International intrigue with a lesson for us all. If only they'd dropped the lesson.
May 4, 2011
Like the curate's egg, parts of Berlin Express are excellent. But the other parts? Be prepared for conscientious lectures, conventional and dull, about how life might be for us all if the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviets could work together and be jolly doing it. Divided Germany right after WWII is the subject, but we get the idea: We all just need to be friends. An anonymous narrator keeps telling us this, as well as pointing out what we're already seeing.
It's no accident, I think, that Dore Schary supervised the making of Berlin Express. If there was any possibility of pounding inspiring messages into an otherwise good movie, Schary was the producer with the mallet. (Also, if you suffer from clownophopia in the shape of leaking spoilers, you might want to read no further. At least don’t blame this poor reporter if you do.)
Imbedded like those old-time prizes in clumps of stale, sticky Cracker Jack are the good parts. These are worth digging for. We're in the middle of a Nazi plot to keep the victors from working together, all to better the chances of these grubby but dangerous survivors of the Third Reich to divide and conquer. The humane Dr. Bernhardt, a German who opposed Hitler and survived, is on a mission from Paris to Berlin by train to address an international conference on his plans for a unified and democratic Germany. There's a plot to kill him. When a grenade on a snack tray goes off in Dr. Bernhardt's compartment...is it good-bye, Dr. Bernhardt?
Four travelers on the train, strangers to each other, find themselves thrown together with Lucienne (Merle Oberon), the doctor's secretary, to find out what really happened. There's Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), an agricultural expert from the U. S.; Sterling (Robert Coote), a teacher from Britain who will work to develop Germany's education institutions; Perrot (Charles Korvin), a Frenchman who was with the maquis and is now a businessman; and Soviet Army lieutenant Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toperow), returning to the Soviet Union. Can they overcome differences to work together successfully in Berlin to learn the truth? Well, sure. That's the whole point of the movie, isn't it?
Why is Berlin Express so good in parts? Most of the movie is set in the bombed out desolation of Berlin. It's a grim, desperate place. The reality of Germany under the control of the occupying armies is clear. Cigarettes are the common currency, useful for buying potatoes or bits of coal, or, if you're a G.I., women and liquor. Director Jacques Tournier gives us some first-rate, tense scenes of interrogation, hunts down rubble-filled streets at night, a tawdry German nightclub in a ruined building, a tacky mind-reading act and impending violence in a cavernous, bombed-out brewery.
You can't beat a dying clown for morbid interest, and Tournier gives us a doozy, with the clown in full costume, a big smile painted on his face, running and staggering down brick-filled streets, bleeding from a bullet wound in his back and pursued by those intent on finishing him off. He has an effective death scene, too, in that nightclub.
There's no sign of romance or even a spark or two between Merle Oberon and Robert Ryan, just a bit of uneasy flirting. They raise the question, what's the point of the two of them? Charles Korvin, Coote and Toperow all do fine jobs. Reinhold Schunzel dominates his scenes as an aged friend of Dr. Bernhardt who learns too late that he made a terrible bargain. I suppose he's forgotten now, at least in America, but Schunzel was a fine actor. For raucous and corrupt good spirits, put on Criterion's The Three Penny Opera (1931) and watch Schunzel as Tiger Brown pair off with Mack the Knife to sing Kanonen-Song
The international intrigue parts of Berlin Express are just fine, especially when we realize we'd better not trust just anyone. The laid-on messages of international cooperation are, unfortunately, dull and heavy-handed. They slow down the plot appreciably whenever Dr. Bernhardt, Lucienne or the narrator decide we need to be reminded of what the real purpose of the movie is. Still, like the curate's egg, parts of Berlin Express are tasty.