Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****

Surprisingly good World War One spy yarn full to bursting with clever ruses and pieces of deception and ending with a stunning depiction of carnage on the Western Front.  Loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmuller, it fell foul on release to British and American hostility over the Germans actually winning anything.

The film breaks down into three sections: the unnamed Doktor landing at the British naval base in Scapa Flow in Orkney to plan the death of Lord Kitchener; a flashback to France where she steals a new kind of poison gas; and finally on the Western Front where, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, she masterminds an attempt to steal vital war plans. She is hampered by her emotions, romance never helpful for an espionage agent, and her addiction to morphine.

Duelling spymasters the British Colonel Foreman (Kenneth More) and the German Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green) both display callousness in exploiting human life. The films is so full of twists and turns and, as I mention, brilliant pieces of duplicity that I hesitate to tell you any more for fear of introducing plot spoilers, suffice to say that both men excel at the outwitting game.

I will limit myself to a couple of examples just to get you in the mood. Foreman has apprehended two German spies who have landed by submarine on Scapa Flow. He knows another one has escaped. The imprisoned Meyer (James Booth) watches his colleague shot by a firing squad. Foreman, convinced Meyer’s courage will fail at the last minute, instructs the riflemen to load up blanks. Before a shot is fired, Meyer gives up and spills the beans on the Doktor only to discover that Foreman faked the death of his colleague.

And there is a terrific scene where the Fraulein, choosing the four men who will accompany her on her final mission, asks those willing to die to step forward. She chooses the ones not willing to die. When asking one of these soldiers why he stayed back he replied that she wouldn’t want to know if he could speak Flemish if he was so expendable.

The Fraulein is always one step ahead of her pursuers, changing clothes and hair color to make redundant any description of her, and knowing a double bluff when she sees one. In France as a maid she turns seductress to win the trust of scientist Dr Saforet (Capucine) who has developed a new, deadlier, strain of poison gas. It’s unclear whether, appalled at the potential loss of life to her fellow Germans, this is her motivation to turn spy or whether at this point she is already an accomplished agent. In the final section she takes command of the entire operation.

What distinguishes this from the run-of-the-mill spy adventure is, for a start, not just the female spy, how easily she dupes her male counterparts, and that the British are apt just to be as expedient as the Germans, but the savage reality of the war played out against a British and German upper class sensibility. When a train full of Red Cross nurses arrives at the front, the wounded men have to be beaten back; Foreman thinks it unsporting to use a firing squad; a German general refuses to award the Fraulein a medal because Kitchener was a friend of his; and the Doktor’s masquerade as a Red Cross nurse goes unchallenged because she adopts the persona of a countess.

Far from being an evil genius, the Doktor is depicted as a woman alarmed at the prospect of thousands of her countrymen being killed and Germany losing the war. In order to cram in all the episodes, her later romance is somewhat condensed but the emotional response it triggers is given full vent. And there is tenderness in her affair with Dr Saforet, hair combing a prelude to exploring feelings for each other.

Apart from King and Country (1964), The Blue Max (1966) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), depictions of the First World War were rare in the 1960s, and the full-scale battle at the film’s climax is exceptionally well done with long tracking shots of poison gas, against which masks prove little deterrent, as it infiltrates the British lines. The horror of war becomes true horror as faces blister and, in one chilling shot, skin separates from bone and sticks to the barrel of a rifle.

If I have any quibbles, it’s a sense that there was a brilliant film to be made here had only the budget been bigger and veteran director Alberto Lattuada (Matchless, 1967) had made more of the suspense. Suzy Kendall (The Penthouse, 1967) easily carries the film, adopting a variety of disguises, accents and characters, yet still showing enough of her own true feelings. Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun, 1968), in more ruthless mode than previous screen incarnations, is excellent as is counterpart Nigel Green (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) but James Booth (Zulu, 1963) has little to do other than look shifty. Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) has an interesting cameo.

Ennio Morricone (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969) has created a masterly score, a superb romantic theme at odds with the discordant sounds he composes for the battles scenes. Collectors of trivia might like to know that Dita Parlo had starred in a more romantic British version of the story Under Secret Orders (1937) with a German version, using the same actress, filmed at the same time by G.W. Pabst as Street of Shadows (1937), both revolving around this infamous secret agent.

This is far from your normal spy drama. Each of the main sequences turned out differently to what I expected and with the German point-of-view taking precedence makes for an unusual war picture. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

Another freebie on YouTube. I could not find a DVD so you might need to check out secondhand dealers on Ebay.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

12 thoughts on “Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****”

  1. Enjoyed your insightful take on this rare film Brian – caught up with it again this week:

    This solid (but little remembered) Yugoslavian production is a serious attempt to show the horrors of WW1 trench warfare, especially when deadly gas is employed against the troops. While it’s based on the exploits of the German spy Elsbeth Schragmuller some situations may not all hold to various documented facts. In this story, she is credited with planning the death of Kitchener via the sinking of HMS Hampshire by U-boat attack – an act she may have had involvement with but a seemingly unconfirmed account. Production values, direction, and the performances of a large international cast are professional in most all departments. This was European film-making of a high order, at a time the USA was giving over to increasing levels of lightweight fare.

    Unfortunately, most of the pre-release publicity tended to focus on the almost never before dared scenes of lesbian activity (her seduction of a top lab scientist to access the gas formula). This featured what was possibly the first female kiss to be given more time than it needed, to garnish some sensationalistic attention. It also may not have helped the careers of the actresses involved, as both Suzy Kendal and Capucine were respected stars of the day but each tended to fade following this film’s release.

    Cinematography and editing are top-class, and while the marvelous score by Ennio Morricone may not have been utilized as well as it might have deserved, it delivers a high emotional charge and perhaps stands as one of Morricone’s most descriptive and beautiful themes. Curiously, the final end-screen credit goes to the prolific Bruno Nicolai as the music director, and it’s been suggested he may have collaborated with Morricone to add greatly to this work (will we ever truly know how these things played out?)

    Fraulein Doktor has been neglected for decades but has recently appeared on DVD in a semi-pirated form (as it’s now in public domain) looking like it was possibly lifted from a 16mm TV print (1.33.1) instead of its original 35mm (1.85 W/S ratio -16×9) but it deserves a far better treatment to showcase its production pedigree. Worth finding but search for the best quality available or a televised presentation.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. So good to hear from you Brian, and hope you can perhaps help further. The copy I have has been lifted from a Foreign TV screening and is in 1.33.1 only, and has a TV Logo throughout. I imagine if Netflix screened this in the USA (we here in Australia don’t get all their library) they probably had a new 1.85.1 print struck off. Do you know if this may have been the case? and if so, has anyone produced a better-quality DVD from this copy? Any help with finding a decent copy would be greatly appreciated.

        Many Thanks

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Update: I see Vanguard DVD has released it also, but unfortunately, it too is only taken from a 1.33.1 standard 16mm print. The only benefit with theirs is; that it doesn’t have the TV Chanel Logo throughout. Would sure like to know how Netflix got its copy? Somewhere in the world is a good negative…

        Liked by 1 person

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