Seventh Cross, The (1944): Zinnemann’s Concetration Camps Drama, Starring Spencer Tracy

Set in Nazi Germany in 1936, Zinnemann’s The Seventh Cross is the tale of seven men who escape from a concentration camp, prompting the camp commander to build seven crosses. The Gestapo begins a chase, hunting down the escapees. Each man is returned to the camp and put to death on one of the crosses.

Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

The Seventh Cross
The Seventh Cross VideoCover.jpeg

Six men are caught and shot, but one, George Heisler (Spencer Tracy) is helped by some good Germans and manages to escape to Holland and freedom. At first, Heisler is embittered without hope or belief in his fellow-woman Toni (Signe Hasso), but gradually regains his faith, especially after others, including a former companion, risk their lives to help him. The seventh cross thus remains empty.

Timely (made during the height of WWII) and well-intentioned, Fred Zinnemann’s melodrama is fake in the manner of most MGM pictures during that era (prime example: “Mrs. Miniver,” which won most of the Oscars in 1942).

Tracy, usually a solid and reliable thespian, is completely miscast. But the secondary cast, headed by Hume Cronyn, who received a Supporting Oscar nomination, Cronyn’s wife Jessica Tandy in an early screen role, Steve Geray, and particularly Agnes Moorehead, acquit themselves honorably considering the text (written by Helen Deutsch) they are given to pass as realistic dialogue.

The movie, made on a budget of 1.3 million, was extremely popular at the box office, earning three times as much (about 3.6 million)

Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

Seven prisoners escape from the fictitious Westhofen concentration camp near the Rhine: a writer, a circus performer, a schoolmaster, a farmer, a Jewish grocery clerk, George Heisler (Spencer Tracy) and his friend Wallau (Ray Collins).

The camp commandant erects a row of seven crosses and vows to “put a man on each.” The first to be apprehended is Wallau, who dies without giving up any information.

With the dead Wallau narrating, the film follows Heisler as he makes his way across the German countryside, steals a jacket to cover his prison garb, and watches the Nazis round up other escaped prisoners, where they are returned to the camp and hung on crosses, suspended by their arms tied behind their backs.

Heisler first goes to his home city of Mainz, where his former girl friend Leni (Kaaren Verne) had promised to wait for him, but she has since married and refuses to help. He is given a suit of clothes by Mme. Marelli (Agnes Moorehead). Nearby one of his fellow escapees, the acrobat, leaps to his death to avoid being captured.

Heisler goes to an old friend, Paul Roeder (Hume Cronyn), a factory worker. with wife (Jessica Tandy) and young children. Roeder contacts the German underground, whose members risk their lives to get Heisler out of the country. Through his exposure to this courage and kindness, and with the help of a sympathetic waitress (Signe Hasso), Heisler regains his faith in humanity. He escapes via boat to an unknown destination that he identifies as “probably Holland.”

Cast:

George Heisler (Spencer Tracy)
Toni (Signe Hasso)
Paul Roeder (Hume Cronyn)
Liesel Roeder (Jessica Tandy)
Madame Marelli (Agnes Moorehead)
Franz Marnet (Herbert Rudley)

Credits

Released: July 24, 1944; September 1944
Running time: 110 minutes

Produced by Pandro Berman.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann.
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch, based on Anna Seghers’ book
Camera: Karl Freund
Editor: Thomas Richard.
Music: Roy Web
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Leonid Vasian; set decoration, Edwin B. Willis and Mac Alper.