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When I came across a reference to the 1946 German film The Murderers are Among Us (orig. title Die Mörder sind unter uns), it was for a Region 2 Blu-ray giveaway. As a student of both film noir and the Holocaust, I immediately looked into the film. I soon learned it was a one of the first post-WWII German films and the first Trümmerfilm, or “rubble film,” the name for post-war pictures shot on location in bombed out European cities (primarily in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe). Such films were popular in helping to rebuild the film industry directly after the war and included the themes of returning soldiers, poverty and suffering in post-war Germany, confrontation with the past (e.g. issues of collective guilt), and reconstruction. In the case of The Murderers are Among Us, all of these subjects are touched upon, with central emphasis on finding hope and a reason to live despite having experienced the horrors of the war and the pain of guilt.

The plot of The Murderers are Among Us centers on the life of Dr. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert), a surgeon forced to serve in the German military and take part in the murder of civilian men, women, and children under Captain Ferdinand Brueckner (Arno Paulsen). Borchert clearly has PTSD, which he treats by overdrinking. His temper is foul, especially when he finds a room in the ruins of Berlin and its former inhabitant, Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), returns after having suffered for several years in a Polish concentration camp. She convinces Brueckner to share the two-room flat and is immediately drawn to help him overcome his misery through generosity and kindness that soothes her own trauma. We meet other characters in the building, including old Herr Mondschein (Robert Forsch), who waits patiently for his son’s return (but dies before receiving a long awaited letter from him) and Bartolomaeus Timm (Albert Johannes), who makes a living from feigning psychic abilities that reassure others for a fee. However, our central focus is on Mertens, who struggles with flashbacks that grow ever more vivid, especially when Susanna unintentionally reunites him with his former commander. The Christmas showdown between the oblivious former Nazi and the tormented doctor offers the film’s climax, but I will forego spoiling the ending, as I think it very much worth seeing. (Look it up at Dailymotion.com, where you can as of this posting watch it free online.)

The film was rejected for license by Hollywood, for the U.S. preferred to export its own productions. By contrast, The Murderers are Among Us was licensed and lauded by the Soviets, who felt the film encouraged the German public to judge those responsible for war atrocities. Bulgarian director Angel Wagenstein stated, “For me [director Wolfgang Staudte] was the first ambassador, who through his film renewed our faith in a nation capable of self-reflection, of looking into the mirror and acknowledging its own guilt, of making a confession that very few nations would be able to make” (qtd. in Stephen Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film, 2010).

Beyond the storyline and production history, I was very much drawn to the noir cinematography, featuring both chiaroscuro lighting and unexpected camera angles. In many ways, the mise-en-scène is reminiscent of the Expressionism that emerged in Weimar theater and art, dominating German cinema before the war in an effort to use external objective means to represent internal, subjective experience. Realism is rejected in favor of highly styled representation. Expressionism is used to excellent effect in The Murderers are Among Us, with the goal of representing the perspectives of the main characters as they struggle in the rubble of post-war Berlin. Rather than explain further, I’ll let some images (that I found via google image search) speak for themselves:

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Use of dutch-angle (tilted) lens shows the psychological impact of the ruins.
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The broken glass and lattice of panes fragment and cast shadows upon main characters Susanne and Dr. Mertens as they look out upon the ruins beneath which many bodies lay buried.
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The very rubble itself is superimposed on Dr. Mertens’ face.
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Susanne crossed by a bar of shadow as she first encounters the troubled Dr. Mertens, more fully cast in shadows.
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Note the lack of shadows as Susanne works for a brighter future, gazing upon her Christmas tree with the dirty stove and x-rays from Mertens’ former practice covering the broken windows.
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Mertens compares the chessboard to a battlefield in a scene shot from the level of the chess pieces. (The effect is enhanced as Mertens actively blows smoke from his cigarette across the board.)
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Mertens’ declaration of love is shot from an unexpected angle in which Susanne’s hopeful eyes shine while Mertens rests against her with shadows looming.
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Bartolomaeus Timm’s willingness to lie to comfort others is magnified by the partial blocking of the character by his night sky globe and attention to his glasses as they mask his face. Herr Mondschein also wears glasses, but his are more revealing, showing his naive faith that his son will return to him.
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A full shot of the duplicitous Timm as he exploits others’ pain. His glasses reflect light rather than expose his eyes.
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A choker close-up of Herr Mondschein, his anxious hope exposed for us. His glasses enhance rather than hide his eyes.
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When Mertens dines with his former Captain, we see see his wealthy, happy bourgeois family from a distance, but over Mertens’ shoulder, for our sympathies lie with Mertens.
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A classic noir-style shadow of Mertens as he approaches Captain Brueckner, intending to kill him.

Although there are other very powerful cinematic moments in the film — such as the soft blur around Mertens face every time he has a flashback (though not around his actual memory of the murder of innocents that we finally see near the end) — I hope these images and my summary give a sense of how relevant this film is to discussions of noir, from the emphasis on a criminal villain and the use of flashbacks to the complex, troubled anti-hero and the woman as redeemer.

My only real complaint about the film is how little insight into Susanne’s pain we get. We know she suffered because she was forced into a concentration camp. However, after the opening scenes, we do not enter her head beyond her worry and love for Mertens. This links her with the noir “good woman” or redeemer, a type as artificial yet even less engaging than the femme fatale. This does not, however, stop me from recommending the film highly.

 

 

 

 

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