Sunday, January 17, 2010
Murderers Are Among Us
I have been doing research for a new play, which sort of about Berlin in 1945, and sort of not. Murderers Are Among Us (I will not attempt the German on Blogger) is the first of what are called the "rubble film"- films made right after World War II that try to deal with it in some way. Murderers Are Among Us is the very first German film made after the surrender. It stars Hildegarde Knef (before she changed her name to Nef) as a concentration camp survivor who returns home to Berlin. Living in her apartment is Ernst Wilhelm Borchert (a wonderful actor I'd never seen before).
The film is directed by Wolfgang Staudte, who worked with director Erwin Piscator in the 1920s. It was produced by DEFA, the Soviet-backed German film company. The Soviet Zone leapt right into film production, while the British and American Zones did not. They were more thorough about the process of de-nazification than the Soviets were. The sets get very expressionistic at some points, reflecting the interior life of the characters, nothing whatsoever like Nazi-era films. The basic plot is Borchert's character, Dr. Hans Mertens, is haunted by his experiences in the Wehrmacht; in particular, his permitting the slaughter of Polish civilians as ordered by his superior officer, Ferdinand Brueckner (Arno Paulsen, who I swear was in Brecht's plays in the 1920s, though I haven't been able to verify that). Mertens had assumed that Brueckner was dead, but it turns out he's very much alive, with a thriving business that recycles soldiers' helmets into cooking pots. Mertens is drawn to kill Brueckner in revenge. At the end of the movie, Knef (now his girlfriend) stops Borchert from killing Paulsen. It is a very raw film. The ruins of Berlin look real because they are- it was shot in 1946.
And then, thanks to IMDB and a book I'd read on rubble film, it got even more interesting. Knef was a rising starlet at UFA under the Nazis (she was 20 when the war ended), and was sleeping with one of the film executives. Perhaps not an ideal de-nazified first choice for a star. And while this was Borchert's first film role, he was an accomplished and popular stage actor during the 1930s and 40s. This I assume was possible because he was a Nazi Party member. Staudte himself appeared in "Jud Suess" the most notoriously anti-Semitic movie ever made.
Just before I watched this, I saw "Germany Year One" by Roberto Rossellini, which was about similar themes (struggling family trying to make it through deprivation). It is a strange movie, made stranger by the fact that there are all these very Aryan-looking actors speaking Italian. It does not end with uplift, as Staudte's movie does. The younger son has murdered his father in response to a "survival of the fittest" type lecture from his old Nazi school teacher. At the end of this film, the boy is unable to deal with his guilt, and throw himself off of a mostly destroyed building, commiting suicide just as the rest of the family is leaving for the father's funeral.