Underground (1941)

 

 

 

Director:     Vincent Sherman.

Starring:     Jeffrey Lynn (Kurt Franken),  Philip Dorn (Eric Franken),  Kaaren Verne (Sylvia Helmuth),  Mona Maris (Fräulein Gessner - Heller's secretary),  Peter Whitney (Alex Schumann, Underground Member),  Martin Kosleck (Col. Heller),  Erwin Kalser (Dr. Albert Franken),  Ilka Grüning (Frau Franken),  Frank Reicher (Prof. Hugo Baumer),  Egon Brecher (Herr Director of the Chemical Institute),  Ludwig Stössel (Herr Gustav Müller, a Neighbor),  Hans Schumm (Heller's Aide),  Wolfgang Zilzer (Walter Hoffman),  Roland Varno (Ernst Demmler, Underground Member),  Henry Brandon (Josef Rolf, Underground Member Shot by Gestapo). 

like the Nightmare Years shows how Americans did not believe Germany was as evil as described by those who studied Germany at the time 

 

 


Spoiler Warning:   below is a summary of the entire film.

Berlin. On the street a man comes up to Eric Franken and asks for a light. Eric opens a box of matches and lights the man’s cigarette. On the back of the match box is a message: "Lichtenberg, 9:30; broadcasting tonight." There is a simple map below the message pointing out the place of the broadcast.

Eric goes into a store and asks for a cigarette package. He keeps looking at a man in the telephone booth. When the man leaves Eric goes into the phone booth. The shop keeper signals that it’s okay and Eric pushes on a panel that opens and he goes inside a back room.

In the backroom they are trying to finish building a radio broadcast system. Alex admits he’s an amateur at this stuff, so it’s going to take awhile. Eric says he needs the radio by tonight and Alex says he will do his best.

Eric asks Frida where is Joseph? He went out for some literature. Eric dictates a message for a leaflet. "Citizens of Germany, once again illegal radio will bring you sensational news about the true conditions in Germany. Listen tonight, try your dial, the Voice of Freedom."

Eric goes home. His mother is glad to see him. She tells Eric that his brother Kurt is coming home from the war and he will be coming in by train at 7 p.m. He has to leave soon if he wants to be their for the train’s arrival.

Eric telephones Sylvia Wilmersdorf. Sylvia is busy playing the violin at Maxel’s Bavarian Café. She comes down for the telephone. He gives her the meeting place information and says Professor Muller is coming along. He wants her to tell the professor to pick him up around 9 p.m.

Eric arrives at the train station and soon sees Kurt. They shake hands and Eric notices that Kurt has lost his left arm in battle. Kurt says he can still be useful to the German nation. At home mom is shocked to see that Kurt has lost his arm.

At dinner Kurt talks about how the German army ran over the nations of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France, one after another. Father tells Kurt that no one really wins in war, but Kurt says the strongest system must and will win. And that’s Germany.

Professor Gustav Mueller comes in for a visit with the family. His wife can’t sleep and he wants the doctor to give her something to help her sleep. His son recently died on the battleship Bismarck and Mueller says he doesn’t even know what for. Kurt and the professor argue and Kurt calls Mueller an enemy of the state.

The professor and Sylvia arrive and beep the car horn so Eric will come down. Eric tells Kurt that he’s going to bed so he doesn’t have to answer any questions about where’s he going this late at night.  Kurt sees a note with Sylvia’s name and phone number on it. He asks about her and Eric warns him that Sylvia is not the girl for him to get involved with. He won’t say why except to reiterate that she’s not suited for Kurt.

Eric sneaks down to the street and gets in the car. The professor stops the car along a low trafficked road. Then Alex arrives with a tow truck with the radio station inside. Kurt goes inside and starts broadcasting.

Col. Heller of the Gestapo is listening to the broadcast and wants all available cars to listen to the broadcast while they try to hone into where the broadcast is coming from. The Gestapo men start calling their information in and they determine that the broadcast is coming from Lichtenberg.  Col. Heller and his men jump into two cars and head for Lichtenberg. They want to catch the illegal broadcasters red-handed. Heller tells his secretary Fräulein Gessner to stay put and tell others to proceed to the Lichtenberg district. Heller leaves.

Fräulein Gessner puts a call into the German underground telling a man named Paul that it’s time to go now. Paul jumps on his motor cycle and heads out to Lichtenberg.

When Paul arrives he tells Alex that they have to get out of here now because the Gestapo has determined the broadcast is coming from Lichtenberg. Eric has to stop broadcasting. Alex can’t get the truck started, so they will have to leave it behind. Alex puts a cloth into the gas tank and lights it on fire. Now he and his partner jump into Mueller’s car and head out just as Heller and his men are coming up on the truck. The truck explodes just as Heller and company arrive.

Sylvia returns to her job and the owner wants to know where did she go. She says her friend desperately needed her help and she had to go to her. He tells her not to do that again. She agrees. The waiter tells Sylvia that a German soldier wants to see her.

So Sylvia goes over to see Kurt Franken who is sitting alone at a table. He is immediately taken by her beauty. He asks her to sit with him for awhile, but she says she has to go play her violin for the customers. He urges her to stay for just a moment and so she sits down at the table. Kurt asks her where did Eric go? She says he’s not here. And, no, there is nothing serious going on between her and Eric.

The headline in the paper is that the Illegal Radio was seized. The article includes the warning: "Anyone found broadcasting information detrimental to the interests of the State or Party will die on the guillotine lying on his back facing the falling axe." Signed by Heinrich Himmler, Chief of Secret Police.

Col Heller comes into his office and is not happy to see the enemy leaflet: "Our radio was captured but, in spite of the Gestapo, we will soon build another. Try your dial every night. Voice of Freedom."

Heller comes up with a new plan to catch the illegal radio people. He calls a nearby concentration camp and asks to speak to prisoner Herr Walter Hoffman. Walter is an expert at fixing radios and was associated with the illegal radio broadcasts. The warden of the place says he will have Hoffman over to Heller in an hour.

They go get Hoffman. He has been in a completely dark room for three months now. Any light now shown on his eyes, causes him to quickly cover his eyes to avoid the pain. The warden asks him if he wants to get out of the concentration camp? Oh, yes. He will be transported to see Heller.

There’s a meeting of the underground and the place is packed with people.  Eric gets up to say that they need to start purchasing items to build a new radio transmitter. Fräulein Gessner gets up to say that the Gestapo issued orders that anyone buying radio equipment will have to give their name and address. Eric says that means they will have to smuggle it into the city or collect it secretly.

Good news arrives. Walter Hoffman has been released from the concentration camp and wants to rejoin their resistance group. The professor is the only one with misgivings. He says they talked to Hoffman before taking him back into the organization. He says any man who has been through two years of torture will have changed significantly. Eric says that Hoffman has worked for so long for the things that the entire resistance want that it seems to him they owe him something other than distrust. It is decided that a group from the resistance will talk with Hoffman at Maxel’s Bavarian Café.

Alex, Eric and the professor gather at a table at Maxel’s Café. At another table sits Josef and his wife.

Hoffman telephones Heller. He tells the Gestapo colonel that he will be meeting with the underground committee at Maxel’s Bavarian Café. Heller tells Hoffman all he has to do is go into the café and sit down with the committee. Hoffman says he doesn’t want to have to do that but Heller threatens to send him back to the concentration camp.

As soon as Heller leaves, Fräulein Gessner telephones the café and asks to speak to Professor Baumer. Just then a Gestapo officer walks into the room and Fräulein Gessner has to put the phone down immediately.

Kurt suddenly shows up at the café, still trying to impress Sylvia. Kurt sits down with the committeemen. The Gestapo arrives at the café. Four Gestapo men go inside to sit at two separate tables and wait for the arrival of Hoffman.

A blind newspaper hawker goes into the café and alerts the waiter, who, in turn, alerts, Sylvia, who alerts the committee by suddenly playing a new tune that means danger is at hand.

The waiter warns Josef and his wife. He tells them to go up the stairs, turn right and they will find a door that will open onto the roof. Josef tells his wife to go, but she won’t go without him. So they both start up the stairs. This arouses the suspicions of the Gestapo men. The couple stops on the stairs as soon as they spot Hoffman in the café. He stares at the couple as they stare at him. They finally get moving again, but when the waiter turns out the lights, one of the Gestapo men shoots and kills Josef.  And now lots of uniformed Gestapo rush into the café. Fortunately, the committee manages to escape up the stairs.

Hoffman returns to his apartment, but there waiting for him is the committeemen Alex and Eric. Alex has a pistol trained on Hoffman. Eric decides to put the pistol down on a table and leave. They expect Hoffman to kill himself.

Now outside on the streets the two committeemen wait for the shot. The shot is heard and the committeemen leave the area.

In church Sylvia is handed a receipt for a bag which she is to pick up at the train station. It is filled with radio equipment. She leaves the church and right there is Kurt waiting for her. She tells him to leave her alone, but Kurt’s not going to do that. He says he will go with her to pick up the bag.

The Gestapo has learned of the radio equipment shipment and plan to be there when someone from the underground picks up the bag. Fräulein Gessner hears of this and calls Professor Baumer.

Sylvia and Kurt come to pick up the bag. Baumer arrives a little late and signals that something has gone wrong. So when the attendant brings her the bag she claims that this bag does not belong to her. And here comes the two Gestapo men involved in the shooting of Josef. They ask what is the problem? Sylvia keeps telling him this bag is not hers. The Gestapo takes Sylvia away.

Kurt is brought in and interrogated by Col. Heller. Heller accuses him of trying to protect this Sylvia girl who is most likely a member of the underground. The director of the chemical institute and Eric arrive at Heller’s office and are let in. The two come in as character witnesses for Kurt, but Heller isn’t impressed. But now Heller gets a call from the war department saying that Kurt’s military record is absolutely clean and he can be totally trusted. So Heller lets Kurt leave along with his character witnesses.

As they are about to step out the door, Sylvia is brought in for interrogation. Kurt is frozen, but Eric tells him to come along with him.

Sylvia receives a bad beating. She keeps saying that she has told them the truth. Heller wants to know who is the leader of the underground? And who killed Hoffman? He threatens to kill her if she doesn’t speak up and tell him.   Heller pauses for a moment and thinks of something. He now tells Sylvia that can leave after she signs a statement that no one harmed her in anyway.

The Gestapo drop off Sylvia. Kurt is there to help her after the Gestapo drives away. He gets her inside her building. Then he returns to his home. Eric is there to tell him he most stop seeing this Sylvia or he is going to get into serious trouble. Kurt now gets a call to report to Col. Heller’s office tomorrow morning.

Heller shows Kurt a lot of the anti-Nazi leaflets to undermine the party and the government. He wants Kurt to help him find these illegal radio traitors. Heller wants Kurt to spy on Sylvia for the Gestapo. He says if Sylvia is innocent like Kurt says, then he will prove that and be helping both the Gestapo and Sylvia at the same time.

Kurt walks and talks with Sylvia. She tells him that they shouldn’t be seen together because Kurt will get into trouble because of her being under suspicion by the Gestapo. Kurt rejects that idea. Then Sylvia sees the two familiar Gestapo men again. So now Sylvia lets Kurt come up to her apartment. Kurt offers to take her away from all this trouble. They can get a little farm and raise a family. Sylvia wants to talk about that on another day.

There’s a knock on the door and Sylvia receives an underground package. She hides the package. Kurt sees and hears all this and goes stomping out the door.

Eric sees Kurt leave Sylvia’s. He goes upstairs to find out what happened. She tells him, so he returns home to talk to Kurt. His mother sees him and tells him that someone reported Herr Muller to the Gestapo and they took him away.  Eric asks if Kurt told on their neighbor? Mother asked Kurt and he said no.

Eric goes up to see Kurt. Kurt says he just found out that Sylvia is a member of the underground. Eric says if Kurt tells Heller this information, they will probably sent her to a concentration camp where she will die. Eric says he just can’t rat on Sylvia and get her killed. Kurt says he supposes that he is now a traitor to Germany. Eric tells him that this just shows that Eric is a normal human being like the rest of the world. He then warns Eric that if the underground ever thought that Kurt knows about Sylvia being a member of the underground, they would kill Kurt.

Eric goes outside, while Kurt gets a call from the police. It’s Col. Heller who wants to speak with him. He wants a report on Sylvia but Kurt says he has nothing new to report. Heller then says they have reason to believe that the underground is going to do another broadcast tonight. Evidently, Heller and the Gestapo are going to try to catch the illegal radio people red-handed.

Kurt now rushes over to tell Sylvia about the Gestapo’s plans. In a cab, Kurt sees Sylvia get into a car. Kurt has the taxi driver follow the car. The car heads to the docks. Kurt informs Heller of the developments. He then jumps into Sylvia’s car and takes off.

Sylvia demands that he take her right back to the dock. Kurt tells her he informed Heller of the where abouts of the illegal radio broadcasters. Sylvia is stunned and tells Kurt that Eric is with the broadcasters. Now Kurt is stunned. Kurt says she is lying. She turns on the radio and tells Kurt to listen to the broadcast. They hear the Gestapo arrive and then hear gun shots. Kurt is so upset that he accidentally crashes the car. Sylvia cries over what will happen to the arrested resisters.

Kurt rushes into Gestapo headquarters. He learns from Fräulein Gessner that both his father and his brother are being interrogated now. She lets Kurt into Heller’s office where he sees their maid. She says she is here as a witness – a witness against his father. Kurt asks her why? She says because in the argument Kurt had with Herr Muller, his father took Herr Muller’s side which means he is a traitor. Kurt objects that the incident was just a harmless argument.

Fräulein Gessner learns that Kurt didn’t know about Eric being with the illegal radio broadcasters. So now she trusts him. And now she is going to show him something that will blow his mind. She goes to a room next to a torture room and opens a small, hidden window. There Kurt sees his father being tortured by Heller. Dad says he’s not a member of the underground and doesn’t know the names of the members and leaders. Heller doesn’t believe him. So he has the guard whip father some more.

Now a beaten Eric is thrown into the room with his father. Fräulein Gessner says she just wanted Kurt to see how the Gestapo treat people. She tells Kurt that he must take Eric’s place and work for the underground. She then asks Kurt to tell his brother that he knew Eric was a member of the underground. He must do this to fool both Eric and Heller.

Kurt goes in to see Heller. He says he first learned tonight that Eric is a member of the underground, but he did know when he called Heller to report of the actions of the illegal radio people. Eric is brought in and Kurt has a difficult time of telling Eric that he knew that Eric was a member of the underground when he phoned in the report to Heller. Eric is removed from the room.

Heller says he now believes Kurt. Before, he thought he was lying.

The Gestapo is now going to execute Eric, his father and Professor Baumer. They are taken out to the courtyard where the guillotine is set up. Eric will be going first to his death. But now the illegal radio broadcast is heard in the courtyard.

The broadcast says the Gestapo is killing three members of the underground today in the hope that their deaths would silence their voices. Heller yells at the men to do something to find and destroy the radio speakers.

The Gestapo finds one speaker and breaks it up, but the message can still be heard. They search and find another speaker and destroy it. The message still goes on. Kurtc is the broadcaster and he has a message for his brother. He rings out with the words of the Franken family motto which lets Eric know that it’s his brother broadcasting in his place.

Eric is so relieved that his brother didn’t betray him and happy that his brother is taking his place in the resistance movement. The Gestapo find the final speaker and destroy it, but now Eric is ready to face the guillotine.

 

 

 

The director Vincent Sherman was interviewed and he tells of how he went out to Hollywood in 1937 at the request of a studio. On the stage Sherman had played the part of a young communist. The director of the film was William Wyler, who became a very famous director. He asked Sherman to play the young communist just as he had done on the theater stage. Sherman’s performance proved to be his big break in Hollywood.

Warner Brothers gave him an anti-Nazi film project to finish. The project was the film Underground. The film had the message that the Nazis were so bad that the German people were rising up against the government. The film would be a "B" picture meaning it would have a very low budget. They told Sherman not to waste too much time on the film because the American public doesn’t give a damn what’s happening with the Jews or with Hitler.

He adds that some good anti-Nazi films had already been made, such as Mortal Storm and Confessions of a Nazi Spy, but the films were not successful. "The American public did not get fired up about what was going on with Hitler. It was only after a long time and after the discovery of how brutal the regime was that they finally began to pay attention."

Vincent Sherman had not seen anything about Hitler and Germany, but he read a great deal about what was going on in Germany and he tried to make the picture as realistic as he could.. He also talked to refugees who fled to the USA from Germany and other places in Europe and their accounts were "pretty damning" of the Nazi regime.

When Underground was released some of the critics accused Sherman of going too far and that they didn’t believe such things could happen. But, of course, later everyone learned there were things far worse going on in Nazi Germany. One reviewer, named William Shirer, said that from what he had heard about the film, it was "mild compared to the truth".

The problem is that the American people didn’t want to accept it seeing that Germany was a very advanced and cultured society. But in reality it was all true. He thanks Warner Brothers for having the guts to make the picture.

One of the themes in my own writings is that people don’t really want to know the real truth because it’s just too ugly for them to face. PLC

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 


Historical Background:

 

Here’s a word of caution from Wikipedia about the amount of German resistance:

"The term German resistance should not be understood as meaning that there was a united resistance movement in Germany at any time during the Nazi period, analogous to the more coordinated Polish Underground State, French Resistance, and Italian Resistance. The German resistance consisted of small and usually isolated groups. They were unable to mobilize political opposition, and their only real strategy was to persuade leaders of the Wehrmacht to stage a coup against the regime: the 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler was intended to trigger such a coup. . . . the German historian Hans Mommsen wrote that resistance in Germany was 'resistance without the people' and that the number of those Germans engaged in resistance to the Nazi regime were very small."

 

 

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