THE SEVENTH CROSS is a haunting story of a man who is trying to escape capture and certain death.He feels that he has no one to help him,but he is wrong and he eventually comes back to life in the knowledge he is not alone.
It is Germany in 1936 and a voice-over from Ernst (Ray Collins) tells us that 7 prisoners (including himself) have escaped from Westhofen concentration camp. The seven are German dissidents, though their crimes are never specified. The escapees include a schoolmaster,an old farmer,an acrobat,a grocery clerk and a writer.
The camp commandant,George Zucco,has his men turn 7 trees in the grounds into crosses,one for each of the prisoners when they are recaptured.
One by one,the seven men are hunted down and put to death. Ernst (Ray Collins) is the first to die, but it is his voice we hear talking about his friend George Heisler (Spencer Tracy). Ernst says,”This had been a man, a fine one, but I have seen his face growing emptier day by day – he’s seen too much,felt too much.”
George is desperate,suffering hunger and fatigue and wondering whom he can trust after his escape.He heads for his home town of Mainz not knowing that comrades there are already making plans to try and rescue him. Franz (Herbert Rudley) and Leo (Kurt Katch) are wondering if George will come back home.
At one point,George sees himself in a mirror and we know he is thinking,’Is that me?’
George does manage to reach Mainz and goes to see his girlfriend,Leni (Kaaren Verne) who said she would wait for him forever. But she didn’t.She’s married now and refuses to help him. When he says to her, “I cant go to my family“, she tells him to get out. He grabs some food in her kitchen and softly says, “You wouldn’t bandage my hand for me,would you?” (he had cut his hand on glass earlier). She refuses.
He does get help from Agnes Moorehead , a shop owner who gives him some clothes and directs him to a doctor, Steven Geray who treats his hand after saying, “The law requires me to inform you before treating you that I am a Jew.”
There’s a moving scene in a park where George meets one of the other escapees,Konstantine Shayne – they are the only two left. He tries to persuade George that they should give themselves up. He says to George, “Better to be dead and rotting and not see man’s inhumanity to man.”
But something inside George makes him say no. The other man does hand himself in, and Ernst is heard ,”The seventh cross waited for George Heisler.”
The story then changes from despair to hope. George remembers a friend,Paul Roeder (Hume Cronyn) who greets him warmly. Paul is married to Liesel (Jessica Tandy) and they have 3 children. They haven’t heard about the prisoners’ escape.Paul is happy and says to George, “The population of Germany has to be trebled.Dont you listen to the Fuhrer’s speeches?”
Finally George tells Paul the truth and Paul doesn’t turn his back on him. He goes to see wealthy architect Bruno Sauer (George Macready) who pretends he doesn’t know George. His wife Heidi calls Bruno a coward.
The group who want to help George now have a passport, seaman’s papers and some money for him. They meet at Reinhardt’s (Ludwig Donath) house . Bruno has a change of heart and goes to Reinhardt. They are suspicious and Bruno says, “I don’t blame you for not being willing to speak in front of me.”
But when he describes Paul,they tell him to stay. They now have a link to George.
Meanwhile,Paul has spoken to one of his factory colleagues,Fiedler (Paul Guilfoyle) whom he feels he can trust. They take George to an inn where Fiedler has rented a room for him.
Franz finally finds where Paul lives, only to see him arrested by the Gestapo. Fiedler hears about the arrest and tells George, “Better men that Paul Roeder have cracked.” George says, “There are no better men than Paul Roeder.”
The Gestapo get nothing out of Paul and he is released.He goes to Reinhardt. Franz is there and there is a lovely shot of a smiling Franz coming towards Paul as they shake hands.
Signe Hasso is Toni, a waitress at the inn. She too helps George when the Gestapo come to the inn looking for any strangers. Another memorable scene is when Poldi (Felix Bressart) comes up to George’s room, with the passport and other papers and details of the ship,the Wihelmina, bound for Holland the next morning. Goerge tells Poldi, “Thank Franz for me, and the others.”
George and Toni become close in the few hours before he has to leave. When she asks him what he will do in Holland, he says,”Work – I have a debt to pay.”
The last shot is of George boarding the ship.
The cast is flawless,with Tracy defining what minimalism is. You feel his pain and you want him to survive.
Hume Cronyn is simply wonderful as the little man for whom politics is just a word but who finds a courage he didn’t know he had.
I loved Herbert Rudley and Kurt Katch as the anti-Nazi underground who are desperate to find and help George. And what a pleasure to see Kurt in a sympathetic role.
They are all playing Germans, some with accents, some without. But it doesn’t matter. The characters are so well played.
And praise for director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Karl Freund.
Many movies made during the Second World War often reflected the times of course. New York Times critic,Bosley Crowther, in his review of Sept.1944 mentioned,
“…the spirit of tolerance with which the modern German people are viewed.”
Crowther adds, ” Without any question, the film creates a human sympathy for the people of a nation with whom we are at war…..obviously this picture can make sentiment for a soft peace…..”
It’s a film I can return to again and again.