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DVD SAVANT

The MURDERERS are AMONG US


The Murderers Are Among Us
First Run Features
1946 / b&w/ 1:37 / 81, 85, 91 min. / Die Mörder sind unter uns / $29.95
Starring Hildegard Knef, Elly Burgmer, Irna Sellmer, Hilde Adolphi, Marlise Ludwig, Ursula Krieg, Arno Paulsen
Cinematography Friedl Behn-Grund, Eugen Klagemann
Production Designer Otto Hunte, Bruno Monden
Film Editor Hans Heinrich Egger
Original Music Ernst Roters
Produced by Herbert Uhlich
Written and Directed by Wolfgang Staudte

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Annotated with corrections in a
 
Letter from Andreas Flohr, 7/13/02

The first film to come out of Germany after the fall of Hitler, The Murderers Are Among Us is a moody and artistically valid melodrama, the first 'rubble film' shot within the ruins of Berlin. Often visually reminiscent of the best of German expressionism, it's a socially conscious examination of German guilt, told through a defeated, existentially drained doctor searching for the will to keep living.

Synopsis:

Concentration camp survivor Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef) returns to her Berlin rooms to find them occupied by a squatter, the disillusioned and drunken Dr. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert). He claims that all is hopeless in a world without values, but she slowly builds a faith that he will recover and become a productive surgeon again. Susanne repairs the shattered apartment as best she can, while working on socially positive drawings. Hans is emotionally crippled because he knows that his wartime commander, Arno Paulsen (Fredinand Brueckner) committed mass murder in Poland. But the fallen doctor is unable to find the moral bearings to call the now successful factory owner to account for it. Saving a poor child from choking by performing a tracheotomy, Hans gets the courage to care about justice and face up to Paulsen - with a gun.

Almost totally set amid shattered buildings where apartments have makeshift doors and lack windowpanes, The Murderers Are Among Us has a terrific visual look, a cross between the akimbo angles of The Third Man and the gray, rich photograpy of the silent German 'street' pictures. Many compositions feature telltale shadows and other visual surprises, such as a Christmas celebration being held in a gloomy bombed-out Church.

Hildegard Knef is a joyous beauty who, it must be said, looks altogether too vital to be fresh from a concentration camp - so let's just decide to believe that she's been recovering before returning home. She's the same Kneff or Neff from several '50s American pictures that typecast her as a stone cold Teutonic b****, so it's very surprising to see such a warm glow in her eyes. In many smiling shots she's reminsicent of the young Ginger Rogers.

Even though Ernst Borchert gets very low billing, his Dr. Mertens is the central character. He has strong cheekbones and a good German face that come through no matter how debauched he tries to appear; you know there's character in there. Wisely, the scurrilous Nazi killer is represented by a milquetoast little man with glasses and 'cute' moustache, an unusually nice touch for a film with so much ideological baggage to carry.

The Murderers Are Among Us is an East German film, approved and sanctioned by the Russian occupiers of Berlin, before the Iron Curtain came down. The helpful production notes infer that in the Western sectors, America and its allies for some time refused to allow the Germans to make films, preferring to see what Yankee indoctrination could do, that it was time for Germans to listen and not express themselves. The notes also imply that the Allies wanted the movie theaters free to show American product, a claim that's unsubstantiated.  1 The East Germans and Russians founded DEFA, a combination film school and studio. The director of this acclaimed film actually played a small part in the reviled film Der Ewige Jude in the early '40s, a fact that he later found 'embarassing', according to the notes.  2

Plotwise, The Murderers Are Among Us is an ideologically sanitized tale of defeat and rebirth. The rubble looks uninhabitable, and there are rats among the bricks, but people manage hygiene somehow and life moves on. The part of the story dealing with the regeneration of the morally disoriented doctor is well done, but is obviously meant as a microcosm of Germany in general. The bald message is that the country needs to pick itself up by its shoelaces, turn in the Nazi criminals still hiding in plain sight, and move on to reconstruction. Hans is about to commit murder, but is restrained by the woman who's redeemed him, as it would drag him down to the Nazi level - a very familiar cliché from socially-conscious American films.

The message is dramatically sound and works in context, but it sure smacks of encouragement to shattered Berliners to inform on their neighbors. For each war criminal turned in and shipped East to some extermination work camp, there were probably 5 others (or 50?) victimized by people who disliked them, or had other reasons to want them out of the way. That's how Stalin worked wherever he was in control.

Frankly, the atrocities committed by both German and Russian forces in Eastern Europe were so staggering that for either side to get selfrighteous with the other, as this film does, is absurd. This is a psychologically sophisticated and sensitive film, but it has a definite Soviet agenda.

Enough politics. The Murderers Are Among Us is an honest, if simplified, call for Germany to rise from the ashes as a just and lawful society, and it must have had a hell of an impact wherever it was shown in 1946.


First Run Features' DVD of The Murderers Are Among Us is a good-looking disc of a reasonable surviving copy of the film. The titles reveal some overcropping on the left hand side, an imbalance that's not apparent later on; a few shots appear to be a bit shrunken. There's also the odd scratch here and there and an overall grain, but the film is in fine shape. The speed looks as if it is a conversion of a 25fps PAL video original; it looks too fast early on but that soon becomes unnoticeable as well. At 81 minutes in length, it could be an 85 minute print projected that telltale 1 frame per second faster.

The extra features are a few stills and some text files; as I tried to point out above, the main production note text reads as though it might have started as much more defensive of the film and anti-West, but was editorially toned-down.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Murderers Are Among Us rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: stills, text files
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2002


Footnote:

1. Savant's given to understand that the Allied occupation of Berlin was the usual combination of generous aid and authoritarian injustices. The systematic purging and cruelties in the Russian sector (where this film was made) are well documented. Expatriate Austrian Billy Wilder was brought in to help de-Nazify the West German film industry before it proceeded to roll cameras once again; any book about him usually recounts a half-dozen hilarious stories he tells about the process.
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2. A Letter with corrections from reader Andreas Flohr, July 13, 2002:

Dear Mr. Savant, First please forgive my poor English: I'm German and I forgot almost completely my English lessons! (Savant: Fooled me.)I've read your informative review about the Defa-Film Die Mörder sind unter uns (the original title) but let me correct one error you obviously took from the liner notes of the DVD.

The director Wolfgang Staudte didn't play a small part in Der ewige Jude ("the eternal jew"). This film was a crude propaganda-documentary that put Jewish people (in a notorious montage sequence) in comparison to rats. The film you meant is the notorious antisemitic movie Jud Suess from the infamous director Veit Harlan. In this film - that's right - Wolfgang Staudte played a very small role. Curiously this movie is forbidden in Germany, public screening is not allowed! After the war director Harlan was accused of "crimes against humanity" only because of this film!

As far as I know, Staudte was a politically dubious character. During the Third Reich he had nothing against his office job at the Tobis Studio that was - like all studios - under strict control of Nazi-Propagandaminister Joseph Goebbels. A typical fellow-traveller, hanger on, "Mitläufer" like millions of other Germans. Bad, but not too bad, I would say, but after 1945 he changed his political direction a little too fast, went to the Defa in East-Berlin and made anti-Fascist movies as if he had always been against the Nazis. A typical German career. Staudte directed one masterpiece: Der Untertan (1951) adopted from a novel by Heinrich Mann (brother of the famous Thomas Mann), but his work declined in the '50s and '60s. So he went to television, and died in 1984. I hope you found this information useful. By the way: You do a great job with your DVD-page! (Note again: except when I make errors, like mixing-up the two movies - Andreas thought it was the DVD liner notes that had made the mistake.)

Greetings from Saarbruecken (by coincidence the birthplace of Wolfgang Staudte and his more famous collegue Max Ophüls) - Andreas Flohr
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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