Berlin Express (1948)

(Image via Fantomas CinemaScope)

(Image via Fantomas CinemaScope)

Dr. Heinrich Bernhardt (Paul Lukas) is in post-war Paris to give a talk regarding German reunification. At the same time, a group of children find a dead pigeon carrying a coded message tied to its leg:

21:45

D

9850

Sulzbach

A woman planning to cook the pigeon delivers the note swiftly to the police, who are unable to decipher it completely. They figure that 21:45 is a time – 9:45 pm – and that the note must be referring to some meeting, but they can’t get all of the details worked out. Still, they notify everyone to be on alert for suspicious behavior and spy activities.

The answers to this mysterious note are revealed through the night as seven passengers head out on a train to Germany: the American Robert F. Lindley (Robert Ryan), the French Lucienne Mirbeau (Merle Oberon), the German Otto Franzen (Fritz Kortner) and Hans Schmidt (Peter von Zerneck), the English James Sterling (Robert Coote), the Russian Maxim Kiroshilou (Roman Toporow), and Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin) of the French underground.

Jacques Tourneur directs 1948’s Berlin Express. The screenplay was written by Harold Medford from a story by Curt Siodmak.

Incorporating some location shooting with the cooperation and permission of the occupying armies, the cinematography of Berlin Express is fantastic. The real-world backdrop adds a sense of authenticity as to what it was truly like to be in post-wartime Europe, while the shadowplay recalls a hardboiled noir. It’s a perfect mix for a story that is intriguing and mysterious, but based in a very real place and time.

The film also features narration — not constantly but quite frequently. There are moments when this narration seems a bit too frequent and heavy-handed, but overall I liked the use of the technique. It adds a sort of travelogue feel to parts of the film when it is used, which again brings home the fact that this really is post-war Europe, and while the film’s script is fictional, some of its elements are factual.

(Image via Lasso the Movies)

(Image via Lasso the Movies)

Berlin Express makes use of a very large cast of characters, and all of the many performances are nicely executed. There were no real stand-out players for me, but the actors do very well in their roles and add up to a successful ensemble, bringing to life different mysteries and twists (most of which are somehow connected, though to varying degrees — pieces of the larger mystery involving that mysterious note).

To lodge a few small complaints against the film, the pace could be picked up a bit, the suspense built to a higher level throughout the film rather than just in certain scenes. But Berlin Express is still a fascinating watch for those interested in the post-war years, and is certainly a well-made film. The score: 4/5

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