After Germany was divided in 1949, the enfeebled film industries of East and West developed along separate lines. The Walter Reade’s copious 31-film series is devoted solely to West Germany’s post-war cinema, spanning a transitional period between the state-controlled fabrications of the Third Reich and the Young German Film renaissance of the 1960s.
The dominant West German genre of the immediate post-war years was the so-called Trummerfilme, or “rubble films”—works shot in ruined cities and marked by the self-pity of a defeated people. Germany’s first post-war production was the mother of all the rubble films: Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), whose crew was dominated by veterans of the Nazi industry. Its art director, Otto Hunte, had worked on nearly every great Fritz Lang film of the 1920s. (In 1940, Staudte acted in and Hunte designed the most notorious anti-Semitic film of the Third Reich, Jud Suss, which prepared the ground for Dachau and Buchenwald; it’s the only known film in history from which members of the audience emerged and trampled Jews to death.) In Murderers, Hildegard Knef emerges from a concentration camp with her makeup intact, returning to her Berlin apartment to find it occupied by an alcoholic surgeon. He’s obsessed with killing a war criminal; she restores his sanity and persuades him to give up his revenge. An uneasy mix of shadowy expressionism and doc verisimilitude, this stark film offers little in the way of political analysis, although its moral indignation is somewhat convincing.
Géza von Radványi’s The Doctor From Stalingrad (1958) and Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (1959)—war films both—provide a study in contrasts. Doctor, a hokey adaptation of a bestseller about German prisoners in a Soviet camp, is of interest mainly for the performers: the character actor O.E. Hasse (the heavy in Hitchcock’s I Confess) and the extraordinary Valéri Inkizhinov, who played the lead in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s last great silent film, Storm Over Asia. In Wicki’s ferocious and moving first feature, high school students from a quiet German river town are thrown into Hitler’s war and become “human sandbags” in a senseless battle to defend meaningless ideals.
West German prosperity during the conservative Adenauer era (1949-1962) created a market for escapist entertainment—musicals, melodramas, and sentimental Heimatfilme (“homeland” films). Considered scandalous when first shown, Willi Forst’s The Sinner (1950) is a vehicle for Hildy Knef to pout, put out for money, and sacrifice herself for a painter going blind from a brain tumor. Knef has been called the thinking man’s Marlene Dietrich, but The Sinner is more like an unthinking man’s Joan Crawford movie. Kurt Hoffmann’s treacly I Often Think of Piroschka (1955) takes place in 1925 in a Hungarian village, where a German exchange student and the stationmaster’s daughter fall in love and stare at each other endlessly like Tussaud dummies. But the Adenauer years also saw a few major works from famous émigrés who returned after Hollywood careers. Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (1957) is one of the director’s best works, a complex suspenser about a serial killer, set during the final days of WWII. Fritz Lang, who had left Germany in 1933, capped his career on home soil with a final film built like an infernal machine, The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), an updated variation on the theme of his now famous master criminal.
The unforgettably sinister star of Lang’s pre-war masterpiece M., Peter Lorre became typecast by the Hollywood studios and reduced to “face-making” roles; he was also being harassed by HUAC. In 1949, he returned home after a 16-year absence to direct and star in The Lost Man (1951), based on the true story of a Nazi research scientist who wound up a murderer and suicide in a post-war refugee camp. Consider a movie on the Third Reich in which no one says “Heil Hitler,” in which there are no hammy villains or trimly uniformed hunks. Lorre’s Gestapo is closer to Hannah Arendt than to Visconti; his subtle, spectral film was met with total indifference. It was not released in this country until 1984, 20 years after Lorre’s death. Like Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter), another great actor who helmed a masterpiece that bombed, Lorre never directed another film.