In light of how soon it was produced after World War II, Decision Before Dawn (1951) has a surprising central conceit: its hero, Corporal Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), is a German soldier. In the latter days of World War II, Maurer is captured by a US intelligence officer, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart). A medic and an idealist, Maurer was caught up in the German war machine and did what he had to do…but when his fellow German prisoners murder his friend for speaking up cynically about his country’s chances, he volunteers to work for Rennick as a spy. It’s a new US initiative to send German POWs behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, and Maurer is given an important assignment: identifying the HQ of a panzer division that is sure to be deployed against an upcoming Allied assault. He parachutes behind enemy lines, and goes about his dangerous assignment – his resolve challenged at every turn as he confronts his countrymen. Maurer is determined to save his country by betraying it, but in the end he’ll be asked to risk everything for his ideals.
With an unusually nuanced glimpse into Germany’s war-time psyche, Decision Before Dawn is an occasionally clinical, but often powerful film. Especially compared to other wartime films of its era, it shies away from moral black-and-whites to paint the enemy in much more realistic terms. It’s helped immeasurably by Werner’s principled central performance and effective visual story-telling. Most importantly, perhaps, it has unparalleled geographic verisimilitude; filmed almost entirely on location, in the European rubble of a war just concluded, it feels uncommonly real compared to the usual soundstage fare. Some of the explosive action sequences are impressive even by modern standards.
Oh, there are old-fashioned elements here and there, and especially in the early-going – when the film is more in the American POV – the film is a bit stiff and conventional. But once the focus shifts to Maurer, it becomes quite a bit more. An excellent film…and another glaring omission from the Spy 100 list!