Second Looks: Berlin Express (1948)

“The dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon.”

Dr. Heinrich Bernhardt is in Paris, post-war, to attend a secret UN conference focused on German reunification. Elsewhere, a mysterious message has been found — “9850,” “21:45,” the letter “D,” and “Sulzbach” — attached to a dead pigeon.

Berlin Express poster
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The police are unable to figure out the coded message but know that it’s some sort of spy message. The mystery of the encrypted note unravels aboard a train from France to Berlin.

Berlin Express was directed by Jacques Tourneur. The screenplay was written by Harold Medford from a story by Curt Siodmak.

At the beginning of this film, I adored the contained and stifling setting of the train. I wouldn’t have minded if the entire film took place on the train. That tension!

Things remain plenty interesting as the film carries on, though. Berlin Express showcases the lingering tensions after the war, despite the veil of peace and the world’s collective sense of relief at the war’s end. Its characters are from many countries — England, the US, Russia, Germany, France — and to see how the war has affected the way they interact with one another is fascinating.

The physical destruction of the war is on full display, too. Buildings are reduced to piles of brick. Desperate relatives and friends search for their lost loved ones. The script calls Frankfurt “the biggest ghost town you’ve ever seen.”

The documentary-style, informative narration gives context and history to everything shown on screen. The film is also quite well-shot, with some startling location footage. TCM quotes producer Bert Granet as saying, “We could never have made the picture if we’d had to duplicate the ruin and devastation of Germany. I figure we got about $65 billion worth of free sets.”

Berlin Express still
(Image via Mubi)

My one complaint about Berlin Express is that it needs more Merle Oberon! The film is definitely an ensemble effort, featuring the talents of Robert Ryan, Paul Lukas, and others alongside Oberon. The performances are finely-executed by all, and I really grew to like the group by the end of the film, but I found myself wishing that Merle’s character of Lucienne (a French secretary traveling on the train) was central.

I would recommend Berlin Express for its well-crafted blend of noir and documentary elements. Another great Jacques Tourneur film to add to the roster of favorites!

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