Monday, 25 April 2011

Berlin Express (1948)

Made for RKO Studios in 1948, Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express can be situated alongside other realist dramas filmed on location in post-war Europe - most notably Fred Zinnemann's The Search (1948) - and also alongside thrillers-on-a-train such as Hitchcock's 1930s spy films. Indeed, Berlin Express initially seems most like a revisioning of The Lady Vanishes (1938). It has a similar cast of characters, at least insofar as they are all self-interested representatives of various broadly drawn European nationaities. The actor Paul Lukas, Hungarian-born but often cast as a German - is once again on hand and playing a German who may or may not be quite what he seems. And Tourneur clearly loves the train setting for exactly the same reasons Hitchcock did: there is plenty of speed and forward movement in the locomotive, yet at the same time the characters are bound claustrophobically to one another. There are private spaces for intimacy, dining cars and platforms for group meetings, and long, narrow corridors for chase sequences. All of this can be found in Berlin Express, within a plot centred on American (Robert Ryan), British (Robert Coote), French (Charles Korvin) and Russian (Roman Toporow) passengers travelling to Berlin, where they will each do their bit for the post-war reconstruction effort. Two additional passengers, a German peace leader (Lukas) and his secretary (Merle Oberon), provide the complications. When a decoy for the peace leader is assassinated, the group are waylaid, and their hunt for the assassin, through the bombed-out remains of Frankfurt, takes a few decidedly noirish (and far-fetched) turns. There are some imaginative shots, but Berlin Express pales alongside the slightly later The Third Man (1949), which has a more distinctive style, more captivating stars and especially a more intriguing story.

Nonetheless, Berlin Express leaves a strong impression for its location footage and its quiet pacifism.  Paris, where Tourneur was born, is shown in all of its Eiffel Tower glory, as having survived the war intact. Yet Frankfurt and Berlin appear utterly devasted, with block after block of buldings in ruins and piles of rubble. Against this backdrop, the attempts of each nation to forgive the Germans, to collaborate with one another and help to rebuild Germany, takes on some compelling qualities. In the ending, the film's united nations of characters say goodbye while standing amid the ruins of the familiar Berlin landmarks: the Riechstag, the Brandenburg Gate and the Hotel Adlon. There is a sense of newly found comraderie and understanding in the air, but also a chilly hint of the impending Cold War. The final shot, showing a one-legged man hobbling through the bullet-scarred remains of the Brandenburg Gate, poignantly suggests that the wounds from the last war have scarcely healed, and so, implicitly at least, it questions the wisdom of embarking on another war. In 1948, that message was a little late, but one cannot help but admire Tourneur for smuggling it into what is otherwise a fairly formulaic and familiar thriller. 

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