In Review: Town Without Pity (1961) on DVD

by Christina Newland on 21/03/2015


Little-discussed 1961 courtroom drama Town Without Pity is an international co-production of the unusually grim sort. Set in Germany in 1960, it’s a stomach-churning look into the vicious and petty-minded corners of small-town life. It’s also a relentlessly cynical work, in which neither the Americans nor the Germans come out with clean hands.

Kirk Douglas stars as Maj. Steve Garrett, conflicted military defense lawyer for four American G.I.s who have gang-raped a 16-year-old German girl in the woods. Bored and drunk, the men molest the young woman, Karin (Christine Kaufmann) and give her boyfriend a beating for good measure, but are soon apprehended and put to a public trial. Douglas’ lawyer, upon some sniffing around, finds evidence that one of the four is innocent – and as such, becomes determined to avoid a potential death sentence for them.

Austrian-born director Gottfried Reinhardt directed a few minor American films in the early fifties before moving back to West Germany. This American influence does leave an imprint on Town Without Pity – its low-key lighting and numerous sharp angles are strikingly noirish. But one old Hollywood standby is left in the dust: censorship. At this point, the Production Code had mostly been cracked wide open, and the film brazenly discusses rape in a way that may not have been possible even five years previous.

Although Douglas’ character Garrett is presented as a man of some integrity, it seems that the only way to forestall a death sentence for his defendants is to abide by that old misogynistic chestnut: blaming the rape victim for her own attack. Through various irrelevant forays into Karin’s character and sexual behaviour, he does just that. At the highest point of the frenzy, Garrett cross-examines the hysterical girl and shouts, ‘Does it excite you to show your naked body to men?’

And while it’s made clear that he is privately dismissive of the notion (‘Shall we charge her with the rape?’ he says scathingly when one rapist remarks on her supposed willingness), it doesn’t prevent him from aiding and abetting what soon becomes nothing more than a thinly-disguised witch hunt against the young woman.

Garrett, in some misguided attempt to protect one vulnerable innocent, manages to utterly ruin another; he becomes as culpable as the gleefully malicious townsfolk. In his case, the old bromide rings true: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Christina has awarded Town Without Pity (1961) on DVD four Torches of Truth

4 torches

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