This is one of the more unusual Italian co-productions to deal with the Second World War. For the simple fact is that it isn’t really a war film per se: There’s no near-impossible suicide mission upon which could hinge the outcome of the war, it having already been decided in the Allies favour. Nor are there any mass combat sequences as such, though the scale of the film is nevertheless suitably impressive when it needs to be.
This, combined with the facts that it based on a true story; features courtroom drama elements; and is about freedom, authority, law, order, justice and mercy in their various permutations, marks it out as exploring similar territory to director Giuliano Montaldo's later Sacco and Vanzetti.
The story opens some time after D-Day. That the Allies have advanced into the Netherlands and the wintry conditions suggest sometime in late 1944 or early 1945. The German army is in disarray.
While the Allies, under the command of General Snow, undertake the task of transforming a Nazi concentration camp into an Allied POW camp, two German army deserters, Bruno Grauber and Reiner Schultz, eke out a desperate and precarious existence stealing food from farmers who barely have anything of their own. Food first, then morals, again.
The older Grauber, played by Franco Nero, deserted some months back, after eight reluctant years in the Fuhrer’s army. The younger, Schultz, played by Larry Aubrey, either deserted or became detached from his unit - the circumstances are deliberately left unclear - in which he had only served a few months.
Initially Schultz has both a uniform and a gun, but discards them at Grauber’s disgust / insistence. It is a gesture which is to prove of profound significance in the coming months.
Dressed in civilian clothing, the two men eventually find their way to the camp, which is now under the control of the well-intentioned but seemingly indecisive Captain John Miller, played by Richard Johnson.
His German opposite number Colonel Von Bleicher, played by Helmuth Schneider, controls his fellow prisoners/men with an iron rod, and is intent on maintaining the order and discipline upon which the German army and now the POW camp depend: There are to be no unauthorised escape attempts, for instance. Those POWs who try are captured by their fellow soldiers, tried by court-martial and whipped in punishment, all right under the noses of Miller; when this is discovered, the German soldiers claim their wounds were caused by the barbed wire.
Initially Von Bleicher remains ignorant of Grauber and Schultz, who are instead assigned kitchen duties by soldier Jelink. It’s a cushy job, not least since Jelinek is played by none other than Bud Spencer, in characteristically bluff mode.
But when Von Bleicher finds out about the two men's presence, he determines that they should be be court martialled, under which desertion meriting the punishment of death by firing squad...
Yet do wartime laws apply now that it is peace is first at hand and then arrives? How can the sentence be carried out given the Germans no longer have arms? Who benefits if it is carried out?
Even more so than its successor, The Fifth Day of Peace is a thought-provoking film. One reason for this is that the dividing lines between the good guys and the bad guys are less clear: There are no obvious heroes or villains, just different men with different understandings of the situation. Another is the absence of back-story. Whereas the flashbacks and investigation in Sacco and Vanzetti diegetically establish that the two men are innocent of the crimes against them and are the clear victims of anti-anarchist and racist prejudice, here we know nothing about Von Bleicher, Glauber and Schultz's pasts.
Von Bleicher plays the honourable German solider but not necessarily a fanatical Nazi card expertly: If order is not maintained, then anarchy will prevail.
Glauber meanwhile may have actual political motives for his desertion or may just have had enough and saw an opportunity. Whatever the case by now failing to modulate his behaviour - at one point he literally pisses upon an Allied NCO who might otherwise have been more sympathetic - he is now marked out as a figure who threatens the order of the camp and, by extension, the establishment of the right kind of regime and peace in the defeated Germany.
The alternative titles are also significant here: The 'Crime of Defeat' is one that applies more to Von Bleicher, as the career soldier, than Glauber, as the reluctant draftee. 'God,' meanwhile, is not 'with us', that is the protagonists, but silent, offering no counsel. Tellingly that which is offered to Miller, as the man who must decide between Von Bleicher's and Glauber's cases and futures, comes from General Snow, and whose decision will undoubtedly have consequences for his own career.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what ideas a film contains if the execution is flawed. Thankfully The Fifth Day of Peace is a film where everything works. The lead performances are uniformly strong - Nero energetic bordering on manic at times; Schneider formal and precise; Johnson now apparently hesitant and now apparently resolute, and Aubrey pathetic. The technical aspects of production design, cinematography, editing and scoring are universally accomplished. And, most importantly, Montaldo does what the director should do: Orchestrate these elements, bringing them together harmoniously along with make his own contributions and control evident without overshadowing those of his collaborators or grandstanding. He particularly impresses in his ability to move between levels of scale, of finding the small details within the bigger picture and vice-versa - something which recapitulates the themes of the piece as a whole.