Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns (Germany, 1946)

A truly good film, no ands, ifs or buts about it. The first German film production in Germany after WW2, it was filmed by a bunch of half-starved actors—Hildegard Knef being the most famous now—and a crew that often received food packages of bacon and flower from the Russians as part of their payment (it was a DEFA Production and filmed in the Russian Sector of Berlin). Filmed in a beautiful and contrast rich black and white on salvaged film stock, scriptwriter and director Wolfgang Staudte obviously had a deep respect for and understanding of all the tricks and techniques of such great German silent film directors of Weimar Germany’s pre-war UFA Fabrik as Murnow, Leni and Lang. Staudte pulls out the visual stops in telling his story, a story that probably cut uncomfortably close to the bone for many people of Post-war Germany.
Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns narrates the story of a young commercial artist, Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), who upon returning from an unnamed concentration camp, discovers that what is left of her old apartment has been squatted by Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert), an ex-soldier and doctor incapable of human contact who drowns his sorrow and pain in alcohol amongst the cheap whores and barroom dancers of bombed out Berlin. Mertens is so mentally scarred by the war that the mere sight of blood or an operation sends him straight into flashback hell. With the help of Susanne, the initially relatively dislikable Mertens begins the slow path to recovery, only to be unexpectedly faced with the discovery that his cold-hearted commander during the war, a slimy business man with no conscious who had ordered the massacre of a large group of innocent civilians, is alive and doing well. A plot twist here and a plot twist there, Christmas Night 1945 finds a mostly redeemed Mertens’ conscious gnawing at him so badly that he goes to shoot the man he knows to be a cold-blooded murderer and everyone else knows as a successful factory owner and family man.....
Perhaps the only flaw in Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns is that the dreadful experiences that Knef’s character must have experienced are brushed away at the film’s beginning with her saying little more than “It was terrible.“ Somehow, it seems hard to believe that Mertens’ should have so many mental scars and she so few. Likewise, her timely appearance near the end of the film, when she saves Mertens from becoming a murderer himself, is a bit too pat, though the bridge from Mertens’ memories as he watches his ex-commander give his factory employees a Christmas pep talk to Susanne’s reading of the same events in his diary is a wonderful example of concise narrative technique.
To mention the few little flaws in Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns, however, almost seems like pointless nit-picking when taking into account the film's overall visual and narrative power. Staudte’s understanding of the medium of film on a visual level results in a fluid narration that never seems excessive despite the originality of the cropping, composition, lighting and camera movement. Likewise, as a scriptwriter, he has an excellent ability to capture the nuances of even the most peripheral character completely and believably, as well as to present a highly realistic narration of day to day life in post-war Berlin. As for the actors, they do pretty damned well for a mass of (in real life) half-starved thespians, and even the smallest character comes across convincingly real. Add the unbelievable and disturbingly barren war-torn real life locations, and one has a truly memorable film.

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