First off, this is a great film. But much of which makes it great is the circumstances of its production; it would not be fair to talk about the film without giving them some consideration right off the bat. The Murderers Are Among Us is known for being one of the first films to come out of post-World War II Germany. It was shot on site in the ruins of Berlin and the characters all reflect their shattered reality, sometimes quite overtly as when an image of rubble is superimposed over Hans Mertens’ face. This would be ham-fisted in any other film but here it has the cold honesty of a documentary.
The writer/director, Wolfgang Staudte, remained in Germany throughout the war, unlike many contemporaries, such as Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder, who fled to the United States and enjoyed successful careers in Hollywood. Staudte remained and worked on his script, which would have meant his death had it been discovered because of its heavily anti-fascist subject matter. The Nazis, among their many atrocities, dismantled the German film industry, which was at least the rival of Hollywood in terms of cinematic innovation, and reduced it to a mere machine for manufacturing propaganda. The film is very much an homage to a ruined Berlin, but also to a ruined German cinema, and it’s style references the German Expressionism that was popular during the Weimar Republic.
After the War, Staudte went to each of the occupying powers with his script but was rejected by each in turn, except by the Soviets. They agreed to produce it with one major caveat: Staudte would have to choose a dfferent ending to the film, as the Soviets beleieved Staudte’s original ending would encourage vigilantism amongst the people.
At this point, I have to thank Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” of the San Francisco Film Noir Foundation. During his introductory speech to the film, he warned the audience about the ending without spoiling it. If I was not thus prepared, the psychotic bout of Christian imagery and repentance at the end of the film probably would have soured me against the whole thing. It is utterly at odds stylistically and thematically with the rest of the film and comes on like cheap, bad drugs.
Once again though, considering the history of the film, the choice of ending is quite interesting as it reflects an overt intersection of film and politics. In Staudte’s original script, Wallner arrives just too late to stop Mertens from murdering his enemy in cold blood. In the version produced by the Soviets, she arrives just before and convinces Mertens to take the “higher path” by turning Bruckner over to the proper authorities for judgment. This is significant because the film was released within weeks of the Nuremberg Trials, in which Germany was similarly divested of its own authority in law. The criminals on trial were put through a circus of ex post facto legislation at the hands of an international tribunal, which disguised revenge and political maneuverings as legal proceedings. Hence the bizarre, optimistic ending which places faith in the justice of the Great Nations, finishing off a film that is intensely critical and cynical regarding authority. It is a testament to the instability of the times, the need for the victorious powers to maintain control over the situation.
The story itself involves a young woman, Susanne Wallner, who returns to her old bombed out apartment in Berlin from a concentration camp, only to find a doctor, Hans Mertens, squatting in her home. Mertens spends most of his time drinking and hanging around the cabaret to avoid his problems, but they agree to coexist and Wallner helps Mertens recover from the traumas of the war, but Mertens is halted in his recovery by the discovery that his former captain Ferdinand Bruckner, a war criminal, has survived the war and is prospering. The film is beautifully shot, nice and bleak and cynical. Susanne Wallner is a bit of a mystery though. At least as traumatized as Mertens by her time in the camps, her history is never developed. When she returns home, her landlord advises her that anything can be forgotten as long as she has a goal to work towards. After that, she is never seen sitting still, always painting or working on the house or trying to help out Mertens. She comes off as either the most complete character in the film, or the most tragically ignored.
Here's a snippet from the film, certainly one of my favorites: