Saturday 20 August 2016

Doctor at war… Fräulein Doktor (1969)

This takes the sixties fascination with war films into new and surprising directions by showing us a narrative based on German success most of which is built on the superior cunning and ruthlessness of a female protagonist.

It culminates in a quite spectacular attack on Allied forces by German cavalry with horses wearing gas masks and coats: quite the most disturbing thing I’ve seen for a while. Extra precautions are required for a gas that permeates anything less than full body cover and as the French, Belgian and English troops reel from the gas, a relentless tide rushes through their lines… if you didn’t know any better you’d swear this was the turning point in a victory for the Fatherland.

The haunting image of horses in gas masks
The gas, developed by the Allies who were too principled - or squeamish - to use it, was obtained through the undercover activities of the woman known as Fräulein Doktor an unconventional role for Suzy Kendall in many ways and one she does very well in.

The film loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmüller a First World War spy who had already inspired a number of films from the thirties onwards. Schragmüller did indeed have a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Freiburg and had smashed the glass ceiling academically before excelling her male colleagues in the war by rising through the ranks of the intelligence corps to become chief of the Kriegsnachrichten Antwerpen. She was awarded the Iron Cross First Class but much of her record is obscure and the subject of myth.

Did she even snog Capucine in order to obtain secrets? Suzy’s Doktor does in another eye-poppingly atypical moment - well, if it’s good enough for James Bond…

All's fair in war and love?
But first, to the capture of two German spies sneaking onto British soil – Meyer (James Booth) proves less robust than his colleague Schell (Roberto Bisacco) and cracks under pressure as the Brits – led by Kenneth More as Colonel Foreman - stage phoney firing squads. He agrees to spill the beans and to tell all about his mission to assassinate Lord Kitchener and to reveal the threat posed by the super spy Fräulein Doktor.

While Meyer tells all das Doktor goes about her business, blending into the coastal town from which she can learn of Kitchener’s plans. She gets a job a a cleaner and seduces a sailor (played by Michael Elphic) who tells her all she needs to know. Picked up by a German U-Boat she heads out to where the Kitchener’s ship will be and sees her mission succeed with its destruction.

Kitchener's battleship
She’s smart this one but she has a weakness: she is addicted to morphine…

Back at British intelligence, Meyer tells of how his colleague had acquired a deadly gas from underneath the noses of the Allies… The Doktor has passed herself off as a maid for Dr. Saforet (Capucine) who is a chemist developing an unstoppable gas. Dr. Saforet cannot resist a pretty face and falls hard for her young maid as the two begin a relationship that followed on from The Killing of Sister George – released just four months before.

Capucine falls
The older woman shares everything including her work and there’s a genuinely unsettling sequence during which she gases numerous caged dogs: her lover screams and you also wonder how they achieved the effect of so many animals in fear…

Dr. Saforet is convinced by the young woman’s reactions to the brutality of the chemical weapon – it is for the greater good something the sweet thing might not understand but then, just as the formula is completed, Frauline Doktor strikes, shooting her in the back and making off with the key to possibly swing the war in Germany’s favour.

Kill or be killed?
Now things get complicated as the British try to use Meyer to get to the Doktor whilst her commanders appear to respect what she has done but not her methods. She receives the Iron Cross for assassinating Kitchener but military solidarity prevents the German Generals from congratulating her.

Her morphine addiction is also a concern for her commander Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green – excellent as always!) a mna every bit as sharp as his British counterpart. When Meyer turns up after apparently escaping the Brits, Mathesius quickly assesses what has been planned – helped by a traitor in the opposing camp. Meyer has been lined up to kill the Frauline with poisoned champagne… a plan that Mathesius seemingly allows to happen – killing two birds with one stone?

Frau Doktor briefs the assasins
But, whilst Meyer reports back that the Doktor is dead, she is very much alive and now sent to Spain as a volunteer nurse to infiltrate the Belgians in order to steal battle plans for the allied front. The Americans are about to enter the war and the Germans are getting desperate to land the knockout blow…

All of which leads to that climactic battle – a scene from Hell every bit as frightening as any contemporary re-enactment.

Add caption
I won’t reveal the ending…

Beautiful from all angles: Suzy Kendall
Dusty verdict: Fraulein Doktor employs enough style and twist to transcend the period of its making. Suzy Kendall is one of the defining “it” girls of the sixties but she plays this horrific character really well, overcoming the not inconsiderable distraction of being beautiful from every angle…

There's also good support from Kenneth More and James Booth - two British greats from different generations who both bring believability to their roles.
Kenneth More knows the score and so does James Booth
Stylishly directed by Alberto Lattuada the film also features a super score from young Ennio Morricone.

It's available on DVD from Amazon and elsewhere: definitely worth watching and being disturbed by... the image of horses in gas masks, protected from the poisonous clouds, reinforces the literal inhumanity of chemical warfare.

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