  5. More on the early work tomorrow!

  6. I’ve yet to see SEVENTH CROSS, although the word-of-mouth about it has been good. I did read mention of it, though, in James K. Lyon’s BRECHT IN AMERICA, where it talks about Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel (the woman who was the first MOTHER COURAGE) playing a “janitress” in it. Apparently BB made some contributions to the script, too, although it doesn’t seem as if they made it to the screen. Wasn’t there something about a chair being repeatedly broken?

    By chance I ran into a COMPANION TO GERMAN LITERATURE which refers to the source novel, by Anna Seghers, as “one of German exile literaure’s finest works.” (More than DOCTOR FAUSTUS or GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN? Oh well.)

    My only real contact with SEVENTH CROSS, in any case, is this lovely clip of Agnes Moorehead’s scene. Lovely stuff.


  7. Let’s try that again …

  8. Agnes is one of several lovely cameos.

    Yes, Brecht’s wife appears, apparently thanks to Zinnemann’s old mentor Bertholdt Viertel’s casting advice, helping him find lots of talented German expat actors.

    I guess Seghers’s novel is distinctive as it’s directly about an escape form Germany, loosely modeled on her own flight. Zinnemann certainly thought it a remarkable book.

    Can’t think of anything with a repeatedly broken chair though…

    What I should have mentioned is the film’s trivia quiz potential, as it’s one of those films narrated by a dead man…

  9. […] circles, sticking up for Fred Zinneman. Though he’s had the good sense so far to focus, after clearing his throat on The Seventh Cross, on the smaller, cheaper, more urgent works Zinneman cut his teeth on, including […]

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