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Film / The Night of the Generals

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The Night of the Generals is a film based on the novel of the same name by Hans Hellmut Kirst. It was directed by Anatole Litvak and released in 1967. It's both a war movie and also a murder mystery (in theory, although the killer's identity is immediately obvious).

The story is set during World War II and concerns the murder of Polish prostitute Maria Kupiecka in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Ordinarily this wouldn't be of much importance to either the German occupiers or the local Polish police, but for two things: firstly, investigating German Intelligence officer Major Grau (Omar Sharif) is obsessed with the idea of justice for all ("Justice can sometimes hear the cry of a murdered woman," he insists), whether prostitute or not, and secondly, Maria happened to also be cooperating with the German authorities, meaning Grau has another incentive to find her killer.

There was only one witness, a fellow tenant in Maria's apartment building. He only got a glimpse of her killer: whoever he was, he was wearing a Wehrmacht uniform with a red stripe down the pants legs. Grau, intrigued, realizes only German generals have red stripes on their pants. A highly skilled investigator, he quickly narrows his list of suspects down to three officers who have no alibi: Herbert von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), his aide Klaus Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence), and the recently arrived Wilhelm Tanz (Peter O'Toole). All of them claim innocence, but Grau is driven by a desire to see the killer brought to justice, as he is disgusted that they are hiding behind their rank. Grau is ultimately reassigned to Paris when his investigation comes too close for comfort.

The second half of the movie moves to Paris in July 1944. The war is turning against the Nazis and several of the main characters become involved in Claus Von Stauffenberg's plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler, complicating Grau's murder investigation. He makes a deal with French Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), agreeing to release French resistance fighter in exchange for assistance. After another prostitute turns up dead, Grau decides to arrest his culprit amidst the chaos of the attempted anti-Nazi coup.

The movie was notable in its time for its All-Star Cast and extensive location shooting; notably, it was the first Western production to film in Warsaw during the Cold War. Unfortunately the production was rather tumultuous: shooting began without a finished screenplay, with producer Sam Spiegel bringing in numerous script doctors (notably Gore Vidal and Robert Anderson) for rewrites while the movie was in production, and his domineering producing style aggravated both director Anatole Litvak and the cast members. Though the movie received respectable critical reviews, it flopped at the box office and became one of Spiegel's least-successful movies.

Tropes used in this novel:

  • Action Prologue: The movie opens with a brief scene of Grau avoiding an ambush by Polish resistance fighters.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Most of the changes to the novel are relatively minor. The book features some additional scenes establishing Hartmann not only as a Shell-Shocked Veteran but landing in trouble with superiors for seditious comments, which later makes him an easy scapegoat for Tanz's murders. There are some more scenes detailing Major Grau and Inspector Morand's relationship (the latter is named Prevert in the book). Possibly the most substantial change involves Tanz, who in the novel works for the East German government after the war and defects to the West, causing old colleagues like Seidlitz-Gabler to embrace him as a patriot (even though he's defected to avoid detection for another murder). In the film, this is changed to Tanz serving a prison sentence for war crimes, and no one outside the Nibelungen division holds him in high regard any longer.
    • The film conversely adds some more scenes of historical context, particularly additional scenes detailing the 20 July plot. In particular, the movie dramatizatizes Erwin Rommel's wounding by Allied airplanes and Claus von Stauffenberg's attempt to kill Hitler, events only alluded to in the book.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: The film goes to great lengths to both subvert and avert this. Grau in particular seems to have no love for the goosestepping thugs who serve the Party's interests.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • As in The Desert Fox the movie overplays Rommel's involvement in the 20 July plot, going so far as to claim that the conspirators plan to name him president of the new government.
    • Stauffenberg is shown trying to kill Hitler with a manually-set briefcase bomb filled with dynamite, instead of plastic explosives detonated with magnetic pencil detonators as in Real Life.
  • Ate His Gun: Tanz at the end, after he's Driven to Suicide.
  • Bad Boss: Tanz frequently punishes his various subordinates for minor infractions, such as not washing their hands.
  • Bald of Evil: What we're led to believe Kahlenberge is, but he's actually not evil, because despite looking like a stereotypical Nazi skinhead, Kahlenberge is actually one of the most moral people in the film other than Grau. He hates the hero worship surrounding Tanz, finds his actions in Warsaw to be despicable, and eventually joins the plot to kill Hitler.
  • Big Fun: Hartmann's cousin and fellow soldier, Otto, is one of the plumpest and cheeriest characters.
  • Blood Knight: General Tanz is ruthless on the battlefield and seems to relish the chance to start a battle. It's mentioned that he's been reassigned to Paris because his division was so decimated under Tanz's leadership that it needs time to refit, and that he's nicknamed "Butcher"note  by his fellow officers. This actually makes Grau consider him less likely to be guilty though, wondering why Tanz would bother killing prostitutes when he has so many opportunities to kill without risking arrest and disgrace.
  • British Nazis: The main German generals are played by such British legends as Charles Gray, Donald Pleasence, and Peter O'Toole. None of them even bother affecting a German accent.
  • Brutal Honesty: Hartmann is a very forthright person and avoids being diplomatic regardless of whether he is requesting a headquarters assignment away from the front with an officer who could refuse his request on a whim, romancing a woman who has heard fabricated stories about his heroism in battle, or giving a General Ripper his opinion about art the Nazis have banned. This honesty tends to impress people rather than upset them. The novel takes this trait even further, as Hartmann makes numerous comments openly critical of the war, once in a Paris bar full of Gestapo agents, which leads Kahlenberge to conclude that he's either very brave or extremely stupid.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The movie is filled with them, but the most notable one is Kahlenberge, who exudes snark in every scene.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Lt. Col. Grau is the one leading the investigation into the murders, seems pretty savvy as he's played by Omar Sharif, and is obviously set up as the one that is going to break the case, only for him to be surprisingly murdered and framed as one of Hitler's would-be assassins before the third act by Gen. Tanz after Grau confronts and implicates Tanz in the murders. The murder is solved by a character who owed a debt to Grau, 20 years later.
  • Dirty Coward: What Hartmann thinks he is after running away from a massacre; Ulrika thinks he's a Lovable Coward.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Colonel Sandauer is a loyal Nazi who expresses admiration for Tanz The Butcher, but he blanches in shock when Tanz relays the order to start destroying Warsaw. He also seems rattled after Tanz kills Grau, even after Tanz claims Grau was part of the July 20th Plot to kill Hitler.
  • The Film of the Book: A by-and-large faithful adaptation of Hans Hellmut Kirst's novel, with some minor elements streamlined or trimmed. The film's credits list James Hadley Chase's unrelated book The Wary Transgressor, which likely inspired Kirst's portrayal of Tanz and Hartmann's scenes in Paris.
  • Flash Forward: The movie frequently jumps ahead to (what was then) the present day of the 1960s, showing an older Morand continuing Grau's investigation into the murder, allowing us to see what all the main characters who survived the war are up to.
  • Frame-Up: This happens twice:
    • In the first instance, Tanz frames Hartmann for the latest murder in Paris.
    • In the second instance, when Grau comes to arrest Tanz for the murders shortly after the assassination attempt against Hitler, Tanz blows him away and then claims Grau had been in on the plot against the Führer. However, this is arguably a case of Framing the Guilty Party given that Grau, while not a member of the plot, was aware of its existence and made no effort to intervene.
  • The General's Daughter: Gabler's daughter Ulrike who falls in love with Corporal Hartmann and marries and has a child with him when he's hiding under an assumed name.
  • High-Class Glass: Von Seidlitz-Gabler wears a monocle in several scenes.
  • Historical Domain Character: A few. Erwin Rommel appears in a scene depicting an Allied plane strafing his staff car; Claus Von Stauffenberg's failed assassination of Hitler is dramatized late in the film. Harry Andrews plays a character identified as "the Military Governor of France" who would be Carl-Heinrich Wilhelm von Stülpnagel, who indeed supported the 20 July Plot in Real Life and was later executed.
  • I Fight for the Strongest Side!: Gabler is aware of the plot against Hitler, and turns a blind eye to it, while refusing to give material support. He tries to tell Kahlenberge that this is because if the plot fails, then they'll need friends who are above suspicion to try and help mitigate their punishment. Kahlenberg and the others feel that he simply wants to be in the good graces of the plotters in case they succeed, while minimizing the risk he faces if they fail.
  • Informed Attribute: General Gabler is once noted to be a "sexual athlete" who regularly frequents Paris's nightclubs and brothels, but we never actually see him outside of headquarters except when he's with his family. Presumably this is intended as a Red Herring.
  • Just Following Orders: Tanz takes Grau's initial investigation calmly, despite the anger of his fellow generals, pointing out that the man is simply doing his job.
  • Kicked Upstairs: At one point, the generals conspire to get Grau off their backs by getting him promoted to colonel.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: French Inspector Morand at one point insists that "murder is the occupation of generals," prompting a darkly amused Grau to fire back that "what's admirable on the large scale is monstrous on the small."
  • Mook Lieutenant: Grau has Captain Engels, while Tanz has Colonel Sandauer.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Von Seidlitz-Gabler tries to frame his actions this way, though it's clear to Kahlenberg and others that he's simply trying to mitigate any responsibility should the plot to kill Hitler fail.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Despite being a Bad Boss, Tanz has the total dedication and Undying Loyalty of his men, who all seem to endure his abuse just to be near him.
  • Nazi Nobleman: Von Seidlitz-Gabler is a subversion. He's a nobleman, and serving in the German Army, but maintains an air of neutrality throughout the film, and never actually expresses any Nazi ideals (beyond turning a blind eye to Tanz's harsh military practices).
  • Nazi Protagonist: Except for Inspector Morand, who is a French policeman, all of the main characters serve in the German military in one fashion or another, even von Seidlitz-Gabler's daughter.
  • Nice Mean And In Between: The three generals. Kahlenberge is a highly honorable man, Ganz is a cold-hearted Blood Knight, and Gabler is an opportunist, albeit not an unfeeling one.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Despite all of the leads playing Germans, the majority speak in their native accents. Only Omar Sharif even slightly tries to affect a German accent.
  • Pet the Dog: Tanz shows some Pragmatic Villainy by insisting that his men carry snacks and treats for Polish children, insisting that they need to win the people's confidence in order to gain their cooperation.
  • Propaganda Hero: Hartmann won a medal and accolades simply for surviving a battle by hiding, with the Germans claiming that he bravely killed several enemy soldiers for morale purposes.
  • Put on a Bus: Captain Engel vanishes from the story after Grau is promoted and sent to Paris.
  • Racist Grandma: Frau Gabler is a far more ardent Nazi than her husband, and after the war remains unrepentant and committed to Hitler's ideals, with Ulrike refusing to speak to her, or let her near her grandson.
  • Run for the Border: Kahlenberg mentions doing this as soon as he heard that Hitler had survived the bombing, and did make it to Switzerland ahead of his pursuers. In the movie, his escape was much more straightforward: he went to the battle front and surrendered to the Americans as soon as he could.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Grau, in spades. No matter what, he will solve the murder because he hates the fact the killer is a general who thought he could hide behind his rank.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Hartmann and Tanz both have shades of this. Hartmann has traumatic war flashbacks and is eager to avoid being sent back to the front. Despite posing as a model soldier, Tanz drinks and smokes like a chimney behind closed doors, and it seems likely that the war has unleashed latent homicidal tendencies.
  • Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Christopher Plummer makes a cameo appearance as Erwin Rommel but did not feature on advertising publicity of the time.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Hartmann and Ulrike have shades of this Particularly after he is framed for murder and tries to contact her before fleeing.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: Averted. While the witness could only provide one, seemingly unimportant detail regarding the killer (he was wearing trousers with a red stripe on them), that description greatly narrows down the field of suspects, as only German generals wear trousers with a red stripe. Major Grau quickly narrows the suspect pool to the three generals in the city who do not have alibis.
  • Terrified of Germs: Tanz, so much so that he always wears Conspicuous Gloves.
  • That One Case: The murdered prostitutes cause Grau, and eventually Morand, quite a bit of perplexion, and they become determined to solve them.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Tanz is a ruthless war criminal and serial killer who easily convinces almost everyone he meets, including his own men, that he's a model soldier with at worst some personal eccentricities. During Tanz's brutal operation in Warsaw, he's filmed by a newsreel crew while a radio announcer describes him as a hero battling ruthless "terrorists." Tanz is well-aware of this as outlined in his Motive Rant to Hartmann, knowing exactly how to manipulate both the military hierarchy and the politics of the Third Reich to shield himself from responsibility for his actions.