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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Verboten!" (Fuller, 1959)

Long before the term "guerilla filmmaking" entered the lexicon, writer/director Samuel Fuller was a chief proponent of cinema by any means necessary. From the valley of the B-pictures that the late '50s found him in, he wasn't going to command the kind of big budgets that would allow Stanley Kramer to recreate whole coutrooms for Judgment at Nuremberg. But that wasn't going to stop him from making his own statement on Nazis, their war crimes, and the post World-War-II occupation of Germany. Any of those three topics could provide enough material for dozens of movies—and indeed, each of them has. But in 1959's Verboten! Fuller takes on all three in about an hour and a half. Like most Fuller films, it's a fairly breathless creation, opening with the portent-laden "Bum-Bum-Bum-BUM" of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, first rendered by an orchestra, then by a telegraphic series of gunshots. Sgt. David Brent (James Best) is the sole survivor of a three-man advance on a small German town; shot in the posterior by a sniper, he crumples in the doorway of a wreckage, but not before catching a glimpse of Helga (Susan Cummings), who seems to cower before a portrait of the by-now-fallen Fuhrer. This is Fuller's version of meeting cute, amplified by the fact that it's Helga who then dresses Brent's rather intimately situated wound. So their dialogue begins. Him: "Why didn't you Germans open your big mouths when [Hitler] started throwing people in the gas chambers?" Her: "I will show you that there is a difference between a Nazi...and a German." Of course it's love. So Brent gives up his commission (because, as far as the Army's concerned, Frauleins are verboten) and marries Helga, taking a civilian job at the office of...
...the American Military Government. This set is one of the two exteriors this meager production has to work with, the other being a railroad yard that's the scene of the opening battle, and then the hideout for The Werewolves, a group of marauding former Hitler Youth run by Bruno (Tom Pittman), who's also a mole within the AMG office, where varied tales of German guilt and betrayal unfold...
...as here, where Eric Heiden (Sasha Harden) tells Brent of his determination to hunt down his own father, who sent varied family members to camp. And speaking of family members, Helga's little brother Franz (Harold Day), who lost an arm in a bombing raid, is sufficiently bitter to have joined up with the Werewolves. This association leads to the most audacious part of the picture: Helga takes Franz to Nuremberg to watch what amounts to a compressed version of the entire Allied complaint against German war criminals. They sit in a row of what looks like modified pews, and Fuller starts the documentary footage rolling, showing practically less regard for matching shots and stock than Ed Wood ever did. Fuller himself, adopting the persona of Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson, narrates, as the film intercuts incrementally awful footage of atrocities with intense closeups of Franz's increasingly tear-stained face. "I didn't know...I didn't know..."
Reviewing Verboten!, Francois Truffaut wrote: "Samuel Fuller is not a beginner, he is a primitive; his mind is not rudimentary, it is rude; his films are not simplistic, they are simple, and it is this simplicity that I most admire." The simplicity, the sincerity, the fierce earnestness—here they compel Fuller to commit putative crimes against good cinematic sense. Not to mention against good taste, a quality that all but vitiates any of the impact that a similarly-themed film such as The Reader aspires to. But taste issues aside, is Fuller's use of actual atrocity footage in what some would term a crude war melodrama some form of sacrilege? I think not—necessarily. But such questions are part of what makes Fuller's case so continually engaging.
Verboten! is available on a pretty decent looking Region 2 DVD titled Ordres Secrets Aux Espions Nazis on the French Warner label.
Now available on remastered Region 1 DVD via the Warner Archive Collection.

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