' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Night Train to Munich (1940)

Friday, December 02, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Night Train to Munich (1940)

Recent events in America have, it goes without saying, made me think about how artists in America can respond to these recent events, and to future events that recent events will no doubt yield. And in thinking about responses, my mind has continually drifted back to Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich”, which was released in the midst of WWII. I served it as a Friday’s Old Fashioned a couple years ago and, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to make it a double.  

When Nazis knock on the door at the Prague home of Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood) negating her hopeful escape, she answers dressed in her best and carrying her dog, a paragon of rich pampering about to have her priorities re-ordered. I don’t mean to be flip. Well, maybe I do a little. “Night Train to Munich” clearly means to be flip. It has moments of well-handled genuine dread, to be sure, like an early scene of German bombers appearing in the sky above Prague and peppering the city with leaflets demanding submission. But it was directed by Carol Reed, eventually knighted by his native country of Britain, and released into theaters in the UK in August 1940 right in the midst of the Battle of Britain. And this is important because Reed’s film is not so much a statement of English superiority as a laugh track aimed squarely at Hitler and his Nazi thugs. If anything, “Night Train to Munich” is a comedy, albeit a very subtle, very British comedy, a chance to have an evening out ahead of The Blitz and chuckle at those dufuses in the swastikas.

Reed made no secret of the fact that he lifted much of the story from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.” In turn, Wes Anderson would lift bits of “Night Train to Munich” for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” seventy-four years later, but you can also see where Quentin Tarantino lifted inspiration for his “Inglorious Basterds” version of Der F├╝hrer. Ginormous portraits of Adolph in vainglorious repose dot every Nazi office and one German official has a framed picture on his office desk of the head of state in lieu of a family photo. It’s not laugh-out-loud, perhaps, but it’s hilarious, as are the early establishing shots of the film’s Hitler – never completely seen – smacking maps on tables and shouting like he’s conducting a game of Risk. At one point a German officer shouts "You are no longer living in a decadent democracy ruled by a pack of raving intellectuals! This is the Third Reich!" I mean, people.....that's funny.

The Nazis of the film yearn to take a noted Czech scientist, Axel (James Harcourt), Anna’s father, prisoner and use his knowledge for their gain. He escapes just ahead of the invasion. Anna is not so lucky, interred in a concentration camp, but quickly making an escape with another prisoner, Karl (Paul Henreid), for whom she feels affection. She shouldn’t. He’s a spy in a Czech get-up and Anna leads him straight to her father. But when he’s taken, the English agent assigned as his protector, Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison), goes undercover as a German spy to rescue Anna and Axel. And this is how everyone winds up on a night train bound for Munich, though before the film can conclude a stop at a ski chalet straddling the Swiss border will factor in.

With so many masquerading as someone else, only Anna and Axel appear interested in maintaining their real identity, though they, in fact, possess the least amount of character, functioning as humanistic MacGuffins, fueling the plot as it merrily bounds all over western Europe. Consequently, they also seem to be having the least fun, as if they are Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove” and Kubrick forgot to tell them it was a {wink, wink} “drama”. Harrison, on the other hand, gives a genuine pleasure mongering performance, portraying a rather self-satisfied jovialist who regards this entire affair of derring-do as a lark. And purposely, once he slides into the S.S. uniform, he becomes only more self-impressed, sporting a monocle, pompously barking orders and decreeing hat he and Anna pose as ex-lovers who have re-found romance as a cover to make their flight to freedom. After all, why would she deny he, Ulrich Herzog, Third Reich VIP? It is Randall’s and, in turn, Harrison’s commentary on their country’s adversary.

Most emblematic of the film’s spirit, however, are Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), two chattering Englishmen who essentially pop out of nowhere aboard the train, conveniently recognize Dickie Randall despite his disguise and aim to help. The characters are actually from another movie – “The Lady Vanishes”, as it happens, simply highlighting the two films’ similarities, and here their roles are reprised. This could have become a forced distraction, and while they do factor mightily into plot details, they ultimately function more as delightful stand ins for the whole of Great Britain, not wanting to be left out of the caper, everybody coming along for the ride, all for one and one for all. Their attitude, curious and concerned but good-humored, speaks to the whole project.

Nazism was most famously rendered in "Triumph of the Will", but "Night Train To Munich"  appropriately renders Britainism more like Triumph of the Insouciance.

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