Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 11 
13 Oct
2003

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Wolfgang Staudte's Die Moerder sind unter uns (The Murderers are among Us, 1946) EAST GERMANY
The birth of remembering
Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are among Us, 1946)

After the Second World War, a new kind of German cinema was needed that placed the country's people in relation to recent history. Angela Palmer looks at how the Soviet-controlled sector and Staudte led the way with anti-fascist cinema that called for confronting the past and accountability.


Amongst the rubble and squalor that was the Soviet sector of Berlin in 1945, a new kind of cinema was being born, namely the anti-fascist film. This was a form of cinema born out of necessity; the necessity to have the German people come to terms with the crimes which were committed in their name. Here the hollow wasteland that was Berlin became a city of boundless opportunity for those directors denied the opportunity to work under the Third Reich.

The dominating impetus which drove the art of this select group of directors was a desire to assist in the development of a new kind of society in Germany, based on pacifism, compassion and a (deep-seated) respect for humanity. It was within this atmosphere of sanguinity that the director Wolfgang Staudte took the initiative to begin production of Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are among Us, 1946).

Back from the front

In 1945, following the surrender of Germany, two people return to Berlin. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Bochert), a former army surgeon who served in occupied Poland, has returned to his homeland a broken man. As he describes himself in the film itself, he is a very special kind of doctor; one who cannot bear the sight of blood nor hear the moans of a patient in pain. In an effort to dispel his memories he has turned to alcohol to overcome his demons and professes his own form of philosophical scepticism. In his mind, there is no point in scientific innovation, developments in science or in saving a single life in the midst of such carnage.

Wolfgang Staudte's Die Moerder sind unter uns (The Murderers are among Us, 1946)Mertens is seems destined to continue on this path of self-destruction until the entrance of Susanne Wallner into his life. Wallner (Hildegard Knef) returns to her home in Berlin after being liberated from an unspecified concentration camp. In spite of her unspeakable experiences—although these are never articulated in the film—Wallner is filled with a new will to live. These two contrasting characters are brought together when Wallner returns to her former apartment which she shared with her late father to find it is now being occupied by Mertens.

As what was first a temporary living arrangement develops into love, Mertens attempts to overcome his demons, though with little success. His efforts are undermined by the revelation that his former commander, Ferdinand Bruckner, is alive and living in Berlin. In 1942, Mertens stood aside as Bruckner ordered the mass murder of civilians in Poland, the memory of which is the cause of Mertens' angst. On meeting Bruckner again in the post-war period, Mertens becomes determined to avenge these deaths and seek justice for himself by killing Bruckner. He almost succeeds in his attempt but is, at the last minute, prevented from killing his nemesis by Wallner. Here Wallner reminds Mertens that it is their obligation to seek justice for such crimes but not to deliver judgement.

The many faces of the New Germany

Given the time Die Mörder sind unter uns was first conceived and produced, amid the urban rubble of occupied Berlin, there was no need for any documentary footage of the time it represents. What is of the greatest importance to this film is what Barton Byg has described as the "inner landscape" of the survivors[1]; the trauma of having to confront the past and forge a new life in post-Nazi Germany. In this respect, the significance of this film comes through in its portrayal of the two dominant aspects of post-war German society, namely the victims and the perpetrators. One of the most interesting examinations this film indulges in is its portrayal of the former German officer classes in Mertens and Bruckner.

In spite of the fact that Mertens had once been part of the Nazi apparatus, he still responds with alarm to the crimes committed by the regime. This heavy burden of guilt becomes present in Mertens' character during his visit to a former colleague, where the cries of his patient reawaken the horror of the Second World War. It is as a result of these confrontations that Mertens is able to recognize the importance of accountability, whereby the German people must respond to the crimes committed in their name. Here Mertens becomes the director's mouthpiece, as it is through this character that the film's message of pacifism is projected. War once again becomes an unnecessary act of cruelty against man and an absurd means of giving value to individual lives.

Wolfgang Staudte's Die Moerder sind unter uns (The Murderers are among Us, 1946)In light of this, Mertens reaches the ominous conclusion that peace is just a brief pause before people begin to die in droves. However, the importance of the form of confrontation experienced by Mertens is that this personal acceptance of guilt has the potential to assist in the collective acceptance of guilt. Here Staudte main message becomes present; that it is necessary to confront the past to avoid following the same destructive path in the future.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mertens' former commanding officer, Bruckner. He is unrepentant for his crimes, largely through his own inability to recognize the magnitude of the damage he inflicted. Instead Bruckner looks back to his army days with a sense of nostalgia ("Golden days in grey uniforms"). In spite of this, Bruckner sees the past as something which should be forgotten completely. Such a belief becomes present during Mertens' first attempt to murder Bruckner when the two make their way through a bombed-out suburb. The "godforsaken wasteland" of Berlin should be cleared away and, as a result, disregarded. The film itself expresses the danger of expressing such a sentiment, as by clearing away Germany's responsibility away with its rubble has the potential to erase the guilt of the German nation.

Bruckner's character also represents the opportunistic ideals of post-war Germany through his new interest in business "You must manage, that's all" is the argument justifying his new position in society. During the time the Nazi party welded absolute power over the nation, it was advantageous to collaborate with the regime. In the post-war condition this situation is no different; to benefit from the new era it is necessary to comply with its new direction.

These two characters represent the difficulties facing the German nation—the pain of confronting the past and the dangers of denial in German society. In the midst of such a dejected atmosphere there is the redeeming influence of Wallner, who has been able to retain her capacity for forgiveness and optimism. Staudte uses this character as a role model not only for the film but for the new German society. Wallner is an innocent victim of the Nazi regime, "guilty" only by association ("because of her father" as her landlady says).

Though her experiences were not unique, she can be seen to be the sort of individual who has the ability to assist society's movement away from the legacy of the war. Most importantly, Wallner can be constituted as being the personification of the resilience of the German people. Her unwavering (Socialist) focus on rebuilding her life through work and assisting those around her (such as Mertens) is descriptive of the phoenix-like nature of the German people. Wallner is the symbol of the defrauded yet not defeated German nation.[2] Together, these characters inhabit the emotional expanse between optimism and cynicism found in post-war society.

Leontine Sagan's Maedchen in Uniform (1931)Die Mörder sind unter uns is unique not only for the subject that it addresses, the guilt of the German nation; it is also interesting to highlight the similarities it has with the cinema of Weimar Germany. Staudte's work facilitated a return to the stylistic interpretation and genres of those anti-war films promoting pacifism. The film noir style employed by Staudte is evocative of German expressionism, whose focus on melancholy and guilt and figurative use of light to reflect individual emotions places the film outside of the common cinematic techniques used in Nazi era melodrama (Meyers 1997).[3] In this sense, the film bears a striking resemblance to pre-war films such as Leberlei and Leontine Sagan's Mädchen in Uniform (1931). However, it was the relevance of the film's defining theme, which was quite timely, that was able to capture the attention of its target audience.

The trials of film production
in "liberated" Germany

This film also attracted a substantial amount of international attention, as it was billed as being Germany's first attempt to deal with the crimes of Nazism. In spite of this, the Staudte proposal was met with indifference by the allied powers. Following the occupation of Germany in 1945 the allied forces effectively controlled all of the German media to ensure that all ties with Nazism were rejected. To this effect Staudte had been told by the Americans that there would be no German film production for 20 years.

It was only when he forwarded his proposal to the Russian Cultural Officer, Major Alexander Dymschitz, that the film was given approval.[4] This agreement set forth the establishment of the DEFA studios as a joint German-Soviet operation in the same year Die Mörder sind unter uns was produced and released (1946). The Russian forces were willing to support the film on the provision that Staudte alter the script, originally entitled "The Man I want to Kill." In this version Mertens is successful in his attempt to kill Bruckner. Such an ending could have had, according to Dymschitz, the potential to prompt an outbreak of vigilantism.[5] Instead, the film heralded the use of a more effective means of gaining justice.

Die Mörder sind unter uns is considered to be one of the most important films to have been produced in the history of the German cinema. In the immediate post-war era, the film went on to be screened in over 23 countries. The message the film carries is still of great significance in modern Germany, as its focus on justice and remembering the crimes of the German nation are two elements which should not be forgotten.

It seems quite fitting in this instance to find that the praise accorded to the film following its premiere on 15 October 1946 appeared alongside the German media's accounts of the Nuremburg executions.[6] Here the message of justice and pacifism found within Die Mörder sind unter uns is compounded by these events. However unintentionally, Germany was doubly reminded of the importance of accountability in the new Germany.

Angela Palmer

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Also of interest
About the author

Angela Palmer is a post-graduate student at the Univeristy of Melbourne.


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Footnotes

1. Barton Byg, "The Anti-Fascist Tradition and GDR Film" in Proceedings, Purdue University Fifth Annual Conference on Film (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 1980), 81-87.return to text

2. Peter Meyers, "Der DEFA-film: Die Mörder sind unter uns" in Nationalsozialismus und Judenverfolgung in DDR-Medien (Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1997), 71-83.return to text

3. Ibid.return to text

4. Christiane Mückenberger, "The Antifascist Past in DEFA Films" in DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Edited by Seán Allan and John Sandford (New York: Berghahn, 1999), 58-76.return to text

5. Helmut Pflügl (ed), Der geteilte Himmel. Höhepunkte des DEFA-kinos 1946-1992, vol 1 (Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria, 2001), 162-164.return to text

6. Mückenberger, op cit.return to text

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