Monday, 17 March 2014

The Divided Heart (1954)

"this is what we're born for, to love and to suffer"
Michel Ray
The German occupation of Yugoslavia

The Divided Heart is proof that you need bombs and explosions to make a great war film. You don't even need to set it in wartime. Because, whatever way you look at it, The Divided Heart is a brilliant film about war and its aftermath. It's also another splendid example of Ealing Studios defying all those critics who say "they just made twee British comedies."

Directed by Charles Chrichton, who was better known for his comedies, it tells the story of Toni (played by Martin Keller in flashbacks and by Michel Ray in the main scenes) ...
Martin Keller
... who is living a normal life in Bavaria with his adoptive parents (Armin Dahlen & Cornell Borchers) until a representative of a United Nations refugee organisation (Geoffrey Keen) arrives to inform them that Toni is not actually a German orphan, instead he is a Yugoslav whose father was executed for assisting the Yugoslav partisans, whose sisters died in concentration camps, but whose mother (Yvonne Mitchell) has survived the war. With his birth mother wanting to be reunited with her son, the case goes to court for the final decision to be made by judges from the occupying US administration.

The film was based on a true story published in Life Magazine in 1952 and, with a voice over telling parts of the story, it has an almost documentary feel. Though there is a genuine emotional pull between the two mothers ("the blood mother versus the bread mother") ...
Cornell Borchers as the adoptive mother

Yvonne Mitchell as the real mother
... as to who should raise Toni, there are no histrionics. Instead, everything is played very low key. Whether its the detachment shown by Geoffrey Keen as he arranges meetings between the boy and his real mother, or the members of the court summing up their thoughts on the case, the emotion feels genuine rather than forced.

Geoffrey Keen and Yvonne Mitchell arrive at court
Don't expect court scenes as cinema gives us in films like A Few Good Men, there is no twisting, turning and thumping of desks. The austerity of the scenes and the situation instead recall the very careful, functional and detached manner in which the occupation forces had to deal with post-war Germany: not with rage and emotion, but with authority and order.

This cold emotionless feel makes the film a perfect - yet converse - companion to 'Germany Year Zero': whilst the latter shows the chaos within Germany as families struggle to survive in the ruins of Berlin, The Divided Heart shows the re-imposition of order. Yet both allow the viewer to understand that the effect of war lasts long after the bullets stop flying. This is summed up by Toni's adoptive father, not long since returned from a Russian prisoner of war camp:
"When is this war going to end?"
 Armin Dahlen
Here's who to also look out for:

Eddie Byrne & Alexander Knox as members of the court's judging panel

Alexander Knox & Liam Redmond as members of the court's judging panel

Alec McCowen as a journalist covering the case

Geoffrey Keen as the UN representative

Ferdy Mayne as the lawyer representing Toni's parents (Armin Dahlen & Cornell Borchers)

Theodore Bikel as Toni's real father

Film Director John Schlesinger as a train guard

A wonderful film that should be on anyone's list of great war films:

Available from Network DVD in Volume 10 of the Ealing Studios Rarities Collection which also features the splendid comedy Saloon Bar.

This poster is currently available from Greg Edwards (and long-established and reputable film memorabilia dealer):

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