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Film / Decision Before Dawn

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Oskar Werner, staring pensively

Decision Before Dawn is a 1951 film directed by Anatole Litvak.

The setting is early December 1944, on the Western Front of World War II. Lt. Dick Rennick (Richard Basehart) is a communications officer who is dispatched to military intelligence after recuperating from a wound suffered on D-Day. He is sent to a unit that specializes in recruiting German POWs and sending them back into German lines as spies to gather intelligence. Among the volunteer spies the unit gathers are Sgt. Rudolf Barth (Hans Christian Blech), code-named "Tiger", and a fresh-faced young medic, Cpl. Karl Mauer, code named "Happy" (Oskar Werner, mostly remembered today for starring in Jules and Jim). Barth and Mauer are polar opposites: Barth is a cynic who has volunteered in order to earn some American cash, while Mauer is a young idealist who recognizes that Nazi Germany is evil and wants the war to end as soon as possible.

Barth and Mauer are given separate but related missions. A Nazi general has offered to surrender an entire corps if he can make contact with the Americans. The corps is stationed near Mannheim, which is Barth's home town; he will assist Mauer in infiltrating Germany and making contact with the German officers. Meanwhile, Mauer is sent off separately to find the whereabouts of the 11th Panzer Corps, a strong unit located somewhere nearby that could interfere with the surrender of other corps. The three soldiers parachute into Germany together, after which the narrative leaves Rennick and Barth behind for a while to follow Mauer as he goes on a difficult, hazardous mission behind German lines.

Klaus Kinski makes his film debut with a small part as an overeager young volunteer.


  • Chekhov's Skill: Mauer's job in the German army—combat medic—gets him stationed as an aide to a German colonel who has a bad heart and needs medication for attacks. This is actually how he finds out where the panzer corps is, by seeing it on the colonel's map.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: If there's a radio on while Mauer is skulking around Germany, it will be broadcasting a lookout alert for him.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Mauer sees the body of the deserter who was begging for his life, hanging from a tree branch, with a placard announcing why he was hanged. Truth in Television; this was a very common practice by the desperate Nazis as things fell apart.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: How Scholtz the SS man and Mauer make their acquaintance, as Scholtz has to borrow money from Mauer to buy a newspaper from the ladies hawking them.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: This is how Rennick is framed as he hides behind a pillar, as he makes a wordless plea to the German boy who is looking right at him. The boy runs off without giving him away.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Brandenbacher, the guy with the round glasses on the truck, who stares suspiciously at Mauer as they ride. Sure enough, he is a Gestapo agent, and he has identified Mauer as a spy.
  • Hand Gagging: Mauer has found the address Barth gave them—the building has been heavily damaged by Allied bombs—and is looking around in the dark when a hand shoots out and covers his mouth. It's Barth.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Mauer deliberately runs at the pursuing Germans and gives himself up, knowing that by doing so he'll distract them for long enough for Rennick to swim the rest of the way across the Rhine.
  • How We Got Here: Opens with a short scene showing a German being stood up against a wall and shot, as Rennick's narration wonders what motivates spies. Apparently that was poor Mauer being executed.
  • I Have a Family: A deserter brought before the colonel pleads this excuse, saying that he was only going back home to check after his wife and children. The colonel orders him shot anyway.
  • In the Back: How Rennick shoots Barth, after he chickens out at the last second and tries to run back to the Germans.
  • Ironic Nickname: Mauer, a pensive, brooding type who never smiles, is given the code name "Happy".
  • It's Raining Men: Rennick, Barth, and Mauer parachute into Germany.
  • The Medic: As befitting his rather sensitive nature, Mauer is a medic, not a combat soldier.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Mauer is anti-Nazi, but the thing that pushes him over the edge into volunteering is seeing his fellow prisoners murder another prisoner who expressed defeatist sentiments.
  • Scenery Gorn: Shot on location in West Germany amidst some real bombed-out ruins.