How did we ever forget None Shall Escape? How did we ever allow ourselves to forget? The lack of recognizable stars or a big-name director certainly played a factor in its gradual erasure from cinematic history. But even so, there are moments within the film that would never leave a viewer’s memory. Certain shots. Certain looks. Certain words.
This 1944 film opens by imagining a trial in the near future where Nazi war criminals would be held accountable. One of defendants is Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox). Through testimonials and flashbacks, we learn this man’s sadly familiar story of radicalisation. He had felt impotent after Germany lost WWI and after his love for a Polish woman goes unreciprocated. He looks for people to blame, and with the help of other young angry men he finds them.
If this film is remembered for anything, it is for one specific scene, where Grimm is loading Jewish prisoners onto a train. They are restless, so he orders a local rabbi (Richard Hale) to say some words and calm them down. The rabbi speaks, quickly, knowing that his time is short. The righteous resentment he’s been harbouring for years, even from before the rise of Nazism, is palpable. He calls on his people to offer one last moment of resistance, and they are all cut down by gunfire. The screenplay was written by men who fled Nazi Germany and who would be blacklisted in Hollywood during the Red Scare.
The film ends with a judge addressing the viewer, saying that only they can decide this man’s fate. However, the preceding shot sticks far more vividly in my mind. When given an opportunity to defend himself, Grimm denounces the court as illegitimate and promises that his side had suffered only a small defeat in a much bigger war. Fascism would rise again. His final words (not those of the judge) ring out in the decades following this film’s release. As men like Grimm, those who care more for winning than for empathy, who feel entitled to respect rather than try to earn it, who are angry and target someone else, continue to emerge and seek power.
If you want to learn more about artists who fled the rise of fascism, be sure to check out Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Emigres and Exiles in Southern California (Dorothy Lamb Crawford, 2009) from the 2AD Memorial Library. Also, if you want to learn more about the actual trial of Nazi war criminals, be sure to check out The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History (Hilary Camille Earl, 2010) from the Millennium Library.