Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Films of Noir City 2014 - Part IV

After taking audiences (in one form or another) to Mexico and Japan in previous days, the fourth day of Noir City was a trip deep into the heart of darkness - post-World War II Germany. The trip began with the very first film made in Germany after the end of the war, the dour Die Morder Sind Unter Uns (AKA The Murderers Are Among Us) from 1946, which was written and directed by Wolfgang Staudte.

This is a film that would be of historical interest and significance no matter what. As stated, it was the first film made in Germany after the war, and as such, it had to be approved by at least one of the occupying powers (the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union) before production could begin. Given the newness of peace and the freshness of the wounds of war, this was no easy task. Finally, the Soviet Union gave their approval, and filming commenced.

On the technological side, it wasn't much easier, as their were few if any filmmaking resources or equipment left intact in Germany. As the film would so clearly show once it was finished, much of the country was in ruins, just so many piles of rubble.

As for the script, it was started by Staudte before the war had ended, with an eye on what the German people would have to deal with, personally, internally and internationally, once they had lost the war. With this being the focus of his story, had the Nazis found Staudte's script prior to their defeat, he would almost certainly have been executed. Given that Staudte had not left Germany as so many artists and filmmakers did, and given that he had continued to make films in Germany during the war, he was in a good position to personally understand the themes of collaboration and guilt that run throughout Die Morder.

Then, as if all that wasn't enough, the film premiered just two weeks after the end of the Nuremberg Trials. Clearly some Germans hoped that the Nuremberg Trials would allow the German people to start to move on from the atrocities of the war; and clearly some feared that this film would, at best, reopen healing wounds.

With all that weight of history accompanying it, I'm not sure I'm qualified to judge this film fairly or fully. This is a case of a film being far more than the sum of its parts, and the moral issues associated with it will probably always greatly outweigh any artistic assessment.

Before seeing this, I told a friend of mine who is a Germanophile and who had seen the film, that it would be part of the festival. Her view was that it's a slow and depressing film - to which I responded that those were not necessarily negatives from a film noir perspective. Now, having seen it, I can say that I disagree with her opinion to some extent.

Is it slow? No, not really. And at 91 minutes, it's too short to seem to drag. But it is a thoughtful film, and one that deliberately takes its time setting the story in motion. Centering on a woman (Hildegard Knef) who has just returned from a concentration camp, and finds her old apartment both devastated and occupied, by a drunken and guilt-wracked doctor (Wilhelm Borchert) who had been in the German military, yet was horrified by the barbarous acts he witnessed. As these two start a tentative romance, Borchert crosses paths with his former commanding officer (Arno Paulsen), who has easily and happily resumed his civilian life among the ruins. Knef wants to start anew, and possibly build a life with Borchert; but he is weighted with guilt and obsessed with justice being served on Paulsen, who he had personally witnessed ordering the slaughter of civilians.

So I would not say that the film is more depressing than you might think, though the subject matter is, of course, nothing cheery. I can think of few films that the weight of an entire nation's history rested on in such a solemn fashion. But I thought the theme of renewal versus revenge to be more thought-provoking than depressing. And being that an unbelievable - and to me, very disappointing - happy ending was forced onto Staudte, it's difficult for me to file this one away as too grim for recommendation.

Don't get me wrong, though: It is a grim film. How could it not be? The first shot shows children running through rubble. Amidst this setting, Borchert delivers some lines that probably sum up the pain and cynicism of many at the time: "Rats everywhere. The city is alive again." Though much of the attention the acting in this film has received has focused on Knef, who had a brief flirtation with Hollywood, I thought that the emotional center of the film was clearly Borchert, who did a commendable job. As a man struggling to deal with how he could simply continue on as an individual having been part of the German war machine, he made a powerful symbol for an entire nation that undoubtedly felt ugly, ashamed and worried about their standing in the community of nations.

As a quiet but compelling counterpoint to that, Paulsen is eerily effective as the seemingly morality-free ex-military man who doesn't feel any shame for the acts he committed. War is a game, and Germany lost - now let's eat, shall we? Though not flashy or physically menacing, Paulsen is a perfect villain, the embodiment of "the banality of evil" that Hannah Arendt later wrote about.

Being that this film had the previously mentioned happy ending forced upon it, it's hard to classify this as film noir in many ways, despite the overall heaviness of the proceedings. But it's not at all difficult to recommend this for any number of reasons, both as art and/or history, and I'm certainly glad the programmers included it in the festival.

Following Die Morder was the first U.S. film shot in Germany following World War II, Berlin Express (1948). (Apparently Billy Wilder was ready to shoot his 1948 feature A Foreign Affair there at the same time, but, even by 1948, there just were only enough motion picture cameras in Germany to allow for one film at a time to be shot.)

Berlin Express certainly can boast some enticing credits - story by Curt Siodmak, screenplay by Harold Medford, direction by Jacques Tourneur, and featuring film noir favorite Robert Ryan in a leading role, with Charles McGraw in a supporting part. And, as with the previous film, the setting and location shooting are certainly interesting. I also like the fact that the film has at least one leading character to represent each of the occupying countries in Germany in the post-war years. Though it might strike some as gimmicky, it's based on the historical facts of life in Germany at the time.

But overall, this is just a so-so film. For one thing, it relies far too much on narration (by actor Paul Stewart) to set the film up and to keep things moving along. In my opinion, if you've got to rely on regular narration to keep the audience informed about what's going on, you've already partly lost them. That's certainly the case with me. With the reliance on the gimmick and the narration, a somewhat muddled plot involving intrigue and assassination got a little lost.

I also found the motivations of the villains, once they are revealed, to be a little hard to understand. (Germany just lost a war, the country is in ruins, the economy is devastated, but they want to keep fighting?) And, while Merle Oberon may be many things, she is not very convincing here as a French citizen, suffering as she does from the dreaded "intermittent accent" syndrome.

All of which is not to say that there aren't things to like and enjoy here - there are. But in the end, for me, this is one of those films that I want to like more than I actually do like, even with the presence of Robert Ryan, who is one of my favorite actors. Though you could do worse for a film, all of those involved here did much better in other films.

No comments:

Post a Comment