Roughly two years after coming to international attention for his unbelievable turn as a hunted child killer in Fritz Lang’s master-piece M (1931) — and despite a whole spate of roles in highly successful top-notch German productions — Peter Lorre fled his mother country and the horrors of the regime in power. His long career in the United States had many highs and lows and was eventually hampered by a morphine addiction, but with the exception of an edited-in appearance (from stock footage) in the anti-Jew National Socialist propaganda film Der Ewige Jude/The Eternal Jew (1940), it was roughly twenty years before he took part in another German movie. In 1951, given the chance to direct his first (and only) movie by producer Arnold Pressburger (the producer of Sodom and Gomorrah (1922), Berlin–Alexanderplatz (1931) and Hangman Also Die (1943)), Lorre returned to a scarred and healing Germany to direct Der Verlorene/The Lost Ones.
Much like The Night of the Hunter (1955), the singular directorial work of Charles Laughten, Lorre’s film is a flawed artistic work of wonder. Der Verlorene is a postwar masterpiece, but at the time it was made, for a country still trying to come to grips with the horrendous mistakes of its then-still-recent past, the film was the cinematic equivalent of sticking one’s finger deep into a badly healing wound. (True, there were more than enough films back then dealing with Germany’s recent mistakes, but few were as unremittingly pessimistic and without hope as Der Verlorene.) Critically applauded and lauded with prizes when released, the movie was still something less than a commercial success and, as with most early post-war German films, its international release was spotty and limited at best. Thus, as a result of the disinterest of the land it was made in and the general unavailability of the movie internationally, over the years Der Verlorene has been unjustly consigned to oblivion.
The movie opens soon after the war with the movie’s nominal “hero” Dr. Rothe (Lorre) working in a refugee camp. There, the world-weary Dr. Rothe takes true concern in the health problems of the poor refugees he tends. Into the picture enters one Novak (Karl John) as helper, but Rothe’s reaction to his presence reveals an unknown connection between the two. Retiring to the Doctor’s office and then to the camp canteen, the two chain-smoke cigarettes and down numerous bottles of schnapps as the dark past connecting the two unfolds in flashback. Novak is actually Hoesch, one-time undercover Gestapo and lab assistant to Rothe, back when the war was still going strong and Rothe was working on some important project for the government. One day at work, Col Winkler (Helmuth Rudolph, who also appears in another postwar and forgotten masterpiece, Affaire Blum (1948)) shows up and reveals to Rothe that his fiancée Inge Hermann (Renate Mannhardt) has been spying for the enemy and has betrayed lab secrets to the English. Going home where he lives with his fiancée and her mother, Rothe ends up killing his fiancée. Too important for the war effort to be arrested, Hoesch & Winkler arrange the murder to look like a suicide, leaving the unhinged Rothe free to kill again. A prostitute (Gisela Trowe) realizes what is on his mind early enough to escape, but a woman on a train does not. Deciding to get revenge on those who caused him to become what he is, he goes to kill Col Winkler, but when he finds out that Winkler is on a plan to kill Hitler, he stays his hand. Hoesch, however, aware of Winkler’s duplicity to the NS Party, fouls the plans. Nonetheless, fate seems to smile on Rothe, for a bomb falls upon his house while he is out, killing everyone inside, and he too is assumed dead—and, indeed, in a sense he is. His brief career later as camp doctor is but a feeble and desperate attempt to assuage his guilt and make up for the evil he did in the past, but the arrival of the unrepentant Hoesch/Novak causes him to realize that there is no way to make good, that they are all lost. This realization leads to a most depressing final…
Needless to say, the movie is as startling and disheartening as it sounds.
Though a masterpiece, Der Verlorene does have its flaws. The acting of the main figures is surprisingly uneven, the sound is atrocious, the music mostly unbearable and the low-budget much too obvious. Likewise, in all truth, the utilization of flashback is a big stylistic no-no (be it in movies or written work), though it is arguable that the flashback structure is needed to establish Dr. Rothe as a mildly sympathetic person before revealing his sordid past; had the film been told in chronological order, his character could have been too strongly branded as a “nasty” for the viewer to develop any sympathy.
In total, however, the flaws found in Der Verlorene are easily overlooked due to the overall punch of the movie itself. Whether viewed as simply a German postwar film grappling with the subject of national guilt or seen as the singular attempt of a great actor at directing, it remains a shame that the movie has been so thoroughly forgotten.