Sunday, July 15, 2012

Night Train to Munich: Propaganda and Art

I took in Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich at the AFI this weekend and couldn't have been more pleased. One of the early Carol Reed's I'd never seen, I was excited to catch it for the first time on the big screen and the AFI's current program, Spy Cinema, running through September, made that possible. Produced in 1940 after Britain entered into war with Germany, it works as both propaganda and thriller but surprisingly much better as a thriller with the propaganda feeling weak by comparison. There's a reason for that, and why the propaganda doesn't feel nearly as potent today, but more on that later.

First and foremost, there's the story. A top armor-plating engineer, Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt) flees Prague just as the Nazis come knocking but daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) isn't so fleet of foot and gets arrested and sent to a concentration camp before she can get to the airport. At the concentration camp she meets up with Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid), an anti-Nazi agitator and the two plot their escape. Eventually they hook up with a British agent, Gus Bennett (Rex Harrison), and a few twists and turns later the good engineer finds himself captured, sent back to Germany and thrown on the night train to Munich, towards Nazi servitude and oblivion.

Reed handles all of this with the same confident hand that marks his later works in the forties (Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The Third Man) with only a little roughness around the edges. While it works supremely well as a thriller it does crawl a bit in the third act before the climax and that's mainly due to Reed giving fawning attention to Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, respectively, the exact same characters they portrayed two years earlier in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, making this a sequel of sorts or, at the very least, a story contained within the same universe. Of course, Margaret Lockwood is in both movies as well and plays different characters in each so perhaps the sequel road leads down a path best not taken. The point being, Radford and Wayne are quite enjoyable, always, and Reed keeps the focus on them for much of the third act, which is fine except that it cuts the rest of the movie off for the time being even if they become vital to the plot in the end. Regardless, it's a minor fault because, once the climax arrives, it proves every bit worth the wait.

Watching the mechanics play out today it's clear how many thrillers use the same algebra again and again for their formulations. The car chase that inevitably sees one car cut off from the other by either pedestrian, car or horse-draw cart (in this case, it's the horse-drawn cart); the shootout as the hero attempts to ferry the good guys to safety; the six-shooter with the endless supply of ammunition (Harrison's gun does, finally, run out but only after a good thirty shots have been fired); the false ending in which everyone is safe before a turn for the worse (in this case, a cable car taking Harrison to safety only to be set in reverse by the Nazis); the death-defying mid-air leap as a last ditch grab for life (from cable car to cable car); and so on. It may not feel as tight as a thriller climax today with the advantage of being weened on decades of everything that came before, complete with pounding (and deafening) soundtrack, but it's fascinating to see every element already cemented in place over seventy years ago. In every way, it's a modern thriller, fully formed and terrifically paced.

And terrifically acted as well. Rex Harrison found his groove early on in his career as the arrogant, egocentric type and here he plays the role to perfection. His ego even provides the best line in the movie, spoken by Anna, "You know, if a woman ever loved you like you love yourself, it would be one of the great romances of history." Lockwood, Henreid, Radford and Wayne are all very good, too, but Harrison is the standout.

On top of everything else, Night Train to Munich simply looks great in every frame. Extraordinary miniature work exists throughout, from one of Adolph Hitler's hilltop headquarters to an amazing shot of Bomasch at his factory which combines the actors with the miniatures in camera! Essentially, the camera is set behind Bomasch standing at his office window overlooking the factory and its heavy machinery in operation, intended to be sixty of seventy feet below and stretching outwards maybe a hundred feet except that it's a miniature with forced perspective all contained within about ten feet from the actor himself. Made during wartime, expensive on-location shooting and/or elaborate sets were out of the question so the movie is contained within small spaces with models and miniatures standing in for expanse, to great effect.

Finally, Night Train to Munich is one more thing: Propaganda. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, it's not as noticeable today as it was then. Propaganda usually dates badly and comes off as blind flag-waving or blunt dehumanization of the enemy. There's one exception to this: Nazis. The reason the propaganda against Nazis doesn't stand out as much is because of the simple fact that because we now know the magnitude of just how awful, barbarous, brutal and downright evil they were, no amount of propaganda can ever come close to fully portraying their vile and despicable nature. Showing Paul Henreid get punched and whipped for speaking his mind in a concentration camp probably seemed potent in 1940. Today, the viewer wonders why they aren't showing the Nazis shooting children or performing medical experiments on pregnant women. The thing about Nazis is that they were so goddamned awful that no amount of propaganda against them can ever make them look worse than they actually were.

And that leaves Night Train to Munich right where it started, as a thriller. And a damn fine one at that.