Counter-Attack (1945): Zoltan Korda’s Taut WWII Pychological Thriller, Starring Paul Muni

Zoltan Korda directed Counter-Attack, a taut WWII psychological thriller, largely confined to one setting where two Russians are trapped in a collapsed building with seven enemy German soldiers.

It was adapted from the Broadway play Counterattack by Janet and Philip Stevenson, which was in turn based on the play Pobyeda by Mikhail Ruderman and Ilya Vershinin.

The tale is set in 1942, when both Nazi Germany and Soviet Union are gathering forces and supplies in one sector of the Eastern Front for a major attack.

The Soviets are secretly constructing a bridge at night over a river. To avoid detection, it is being built underwater, just below the surface.

Trying to find out where the Germans plan to strike, Colonel Semenov (George Macready) has a small paratrooper unit dropped behind enemy lines to attack a divisional headquarters and take officers prisoners for interrogation. The local partisans, led by the wily Kostyuk (Roman Bohnen), provide a guide, Lisa Elenko (Marguerite Chapman).

The attack succeeds, and Alexei Kulkov (Paul Muni), one of the paratroopers, takes seven Germans prisoner in the basement. Then, just as Elenko brings him a message, German artillery hits the building, causing it to collapse and trap them in the cellar.

Kulkov’s dog sniffs out where his master is buried and starts digging. This alerts one of Kulkov’s comrades, who communicates with him by tapping on a metal pipe in code. Learning that Kulkov has caught an officer, he leaves to get help.

Though the prisoners rank no higher than a sergeant, he is convinced one of them is an officer in disguise, based on a pistol and a monocle he has found. He begins questioning the men one by one, but while he rules out ex-miner Stillman (Rudolph Anders) and a former magician (Philip Van Zandt), he cannot pinpoint his man.

An eighth German soldier, thought to be dead, wakes up and attacks. In the struggle, the lone lantern is extinguished and Elenko is stabbed in the shoulder. However, Kulkov kills him and regains control of the situation. Oddly, Elenko is certain that one of the Germans tried to help her in the darkness.

Kulkov orders the magician to go around the corner of the main room out of sight of the others. He knocks the German out and then fires one round, making the rest think he has exacted revenge for the attack. He repeats the charade with the defiant sergeant (Ivan Triesault). The third man Kulkov picks admits he is Major Erich von Sturmer (Harro Meller). Stillman cannot hide his anger against the major for allowing two of his men to be “shot” before revealing his identity.

Kulkov and von Sturmer each tries to extract from the other the enemy’s plans. Finally, they make a deal; each will reveal what he knows. Kulkov cleverly tells the truth, but in a way that von Sturmer doesn’t believe him. Then, during a heated exchange, Kulkov blunders and reveals the secret of the bridge.

When Elenko weakens, Kulkov has to guard the prisoners by himself. She urges him to kill them immediately, but Kulkov refuses, hoping he can find out what he came for.  Dozing off, he is awakened by shout from Stillman, who joins the Russians. He is given a rifle to stand guard, though Kulkov is careful to stay behind him.

To Kulkov’s dismay, he hears German voices. Von Sturmer taunts him, boasting he had lied about the real German attack, and rushes to the blocked entrance. Kulkov shoots him and prepares to kill everyone else when, to his delight, his dog is first through the opening in the rubble.

The Soviets have launched their offensive and reached the building, using German prisoners to do the digging. Kulkov passes along the vital information he has obtained from von Sturmer to Colonel Semenov before falling asleep.

Cast

Paul Muni as Alexei Kulkov
Marguerite Chapman as Lisa Elenko
Larry Parks as Kirichenko
Harro Meller as Ernemann / Major Erich von Sturmer
Roman Bohnen as Kostyuk
George Macready as Colonel Semenov
Erik Rolf as Vassilev
Ludwig Donath as Corporal “the Professor” Müller
Rudolph Anders as Stillman
Philip Van Zandt as Galkronye
Frederick Giermann as Ludwig Weiler
Wolfgang Zilzer as Krafft (as Paul Andor)
Ivan Triesault as Sergeant Johann Grillparzer
Louis Adlon as Huebsch

Credits:

Produced and directed by Zoltan Korda
Written by John Howard Lawson, based on Counter-Attack, 1943 play by Janet Stevenson and Philip Stevenson, based on play Pobyeda Ilya Vershinin and Mikhail Ruderman
Music by Louis Gruenberg
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Edited by: Al Clark and Charles Nelson
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date: April 26, 1945
Running time: 90 minutes