A Nazi soldier is wounded on the front lines and sent back to Germany to serve the Fuhrer from the Fatherland. Although he has lost his left arm, Kurt Franken (Jeffrey Lynn) is proud and patriotic, bursting with passion for National Socialism. What he doesn’t know is that his beloved older brother Eric (Phillip Dorn) is now the leader of the underground resistance and has made great strides in disseminating anti-Hitler information via leaflets and pirate radio. Kurt meets and falls for one of his brother’s fellow rebels, the beautiful cafe violinist Sylvia (Kaaren Verne), and a fragile romance begins. When she is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, Kurt finds his loyalty tested, and his choices could destroy everything the underground has achieved.
“Underground” is strong stuff for studio system fare circa 1941. Released a year before the United States actually declared war on Germany, the film is unapologetic about its politics at a time when many Americans didn’t know or didn’t care about the Nazi threat. What was intended as just another B-picture for Warner Brothers was fortunately assigned to director Vincent Sherman, who felt strongly about the material and delivered a taut, entertaining thriller that doesn’t turn away from the brutal face of the Third Reich. Women are beaten, men are sent to the guillotine (face up!) and family members are forced to make up lies about each other to save their own skins. Even the righteous resistance movement is reduced to desperate measures in this grim milieu, forcing one of their own to commit suicide after he turns fink.
Modern viewers who immediately associate Nazism with the Jewish holocaust will be surprised that “Underground” isn’t about anti-Semitism or death camps, lensed as it was before the world was aware of just how far Hitler’s ideology had gone. There are no beleaguered Jews or Gypsies here fighting for their lives (presumably, they’re already in hiding or captivity as our story unfolds). The resistance heroes we meet are Aryan German citizens, the very people the Nazis claim to represent, and their battle is for free speech, an end to institutionalized racism and above all, national dignity. These are not terrorists; their only crime is voicing opposition, and for this they risk extermination.
The Roan Group has produced a fine package with this DVD release of “Underground,” delivering an excellent print and a pair of brief interviews with the 98-year old director on his experiences in Hollywood during the Blacklist era. Lloyd Kaufman is on hand to rant and rave for five minutes before one of the segments, but thankfully his exasperating zaniness has been tempered by his obvious enthusiasm for the subject. “Underground” will thrill war film buffs with its unique espionage-flavored action, but there’s a headier lesson here about blind patriotism that transcends the swastikas. Kurt Franken could be coming home to any nation where dissent has become tantamount to treason and the government grows corrupt under a blanket of unaccountability. Every country in the world has some sort of Nazi in it; true patriotism is keeping them out of the driver’s seat.