Thursday, June 22, 2006

"Murderers Are Among Us" (1946), the German Neorealist Masterpiece

Wolfgang Staudte’s Murderers Are Among Us (1946) is most famous for two qualities: it is the first film to be made in Germany after World War II, and it was shot on location in the remnants and rubble of Berlin. Neither of these facts is merely trivia: the landscape plays an important role in the film (both as setting and as a metaphor for the near-capitulation of humanity during the war), and its authenticity is unmistakable; as for being the first film after the war, that it chose to deal with the present condition of everyday people is remarkable—rarely are such issues dealt with in cinema in such a timely manner. (An interesting parallel is with Roberto Rossellini, who was shooting his Neorealist masterpiece Rome, Open City (1946) at the same time under similar circumstances in Italy. Both filmmakers were grappling with not only the issue of how to represent contemporary conditions in narrative, but also the issue of how to capture the natural landscape visually.)

Staudte's story (co-written with his father Fritz Staudte) concerns what awaits those who return home after the war, a problem faced by both civilians and soldiers. Murderers Are Among Us focuses on Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), who is returning home to Berlin after spending several years in a concentration camp. Her apartment building is still standing, but all around her the city is in collapse. She discovers that in her absence another tenant has moved in: Dr. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert). Stricken with severe trauma from his days as a military doctor, Hans is unable to work. Susanne insists that they share the apartment together, and the two of them forge a bond and start to rebuild their lives together. Hans’ trauma is set off when he reunites with Ferdinand Brueckner (Arno Paulsen), his old commander from the war who has returned to his former prosperity and avoided the destitution felt by the rest of the country. As Hans thinks of how to seek retribution on Brueckner for ordering him to murder hundreds of innocent civilians one Christmas, Hans’ own murderous desires begin to surface, and the question arises of whether or not justice is possible for all the horrors that war wrought on society.

Stylistically, Murderers Are Among Us combines the chiaroscuro of 1920s expressionism with a more heightened sense of realism. The collaboration between director Staudte and cinematographers Friedl Behn-Grund and Eugen Klagemann is reminiscent of the pairing of director Orson Welles with cinematographer Gregg Toland for Citizen Kane (1941), resulting in images that are not only visually arresting, but also impact our understanding of the narrative. Staudte uses extreme low-angle shots to draw parallels between the dilapidated buildings and Hans, emphasizing their vertiginous anxieties. Both the buildings and Hans seem to be on the verge of collapse—one building does, in fact, collapse on camera. A title-card at the start of the film describes Berlin as a city that has already capitulated: the buildings that have yet to crumble suffer from the anxiety of still standing, knowing well that capitulation is eminent. What is the fate of a building half blown away by bombs except collapse? These same anxieties also permeate the low-angle shots of Hans who, drunk or sober, reels as though on the verge of falling onto the camera.

Though much of the movie is steeped in pessimism, the film ultimately is one of hope and optimism. Retribution is not achieved by the last shot, it is only dreamt of. A concluding montage foreshadows a just and lawful Germany, and an end to the toil of everyday living. Didactic, but well meaning, the film’s earnestness is balanced out by its frank detailing of post-war depravity.

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