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Die Mörder sind unter uns is quite the tale, moreso for when the film was made then the actual subject matter itself. Wolfgang Staudte crafted his story to be released in 1946, just a year after World War II had ended. The effects of war and especially the atrocities that occurred in German concentration camps was still very fresh in the minds of survivors and soldiers alike. This film could have been completely polarizing, starting an uprising against those that partook in the Holocaust to acquire revenge. In fact, the original ending was supposed to show one such example of that retribution in blood, but the producers deemed it too powerful and didn’t want the responsibility of creating a mob willing to do it for real. The ending that is used instead, one of discovering that revenge will only make your suffering worse—exacerbating the feelings of hopelessness by making one’s self a killer as well—works more effectively in my mind because of its psychological underpinnings. How that conclusion is handled is another story, but not one without precedence in the movie. It is tacked on and orchestrated so cleanly and quickly that you just don’t believe a word of it. But that is how the entire story plays out, one that is effective emotionally while lacking a lot structurally.

I will grant the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt because they weren’t out to get a character study out to the public, they wanted to show the effects of war and how Germany would need to forever live amongst those that killed without remorse for years under Hitler’s regime. As a result, the characters are well fleshed out individually with all their problems and idiosyncrasies, but their relationships with each other are stilted and false. How some people know one another can never be explained in certain instances and the fast track comradery between others comes from nowhere at times. Take our two leads, Dr. Mertens, (the man who has taken up residence at a former prisoner’s old apartment), and Susanne Wallner, (that returned prisoner looking for home). When she comes back it is with the mindset of residing there again, it was hers. She is not overly possessive as she tells Mertens he may stay until he finds another place, but he will have none of it. This has been his home and since the war ended he has not fully recovered from the Stockholm Syndrome ruling his life. A doctor that can no longer stomach the sight of blood after what he witnessed in the Nazi army, Mertens has found solace in the drink, completely drunk at most times of the day in order to silence the sounds and screams of just a few months previous. So, we go from the two living in separate rooms never to intrude on the other, to he enjoying having a woman around to cook and clean, to the two of them being madly in love with each other. Sure it was a foregone conclusion, but there is no courtship at all, we are just meant to believe it happened behind the scenes.

Now, by having those relationship points glossed over does allow for more time to delve into the meat of the tale. You see, Mertens was a doctor under the command of Captain Brueckner, a man responsible for the deaths of innocent women and children despite his pleas for leniency. Only when the doctor sees his Captain in a field, apparently dying, does he believe the nightmare might be over, God has gotten retribution for him; he will not have to shed blood himself to make up for the loss of those in the camp. In the great coincidental way that movies always seem to possess, the Captain’s death is discovered to have been untrue by Susanne, after she finds a letter to his wife amongst Mertens’ things. She takes it upon herself to deliver this letter, only finding that Brueckner survived and would love to see the doctor again for he was a steady and reliable comrade. This discovery only drags Mertens down deeper and deeper into his drowning soul, doing whatever he can to stay afloat, only to find that murder of the murderer can be the only way. It is a brilliant portrayal of trying to find redemption in a muddled and confused mind and Ernst Wilhelm Borchert is great breathing life into this broken man.

The film’s style reminded me a lot of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in its use of montage and transitions. Maybe it was just the stark black and whites and the use of shadow and sharp cuts, but being only 20 years later, in an obliterated nation, I don’t think one has to go too far to understand a Russian influence here, especially since they backed the financing. Oftentimes there are some stunning visuals on display too. The use of looming shadows encompassing characters like that at the end or close-ups to portray emotion is effectively handled. What a unique way to express flashback by showing only Borchert’s face as his Mertens remembers the killings at the camp. His eyes opened wide, we can only see into his soul while the sounds superimposed express the atrocity he witnessed.

But I also enjoyed the small details of the time period and the authenticity of it all. My friend who showed me the film believes it was shot in Berlin with the real rubble surrounding them as a set. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was correct, because it all felt real and was lingered upon often. A favorite character of mind supposedly showed an occupation of the time also, of a psychic/seer. The Lenin-esque actor performed a service to Herr Mondschein, a man waiting desperately to see his son return home. It is a job to instill hope while also cashing in on the suffering of the weak. An interesting moral compass changer that while nefarious does indeed perform a necessary service.

As the first German film produced after the war, you have to give those involved credit for getting it done, especially with the kind of light it shed on the country. So soon after, they were already attempting to distance themselves as far away as possible.

Die Mörder sind unter uns 7/10

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photography:
[1] Wolfgang Staudte and Hildegard Knef during the shooting of “Die Mörder sind unter uns” (“The Murderers Are Among Us / Murderers Among Us”, 1946).

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