The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948
The Murderers are Amongs us
The Murderers are Amongs us
This film, which is set in the ruins of Berlin after the surrender, is the first to be produced in Germany since the war. The chief protagonists are Susanna Wallner, who has just returned from a concentration camp, Mondschein, an old watchmaker, Mertens, formerly a doctor and now a drunken mass of neuroses, and Bruckner, a sentimental brute 'enviably unaffected by the war'.
In the earlier years of war, Mertens, apage break page break page 17
medical officer, had interceded for Bruckner on behalf of some one hundred and fifty civilians whom Bruckner had decided to liquidate as a reprisal. Bruckner. busy decorating a Christmas tree takes no notice. Later the same evening Mertens finds Bruckner wounded and expecting death from the advancing Russians.
Mertens after the war cannot settle down again to the seemingly futile business of medicine, and this pessimism is increased when he finds that Bruckner, far from being dead is alive and, true to his motto that opportunity exists everywhere, has become the prosperous owner of a factory converting steel helmets into saucepans. Mertens decides to execute him, but finally merely denounces him as a war criminal, chiefly through the influence of Fraulein Wallner.
The strength of the film lies in its realism, its excellent technique, and above all in the acting and characterization. As a picture of life in a ruined city it is excellent. But it is above all the character of Bruckner that makes the film so good. This man, the 'murderer ', is no fanatical Nazi, no Junker, no sadist, but merely a coarse, insensitive and egotistic philistine. He can become sentimental over Christmas and at the same time order liquidations. He is a 'good' husband and father, and although he can enjoy a night out, he can be touched by the sight of a woman whose child is dying. He can be moved by the sight of the desert war has created in the city, and regret the passing of freedom's golden days in uniform. In short he is far too human to be dismissed as a sadist. His emotions are touched only by the grossly sentimental, or by the immediate; otherwise he is hard, selfish and pitiless—what a Communist could call with justice a product of a capitalist society, and what a Christian could call the product of a secular society, and therefore one whose kind is of not infrequent occurrence outside Germany, and even in New Zealand.
Bruckner makes the film. Mertens, the dissipated pessimist, won back to life by the simple goodness of Susanna Wallner, is not so well-portrayed a character, possibly because, being more subtly compounded, he cannot be analyzed as well as he would be in a novel. Froulein Wallner's straightforward, energetic goodness and love are well done, though she is not to me as credible as the other characters, though I can think of no reason why 'good' characters should be less credible than 'bad'. Mondschein, the old man who works and waits, and Timmi, the astrologer preying on the mental devastation of war, are equally pathetic characters.
The final scene is, typically enough, not our two turtle doves, Mertens and Susanna, billing and cooing, not even Bruckner, a' dwarf behind bars, shouting ' I am innocent but an array of grisly figures from the past six years. Surely the lesson of the film (or if you like, the lesson of the fact which the film merely reflects, of the war) is that Bruckner, with all his energy, courage and simple sentimentality, has had its day, and that it is time for those who can see his faults to intervene, and that a new society must be built up on a basis other than that of his kind.
Two remarkable features of the film are the lack of crude propaganda and the obvious sincerity of the attempt to get to the fundamental form of war-guilt. There is more meat to chew over in this picture than in any other that I have seen.
As I have mentioned before the technique is very good—I should say as good as the Americans or the British could do. There are many parts which are very subtly done, and on the other hand a few that are pretty flat. The use of background music is at times extremely suggestive. The chief criticism that could be made, technically, is that at times it drags, and that it may seem to some that the essential action and characters are too much overlaid.
In a country like Germany, defeated and devastated, the artist must be thrown back on essential issues. If German films continue, like this one, to be made by artists, they will be well worth seeing.