John Wyver writes: Seeing The Lost People a week or so ago piqued my interest in movies set in the middle Europe of the immediate post-war years, and in how they might have negotiated the complex politics of reconstruction and the start of the Cold War. Today’s watch was Berlin Express, a Jacques Tourneur-directed thriller (sort of) made at exactly the same moment as The Lost People, in 1948. Except that this RKO movie features extensive location shooting in the ruins of Frankfurt and Berlin, and instead of Dennis Price and Mai Zetterling boasts the rather punchier star power of Robert Ryan and Merle Oberon. The plot, frankly, is pretty nonsensical, but the film is fascinating nonetheless.
Apart from anything else, it’s made me start to think about what I’m going to call mittelnoir, a sub-category of film noir set in and concerned with Mitteleuropa, the mythical central European world that embraced Germany, Austria and more. I think we can definitely co-opt for this emergent grouping Carol Reed’s great The Third Man (1949) and also The Man Between (1953), also directed by Reed, shot in Berlin and starring James Mason. I think Billy Wilkder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) should perhaps be next on my playlist. Does any one have any other suggestions?
We start in Paris and we’re soon on a train being introduced to a Yank, a Brit, a Frenchman, a Soviet soldier, a couple of Germans and a mysterious woman of indeterminate nationality. One of the party (but watch out for Tourneur’s favourite theme of doubles and doppelgangers) is a prominent visionary who has a plan for the successful reunification of Germany. But there are forces who want to delay or prevent him from participating in a peace congress in Berlin. There’s an assassination, a kidnapping, and various chases through the ruins of Frankfurt, where the group is forced to spend some time. At the end of the day one of the nationalities is revealed as perfidious but a fragile, tentative peace is established before the ruined Brandenburg Gate. The film recognises the tensions of the East-West split just as it was becoming unavoidable, but it offers an optimistic vista of a reconciled Europe. Maybe that’s why, in this of all weeks, there was a tear in my eye at the close.
Much of the film, including most of the performances, is by-the-numbers studio stuff, but there are a number of aspects that lift it well beyond the ordinary. There’s a beautiful, subtle score by Frederick Hollander (formerly Hollaender), a London-born composer of Jewish descent who worked in Weimar Berlin with Max Reinhardt and key figures in the Kaberett world. He fled the Nazis in 1933, emigrating first to Paris and then to the States where he became a successful film composer. Indeed, at just the moment he was creating the score for Berlin Express he was also providing music for A Foreign Affair – and apparently he later makes a cameo appearance in Wilders’s Berlin-set comedy One, Two, Three (1960). Pay attention to the music under the final scene of Berlin Express and you’ll hear an exquisite weaving together of national themes. The original trailer is a little more in-your-face…
Another standout contribution to the film was that of the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who at the time was married to Merle Oberon. Exploiting all the tricks of high-key monochrome shooting, Ballard uses shadows and steam and highlights to make something marvellous of the constricted corridors of trains and the urban settings of Germany’s devastated cities. This, together with the sense of an uncertain, shifting world that frequently tips into a bizarre nightmare (watch out for not one but two clown figures), gives the film the flavour of film noir, a genre with which Ryan was especially associated with and to which Ballard contributed for other projects, notably Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956).
The politics of the film, played out by the national representatives, is engaging, but what really distinguishes the film is the documentary-style filming of the ruins of Frankfurt and Berlin. There are some hokey back projection shots mixed in, but the hellish landscapes of wrecked buildings and fragments of monuments are deeply impressive. ‘A world of rubble,’ as one of the charcters reflects. Here is a picture of the post-war Fatherland that is comparable to that in Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (also 1948). At times the film seems self-reflexively aware that part of its purpose is to bear witness to this world, and so an extensive voice-over underlines contributes significantly to a near-documentary quality.
Nor is the semi-objective gaze at this extraordinary world entirely restricted to the debris of the streets. The viewer gets a strong sense of what it was like to arrive at Frankfurt station at this time, and to push through the crowds of black market hustlers. And one of the most remarkable sequences has our heroes arriving at the modernist (and largely untouched) IG Farben Building, built between 1928 and 1930 for the chemical conglomerate but at the time the film was made requisitioned for the HQ of the Supreme Allied Command. The famed paternoster lifts are recognised with an appropriate close-up.
I’m sure there’s a literature somewhere about my nascent notion of mittelnoir, documenting and analysing the films made in Germany and Austria at this time. I’d welcome any pointers to relevant articles, while I continue in future posts a modest journey through mittelnoir.