Friday, February 5, 2010

Address Unknown (Columbia, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I had on TCM for a pretty quirky and unusual 1944 movie that is at once an anti-Nazi propaganda piece typical of the period and a decidedly off-beat one. It’s called Address Unknown and was made by Columbia in 1944, starring Paul Lukas — who’d previously played both Nazis (notably in Confessions of a Nazi Spy) and anti-Nazis (notably in Watch on the Rhine) and here is cast as Martin Schultz, a German-American immigrant who in the early 1930’s is running an art gallery in San Francisco in partnership with his long-time friend Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky). The two business partners, who are also each other’s best friends and are about to be linked dynastically — Schultz’s son Heinrich (Peter van Eyck) is seriously dating Eisenstein’s daughter Griselle (K. T. Stevens, who gets an “Introducing” credit) — when they decide that Schultz should move back to Germany and settle in Munich so he can buy the new artwork in Europe and the gallery will have a presence on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, Martin — along with his wife Elsa (Mady Christians) and their younger children — arrive in Germany just when Hitler is taking power, and Martin is contacted by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond), a member of the old-line German nobility and also a fanatical true believer in Nazism. Under the Baron’s tutelage Martin too becomes an intense Nazi, and in time accepts a major job at the Nazi ministry of culture. Meanwhile, Griselle has put off her marriage to Heinrich and traveled to Germany with the Schultzes to pursue her dream of being an actress (an odd plot point since one would wonder why a U.S.-born girl who speaks perfect English and good but noticeably American-accented German would try for an acting career in the German- rather than the English-speaking world), and after a side trip to Vienna she’s cast in a major play in Berlin — only the night she’s supposed to open, a Nazi censor orders her director to delete lines from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount that were written into her part — you know, all the lines about blessed are the meek, the righteous, the peacemakers, etc. (This makes the Nazis sound even more Nietzschean than they really were.) She goes ahead and speaks them anyway, whereupon the censor stops the performance and reveals that she’s really a Jew, turning the audience into a lynch mob that drives her from the theatre and forces her to flee for her life.

She seeks shelter at Martin Schultz’s home — and he, putting loyalty to the Nazis above loyalty to the family of his partner and best friend, refuses to let her in and she’s cornered by the Nazi police and shot dead on his doorstep. Then Schultz gets a series of mysterious letters from the San Francisco side of his gallery, supposedly about moving artworks but actually written to seem like they’re some sort of code — and Schultz gets in trouble when the Baron informs him that it’s illegal for Germans either to send or receive coded letters. Schultz tumbles down the Nazi hierarchy even faster than he rose, and at the end he’s either killed or sent to a concentration camp (the film keeps it chillingly ambiguous as to which) and the last letter from San Francisco is returned “address unknown” — and it’s revealed that the “code” letters weren’t written by Max at all but by Heinrich, who set up his father to look like an anti-Nazi spy as his revenge against him for letting the Nazis kill his girlfriend.

Address Unknown was based on a 1938 anti-Nazi book by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor (though she took author’s credit merely as “Kressmann Taylor” to keep her gender ambiguous) that was what’s called an “epistolary novel,” told exclusively in the form of letters supposedly written by its fictional characters. It’s an awkward form to dramatize (unless you do the Love Letters/Dear John schtick of just having two actors reading the alternating letters aloud) and, though Kressmann has a co-credit on the script with Herbert Dalmas, the dramaturgy is a bit awkward and anyone not knowing that it was based on an epistolary novel would be wondering why mail has such an important role in the workings of the story (to the point where, towards the end, Schultz is literally cringing with fear every time his doorbell rings to announce the arrival of the mail carrier).

The film was directed by William Cameron Menzies and photographed by Rudolph Maté — though that doesn’t stop it from containing some of the most incredibly obvious process work ever put on screen, especially in the establishing scene at the beginning set in San Francisco — but it certainly shows the Menzies touch even though he didn’t do the set designs as well (he left that to Walter Holscher and Columbia art department head Lionel Banks), especially in the forced perspective of a lot of the backdrops: the rooms in this movie look longer than one would expect from their real-life equivalents, with higher ceilings and an overall air of way more empty space than is needed for their functions.

I certainly chuckled when I saw the office of the Nazi bigwig to which Schultz is summoned when he’s trying to explain that he has nothing to do with the coded letters and he’s no threat to the Nazi regime; it was a long, long, long office with the entrance at one end and the desk of the official Schultz is there to see at the other, forcing Schultz to make a long, humiliating walk down this seemingly endless corridor. What was amusing and ironic about that was that this office design was pioneered by Benito Mussolini — and in 1933 Columbia had distributed a sympathetic documentary on Mussolini and Italian fascism called Mussolini Speaks, which had shown that office, and it had inspired Columbia president Harry Cohn (and Sam Goldwyn as well) to build similar offices for themselves.

Address Unknown suffers from the contrivances Taylor invented to keep her plot moving (including the unbelievable quickness with which Schultz transitions from decent guy to ferociously racist Nazi) and from the surprising cheapness of the production (though it had at least one major star, a prestigious director and an original music score by “name” composer Ernst Toch, Columbia still treated it as little more than a “B” movie), but if you can overcome the plot’s creakiness it’s a quite good movie, effective anti-Nazi agitprop and also an unusual showcase for Lukas, who rarely got to play a role with this much range and depth; his final rat-in-a-cage scene in which he realizes that the Nazis he so enthusiastically embraced are about to destroy him and there’s not anything he can do about it is especially powerful and vividly acted by a man who’d already proved he could play both villains and heroes, and here is (though much more villain than hero) a little bit of both.