The Murderers Are Among Us was the first film produced by East Germany’s DEFA Studios, as well as the first post-war German film period. You could also say that it was the first in a long line of German films to both explore the complicity of the common German in the horrors of Nazism while at the same time expressing the country’s collective guilt over same.
Director Wolfgang Staudte, unlike a lot of his fellow creatives, remained in Germany throughout the Nazi years, and made his living in part by appearing as a supporting player in some of the propaganda-freighted feature films then being made under the auspices of the party. Among these was the notorious Jew Suss, which, for those who don’t know, is exactly the kind of hateful screed – dressed up, of course, in rousing melodramatic trappings – that you might expect if you put someone like Joseph Goebbels in charge of your country’s filmmaking apparatus. It was Staudte’s remorse over this contribution to the Nazi cause that eventually lead him to pen the initial script for Murderers.
The film stars then newcomer Hildegard Knef in the role of Susanne Wallner, a young woman who returns to Berlin after a two year imprisonment in a concentration camp, only to find her apartment occupied by one Hans Mertens (Ernst Whilhelm Borchert), an embittered and tightly wound former army doctor who appears to be in the midst of a dedicated project to drink himself to death. Seeing as he is unwilling to leave quietly, Susanne opts to share the apartment with this nasty piece of work, and in time somewhat implausibly falls in love with him. Eventually we learn that Mertens is traumatized by something he witnessed while stationed on the Eastern front, a massacre in which innocent civilians, including a large number of women and children, were callously mowed down by German soldiers. When he learns that the officer who ordered these shootings, contrary to his expectations, is not only not dead, but living a life of middle class comfort in Berlin, he feels driven to personally see to it that the man pays for his crimes.
Staudte’s use of postwar Berlin’s bombed out landscape provides Murderers with a look that could be described as a sort of readymade expressionism, at once documentary and evocative. It’s one of the more textually justified uses of the classic noir style that I’ve seen, as both the city and its inhabitants, like the film itself, exist in the palpable shadows cast by recent history. That these places and faces should be obscured in the pall cast by the omnipresent, looming ruins around them seems about as effective of a means of conveying this as I could imagine. These surroundings also seem to energize the players, as the performances from the main cast are uniformly intense and committed.
Still, the picture that Murderers paints is a powerful, if not particularly deep-delving one, with Staudte clearly striving to keep his message neatly contained within the confines of a fast moving genre entertainment. And while the result is indeed satisfyingly taut, there are still instances in which that approach sacrifices some of those things that could have made Murderers a somewhat more successful picture. Most notable among these is the sad underuse of Hildegard Knef. While the film’s story is initially told from Susanne’s perspective, her character gets reduced to something of a cipher once the drama of Mertens’ past takes center stage. We never learn anything about her experience in the camps, and, while one might speculate as to the reasons a woman like her might fall for a man like Mertens, their relationship ends up feeling less like a means of illuminating the characters and more like an inevitable narrative cog, with Sussane ultimately being reduced to little more than the “good woman” whose love helps to redeem the wayward hero.
In the end, all of this only serves to make Murderers a less complex film than it might have been, though it is a strong and irresistibly watchable one nonetheless. Ever since my blogging about cult cinema has taken me outside my cloistered liberal environs and into occasional contact with the type of folk who could conceivably be leery of getting communist cooties, I’ve made an effort when writing about these old Soviet Bloc movies to preemptively enumerate whatever elements within them could possibly be perceived as propagandistic. In this case, though, I’m going to treat those potential reader like the grownups that they are and assume that they can recognize Murderers as a picture that stands tall on its own merits, despite whatever ideological filters it may have passed through in its birthing process. After all, it should be noted that Staudte initially sought Western backing for the film, and only approached the Soviets with his screenplay after being turned down by the other occupying powers, who didn’t take kindly to the idea of a reinvigorated German film industry so soon after the war’s end.
That said, I will say that the officials at DEFA were probably not displeased by the fact that the conscientious former soldier in Staudte’s story was a doctor, while the remorseless one was an industrialist. It should also be noted that those officials altered the director’s original ending, adding an explicit endorsement of handling war criminals through the court system, rather than by vigilantism. Nonetheless, what one ultimately takes away from The Murderers Are Among Us is not any product of politics or ideology, but instead the overwhelming and free floating sense of haunted-ness that enfolds both its characters and landscapes -- not to mention the very movie itself. That’s something that I think is relatable to anyone, no matter what they bring to the table. Though, of course, some of us are more haunted than others.