49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941)

An unremarkable, but still very solid early effort from Powell & Pressburger, that lays on the pro-democracy wartime propaganda and morals a little too much, so that at times it’s more of a sermon than a narrative, but overall it’s still a tense and suspenseful and involving tale of a stranded group of Nazis on the run in Canada after their U-Boat gets blown out of the water.  It’s a series of vignettes as our not-so-merry band of Krauts encounter various people and places, from the isolated trappers at the trading post to the commune of German Hutterites to the colorful academic camping in the woods, as they make their way west.  Some of these episodes are flawed (Lawrence Olivier is miscast in hamming it up as the prototypically goofy Canuck, and a late encounter in a train car with a corny Raymond Massey ties things up far too conveniently), some are excellent (i.e. the Hutterite farm, where the Nazis come closest to something resembling reform, and an excellent Leslie Howard as the flamboyant but ultimately brave and noble academic who takes in the desperate remnants of the band of Nazis), and the same is true about the preaching.  I usually don’t like characters preaching the moral of the story to you a la Howard Hawks’s “Scarface,”, and there’s a lot of that here, as Lieutenant Hirth espouses his Nazi doctrines and his men fall in line, and those they encounter tell them why they’re wrong.  Obviously America needed to enter the war, and who knows, maybe this film was an important factor in contributing to public opinion in that regard, but this is what it is: propaganda, and Pressburger’s screenplay makes no bones about the message it’s trying to send.  Sometimes that goes over the top…except in a long monologue by the magnificent Anton Walbrook as the leader of the Hutterite commune, who listens to Hirth’s big speech about Nazi supremacy during a gathering and then refutes it with the utmost calm and dignity.  It’s a contrived speech, but it’s incredibly heartfelt – Walbrook sells it completely. 

Hell, even I was buying into the artificial cast of characters these Nazis were running into – basically parrots reciting yay democracy/boo fascism propaganda – and not just because of guys like Anton Walbrook.  Powell and Pressburger construct this film’s narrative in a fascinating – and incredibly bold – way.  Sure, the ‘good guys’ like the Hutterite farmers and the goofy trappers get their screentime, but they still seem like outsiders to us, and not just because they seem so stiff and fake.  From start to finish, just keep this in mind: we’re following around a group of Nazis.  Yes, full-on master race/kill all Jews/Heil Hitler Nazis.  And what’s more, other than one of them, a former baker who rediscovers the pleasures of a humble life at the Hutterite farm, they don’t really learn, or want to learn, the error of their ways as would happen in a lesser, more clichéd film.  From start to finish, Lieutenant Hirth is a stone-faced, stoic, and vile man, all too willing to share his hatred of blacks and Jews and his belief that all Germans are brothers under the banner of the swastika, who’s practically memorized Mein Kampf, and who’s men fall in line behind him through fear, devotion, or both.  And yet, they’re the ones who’s journey we follow, from that trading post to the ill-fated hijacking of a biplane to disguising themselves as workers amongst the Hutterites to an arduous on-foot trek from Winnipeg to Vancouver, as the group of six gradually become more exhausted and desperate, and become five, four, three, and two, until finally one sole fugitive remains, still confident that he as a member of the master race can overcome a continent’s worth of inferior Canadians.  They can’t even be classified as anti-heroes, as the film clearly portrays them as a menace, and yet we follow them, and not some good, democracy-loving Canadian or two, unless the Nazis encounter them on their journey.  Perhaps Powell and Pressburger do this to demonstrate as clearly as possible that this is the danger that Americans face if they don’t intervene in Hitler’s atrocities, but even still, at times these vile, desperate Nazis on the run drew me in, and I felt for them and their plight, never more so than when Hirth punishes one of his men at the Hutterite farm in the name of the Third Reich – a painful scene.  They’re Nazis, but they’re still human beings, and seeing any humans get as desperate as these guys, wandering through the wilderness and facing death at every turn, will make you care at least a little.  It’s a bold move to force the viewer to sympathize most with a group of Nazis and follow them from beginning to end, which is ultimately what slightly elevates “49th Parallel” above other similarly unremarkable thriller/adventure/journey films, but Powell and Pressburger pull it off, and even more remarkably, when it’s over you still think of the well-developed and sympathized-with Nazis as the menace, and the crude caricatures that are the Canadians the Nazis come across on their journey, as the heroes.  Talk about a love/hate relationship.



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