What lifts this otherwise fairly predictable narrative just a little above the ordinary, is the diverse range of minor stories which it very simply crafts, and which thus form and drive it. These stories of the common man and woman are played out effectively against a backdrop of impending social upheaval; of rationing at home, of nascent socialism, and the ultimate betrayal of the military by the left, the profiteers and the defeatists.
It is 1918, and the fifth year of the Great War is looming. Despite a period of convalescence, the young Lt. Prätorius and his men are destined once more for the front. But for this trainload of mostly Berliners, there is no plan for any leave, and even with a 6 hour stop-over in their home city before the next train, they will be restricted to the station. For all, this is an intolerable situation.
We are entitled to leave! No. A hero's death is all we are entitled to.
Berlin however is a different city to the one they left so many years ago. It is a haven for deserters. A man could quite easily disappear if he wished. And while Prätorius trusts his men implicitly, he knows the risks. It would be his head that would be served up should any of them be given permission to visit family and loved ones, and not return. No. Again, no!
But of course, cracks once opened quickly become floodgates. First it is Hartmann, who on more than one occasion had saved the Lieutenant on the battlefield. You must be back by 6!
On my word of honour!
His is soon followed by the inevitable swarm of requests please, my pregnant wife please, my mother . my music professor And so it goes. The handshake. Urlaub auf Ehrenwort! Yes, I'll be back half an hour before our train leaves, until all that is left is a handful of non-Berliners, there to wait it out with the anxious Prätorius.
It is interesting to note that during these scenes, we hear the first rumblings of revolution in the new Berlin, as a group of civilians exhort the men to go home: "The war is all rubbish anyway, let them finish the war themselves!"
For the men who have hurriedly, expectantly, departed, to take in the ecstasy that is a mere handful of hours of freedom, their anticipation is met with all manner of realities: the delights of family, of culture and aesthetics; the temptations of the flesh, or of Communism or of the high life. Each man or group to his own. Finding love or losing it. From bliss to betrayal, they will experience it all in their own way.
And again those signposts to unrest: "End the War" "Revolution Will Come". The posters on the wall of the crowded bar, with its Communists, shirkers and deserters, all out for a good time.
"Emile, this is how we live everyday! You'd be mighty stupid if you went out again onto that mess. We need a few more brave men for the Party!
The hours tick by. 6.10, and the train leaves in 20 minutes. None have returned.
But you can probably anticipate the final scenes.
Yes, they all do all of them - in their own way, in their own nick of time.
That "damned sense of duty" called them back, once more to war.
And of course, in 1938 Germany when Urlaub auf Ehrenwort - Leave With Honour - was released, there could be no taint, no question of anything other than such honour and commitment when it came to portraying the common soldier, stabbed in the back as he was to be by the November Criminals. The appeasers.
From among the ranks who returned, disenchanted, both the left and the right would recruit support. But it was the right which would benefit overwhelmingly from their numbers, their sense of duty and their organisational strength.
There can be no denying that this is a relatively minor piece of National Socialist era cinema. Yet, thanks to the benign script, which is in no way affected by the overt propaganda of so many of its predecessors and contemporaries, it does not suffer at all as entertainment. Indeed, with war about to come to Germany once more, it would serve quite nicely as a vehicle for reminding the nation of the values which had served it so well in the past: honour and faith. However tragically misguided such faith would ultimately prove to be.
Of note among the cast is the wonderful character actor, Fritz Kampers, who plays Gefreiter Hartmann; the first to be given leave and (almost) the last to return. Kampers was as prodigious a performer as he was an outstanding one, appearing in such classics as Westfront 1918 and the sublime Kameradschaft. As an actor, he is on another plane entirely to the balefully pretentious, though sadly ubiquitous, Carl Raddatz, whose thankfully minor role here may well have been his best- ever performance.
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