Monday, November 21, 2011

Murderers among us

Die mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) 1946 DEFA Filmstudios and Sovexportfilm, East Germany (81 minutes) written and directed by Wolfgang Staudte.
This first feature film produced in postwar Germany has the look and feel of some of its Hollywood-produced contemporaries because it shares the same German expressionist film DNA and sensibilities with what would become known as film noir.
It combines a love story with the actions that one of the lovers, a traumatized Wehrmacht doctor, takes amid the shadows and rubble in ruined Berlin to seek justice for a war crime he witnessed.
Returning combat veterans were a natural protagonist for Hollywood film noir. American servicemen battled their demons and struggled with war memories as they sought justice, often against those who profited from the war in cities the war had not touched.
German veterans had similar experiences on the line. But rather than returning heroes, they came home defeated to a country morally, physically and economically exhausted, the remnants of a once proud and invincible power which had conquered most of Europe, but whose chief ‘victory’ in the end had been its war against the civilians of Central Europe.
Brushed by the wing of a Soviet censor, The Murderers Are among Us dramatizes several Germans contemplating the roles they played during the war and what they must do to resume their lives.
            Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), a former (and briefly in real life, actual) concentration camp inmate, returns to her Berlin flat after the war to find it occupied by Dr. Hans Mertens (W. [Ernst Wilhelm] Borchert), a drunkenly dissolute and deeply traumatized veteran who had been a surgeon before the war.
            Mertens at first appears like the kind of wildly intense character John Carradine played in movies of the time—a prime candidate for war criminal—but Fraulein Wallner seems to recognize this for post-traumatic stress and invites him to share her flat until he can make other arrangements.   
            Circumstances reunite Mertens with Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen), the former company commander under whose command his traumatizing incident occurred. Mertens had thought Brückner died of his wounds on the Eastern Front.
Brückner is a jolly, mustachioed little middle-aged man with a slight resemblance to Heinrich Himmler and fond memories of ‘freedom in gray kit.’ He owns a factory that employs 120 people who refurbish old army helmets into saucepans. He has an affluent life, especially for Berlin in 1945: his wife and two young sons enjoy a surfeit of food and luxury goods in an apartment restored to prewar standards. 
‘Reconstruction: that’s my motto,’ he tells Mertens. ‘My company is marching again.’
But the good doctor, unable to practice medicine because he can no longer abide the sight of blood and screams and moans of patients, is more concerned with Brückner’s earlier company, one that ‘liquidated’ assets in Poland on Christmas Eve 1942.
One can trace the German expressionist DNA in the dramatic studio lighting and use of shadow, as well as motion shot with oblique camera angles that keep the narrative moving with kinetic energy. Distorted shadows pursuing and overtaking the fearful and guilty speak eloquently for victims’ own outsized and often fatal fears.
But even more than an expressionist studio set, Berlin’s actual ruins convey on film an awesome, almost majestic gothic sense in the masses of delicate vertical piers and spires that are the remains of large buildings, buttressed by parts of walls, other collapsed structures and enormous mounds of masonry.
Director Wolfgang Staudt was of the same generation as Robert Siodmak, whose classic The Killers also came out in 1946. Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street and Edgar Ullmer’s Detour were released the year before. It is interesting also to compare the characters and narrative with William Wyler’s 1946 Oscar-sweeping classic of three returning American servicemen, The Best Years of Our Lives.
As in Hollywood movies of the period, there is a solid troupe of character actors. Old Herr Mondschein (Robert Forsch), an optician who owns the apartment building and has his business on the first floor, lives in the hope that his faith and work will bring his son safely home. Carola Schulz (Ursula Krieg) is the building’s gossip and Bartholomaüs Timm (Albert Johannes) is an eccentric mountebank who claims to tell fortunes ‘with scientific methods.’
But camerawork and lighting aside, one also could think of this as a ‘film blanc.’
Wallner, whose attitude is to put the past behind her by throwing herself into her life and work as a graphic designer, is its femme vitale, nearly to the point of being a propagandist’s model. The doctor sets out to take a life and ends up saving two lives—a young girl’s and his own; the ‘murderer’ does not remain ‘among us.’
Follow the hyperlink to a music video that combines about five minutes of great camerawork from the film with a song written in later years by Hildegard Knef, the film’s lead actress and love interest, titled Rain Red Roses (Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regnen) performed by René Caron.

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