Contrary to popular belief, when Luise walked out of her MGM contract in 1938 she didn’t turn her back on acting or on Hollywood. Whilst she certainly needed time away to find herself again and to rediscover her love for her art she wasn’t blacklisted or exiled. Coming out of both a tumultuous working life and a similarly difficult marriage this self-imposed break was undeniably beneficial and neccessary to her physical and mental well-being. But her love for the stage and her desire to continue to work saw her return to the theatre for the first time in five years, where she appeared in London’s West End (1939) and on Broadway (1942). Luise hadn’t completely turned her back on Hollywood, however; she still lived in the USA and hadn’t yet met her second husband, so she was actively seeking a return to pictures.
When MGM finally began work on Marie Curie (1943) it was Greer Garson who got the role which Luise had coveted – there was little chance they would have accepted her back to play the part. Instead she was offered a chance to return in Jean Renoir’s The Temptress and she has claimed that Franz Werfel approached her to play the lead in The Song of Bernadette (based on his novel). The Renoir project is rarely mentioned and was never filmed and the newly revitalised (and renamed) Jennifer Jones was cast in the latter. It took an adaptation of another best-selling novel to get Luise back in front of the camera after a five year break.
Stefan Heym’s debut novel, Hostages, was a sensational bestseller when first published in 1942. Heym (real name Helmut Flieg) was a German Jew who had fled to Czechoslovakia in 1933 after the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin and had emigrated to the USA in 1935 to study at the University of Chicago. A staunch socialist all his life he served in the US Army during World War II and he wrote a number of propaganda leaflets which were dropped behind enemy lines. After the war he returned to Europe, first to Czechoslovakia, then to his native Germany. In 1952 he relinquished his American military commendations in protest at the Korean War and he remained political for the rest of his life, taking part in a number of anti-fascist protests and alliances. He wrote over 30 short stories and novels (in both English and German) betwen 1942 and his death, aged 88, in 2001.
Hostages was written at the height of the war whilst Heym was an American citizen. It was written in English (the German translation would not be published until the 1950s) and is set in wartorn Prague. The story centres around the disappearance of a Nazi officer, Lieutenant Glaseknapp, from the washroom of a café during a night of drunkenness with his colleagues. The washroom attendant, Janoshik, is leader of the Czech resistance and, by way of a secret passageway at the back of one of the stalls, he communicates with and arranges meetings for his fellow compatriots. The drunken soldier stumbles out of the passageway and drowns in the river, but while the hunt for his body escalates all those who were in the café at the time of the disappearance are arrested and held as suspects. This includes the influential head of the Bohemian-Moravian Coal Syndicate, Lev Pressinger who has ties with the Berlin government and whose belligerence causes concern for Gestapo Commissioner Reinhardt.
When Glaseknapp’s body is found in the river and accidental drowning due to his intoxiciation is determined the Commissioner decides to bury the autopsy report and to make an example of those he has captive, and, in the process, avoid any embarrassment for the mistaken arrests. Meanwhile, campaigning to free the hostages are Pressinger’s daughter Milada (played by Luise) and the resistance fighter Paul Breda (played by Arturo de Cordova) who have a race against time and conscience before the threat of execution is carried out. They are faced with a moral dilemma: whether to save the lives of 26 innocents by betraying the very values they have fought for so vehemently or sacrifice them for the continued struggle against the Nazi oppressors? The tragic ending, at the time of the film’s release somewhat inspirational, is certainly unexpected. What is less unexpected is the caricatures of the Germans and the stoicism of the freedom fighters. It is a film about propaganda, saving face and the capacity to construct a narrative to meet the desired ends regardless of the human cost.
Luise’s political affiliations had always been left-leaning and she was a committed anti-Fascist. During her Hollywood years she lent her support to numerous political causes, particularly the support for the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War. As the Second World War loomed she became ever more engaged and during the conflict she did voluntary work for the National Child Refugeee Committee, she visited US troops in North America and Europe and she attended events for President Roosevelt’s re-election campaign. In 1940 her father was released from a Czech prison camp and emigrated to the safety of the USA, and in the same year she was called to give evidence before Martin Dies and the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities as they pursued citizens they considered to have Communist sympathies. This upsurge in political activity, and with her brother Robert now serving in the US Army, saw Luise re-evaluate her career and her attitude to fame. Previously she had eschewed the trappings of a ‘film star’ but she saw how her fame could now be used as a weapon to influence public opinion and to help support those affected. Seen in this context, choosing Hostages as a project seems a logical step for someone now emboldened to do work with a purpose.
Hostages was no match for Luise’s previous box offices successes. It is a worthy entry in the over-stretched cinema of WWII but has suffered from being so little-seen since its release. Although slight on action it has raw dramatic intensity, it is a well-acted and has an emotional heart, with a welcome lack of jingoism than many of its contemporaries. Hostages has never been released on home video or DVD but does occasionally show up on television.
Luise Rainer as Milada Pressinger
Arturo de Cordova as Paul Breda
William Bendix as Janoshik
Paul Lukas as Rheinhardt
Katina Paxinou as Maria
Oskar Homolka as Lev Pressinger
Rheinhold Schünzel as Kurt Daluege
Frederick Gierman as Capt. Patzer
Roland Varno as Jan Pavel
Felix Basch as Dr. Wallerstein
John Mylong as Prokosch
Hans Conried as Lt. Glasenapp
Steven Geray as Mueller
Directed by Frank Tuttle
Screenplay by Lester Cole and Frank Butler
from the novel by Stefan Heym
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Hostages photo gallery
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