The setting is a small village somewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) is a meek schoolteacher who lives with his domineering mother Emma (Una O'Connor). Albert is secretly in love with a significantly younger teacher, Louise (Maureen O'Hara), but he is too meek to tell her. Louise, meanwhile, is engaged to George (George Sanders), who owns the local railroad station.
The film opens with the Germans arriving. George and Mayor Manville (Thurston Hall) both advocate collaboration with the occupiers. Major Erich von Keller (Walter Slezak), the German commander, turns out to be a fairly pragmatic Nazi, writing off obvious sabotage at the railyard as an accident, because he doesn't want to start the usual cycle of executions and reprisals. George supports the German plan for Europe, but his fiancee Louise hates the Nazis. Albert, for his part, is just keeping his head down.
It becomes harder to keep one's head down when the local resistance throws a bomb at a German parade through town, killing two soldiers. Major von Keller takes off the kid gloves and seizes ten hostages, notifying the town that he will execute them all if the bomber doesn't come forward. Albert is having dinner at Louise's house when he finds out who the bomber is—Louise's brother, Paul (Kent Smith).
Part of Jean Renoir's wartime stay in Hollywood, where he'd come to work after the fall of France.
- Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: It's not enough for Albert to barge into George's office with murder in his eyes after finding out that George got his release by betraying Paul. No, Albert just has to pick up the gun after he finds George dead on the floor of his office.
- Book Burning: Discussed Trope, and the school prepares for it by ripping pages out of textbooks so they can be burned, but the actual book burning is not shown.
- Call-Back: The students are hooting and hollering and drawing rude pictures of Albert on the blackboard the first time he comes in to class. But when he comes back for his final lesson, after standing up to the Nazis, all the students stand at attention at their desks.
- Cannot Spit It Out: When Albert tries to confess his love to Louise he fails, only being able to stammer about how fond he is of her and how he remembers when she graduated from school herself.
- Capitalism Is Bad: The film makes a pointed connection between capitalism and Nazism when von Kellner remembers his streetfighting days when the Nazis crushed the unions, and George the industrialist says he too fought the unions, and he wants to organize his country along Nazi lines.
- Doomed Moral Victor: The film ends with Albert being taken away, almost certainly to be shot by Major von Kellner's men. But he has lit the flame of resistance in his town and found his inner courage and dignity.
- Driven to Suicide: George's horror at what he did, after he ratted Paul out to the Germans, leads him to shoot himself.
- Hand Gag: George slaps a hand over Julie's moth as she's screaming for Paul at the train station, with the Nazis closing in.
- Handshake Refusal: Louise pointedly refuses to shake von Keller's offered hand. Von Kellner is in the final analysis a pretty evil Nazi but he's also a Pragmatic Villain so he blows the snub off.
- Hope Spot: Paul leaps from the overpass onto a moving train. Soldiers on the overpass fire ineffectually as he slithers down between two cars. It seems for a moment like he'll get away—until a sniper in the station master's room takes careful aim and shoots him dead.
- Hypocritical Humor: An air raid has started. The teachers and students have fled to the shelter. Albert says he has to go get his mother, saying "She's so afraid of the raids!" But when he find her, Emma is sauntering along the sidewalk quite calmly. It's he who needs her, as shown right after when Albert bursts into tears in the bomb shelter.
- La Résistance: There's a Resistance printing press, which the Nazis eventually discover.
- Pragmatic Villainy: Maj. von Keller is surprisingly pragmatic after the train derailment at the station. He points out correctly that the standard Nazi playbook—the taking of hostages, followed by summary executions—only serves to make a hero out of the bomber and martyrs out of the dead and whips up more resistance, which requires more troops.
- Roof Hopping: How Paul escapes after throwing the grenade at the Nazi parade.
- Tempting Fate: Albert's go-with-the-flow manner is established in his first scene, where he says, after his mother criticizes the Nazis, "At least we have order in the town. Things are quiet now. We can't complain." Cue an unseen person stuffing a Resistance pamphlet under Albert's door.
- Title Drop: Early in the film, Albert reads the Resistance leaflet, which ends by saying "Let each of say to himself, this land is mine."
- What You Are in the Dark: Major von Kellner, wishing to avoid any more inconvenient speeches by Albert, arranges for the forgery of a suicide note from George. All Albert has to do is keep quiet and accept his acquittal (and after all he isn't guilty!) and he can go back home to his life and work. Instead he denounces the letter as a forgery and gives an impassioned speech advocating resistance, thus insuring his doom.
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The opening text identifies the setting only as "somewhere in Europe". The opening shot features a newspaper headline that says "HITLER INVADES ____", with the name of the country torn off. There are no flags. When talking about the occupiers and the resistance George only says "our country". There is no mention of the country, except for once towards the end, when von Keller says that the Germans are still fighting the forces of "another France".