Released in 1944 as WWII was still raging in Europe and the Pacific, The Seventh Cross had to be one of, if not the first, major motion picture to deal with the Holocaust. The first major camp was even liberated by the Russians just a day before The Seventh Cross was released in theaters. People joke all the time about dealing with touchy subjects with the line "Oh, too soon?" and in this case the Holocaust in Europe was still very much an issue. Of course, to say this movie is purely a Holocaust movie would be misleading because the story moves away from the concentration camps quickly.
It's 1936 deep in Germany -- so the war hasn't even started yet for all you history majors -- and seven men escape from the Westhofen concentration camp. The group splits up to travel individually with the escape leader George Heissler (Spencer Tracy) narrowly escaping being picked up just minutes after leaving the camp. The search is on for these escapees and one by one they are picked up. The camp commandant vows to hang each of the prisoners from a row of crosses standing outside his office (hence the title), but Heissler eludes capture.
With no options and always close to exhaustion, Heissler must make his way to safety somehow. The Gestapo is looking for him and offers a reward for information on him. Unbeknownst to Heissler, an old friend, Franz Marnet (Herbert Rudley) is trying to get in contact with him to help him get out of Germany safely. Down to his last resort, George turns to an acquaintance from his past, a factory worker (Hume Cronyn) with a wife (Jessica Tandy) and three children. Time seems to be running out though for Heissler as the authorities close in.
For several reasons, this was a movie ahead of its time. For starters, it deals with the Holocaust in Germany from a different perspective. Instead of telling the story from inside the concentration camps, the whole movie is a chase through Germany. No time is wasted at all in the camp with the first shot showing the seven escapees cutting through the barbed wire. For the rest of the movie, we are given a glimpse into what German citizens dealt with before and during WWII. People and families disappear without a trace and no explanation. So when Heissler shows up asking for him with no knowledge of where he was, these people are curious as to his whereabouts.
It's also interesting to see a home-front war movie where most tend to deal in front line stories about the soldiers and officers fighting the battles. Granted, 'Cross' is several years before the war started, but there's a sense of what's to come. Cronyn's Paul Roeder works in a factory that's been converted to war materiel in an epic weapons build-up, and there's already a feeling of the Gestapo being like Big Brother with an ear to the ground and an interest in goings-on all around the country. Even the German citizens fear for what the secret police could be up to.
Through the casting, the picture of the German home front comes across clearly with a variety of people as George attempts to get out of the country. Tracy is very strong in his performance as a shell of the man he used to be, now trying to regain some of the dignity he used to have. It's through his travels he comes to trust again and see that man can be a compassionate, emotional individual. Cronyn and Tandy (some 40 years before Cocoon) are at their best, a typical young married couple who put everything at risk to help their old friend. There's also a young Swedish girl Toni (Signe Hasso) and a long list of underground members trying their best to save this one man, putting their lives on the line in the process.
A very enjoyable movie overall that does drag a bit in the second half. It would have been hard for director Fred Zinnemann to keep up the energy from the 1st hour, but it is not enough to not recommend this movie. So for a different, pretty unique look at pre-WWII Germany and the concentration camps and Holocaust, give this one a try.
The Seventh Cross <---trailer (1944): ***/****