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Two Train Journeys Through Germany

March 26, 2013

Two movies this week which are very different in tone but still have a lot in common. ‘Night Train to Munich’ and ‘Berlin Express’ are probably best described as being well thought of second tier movies by distinguished directors.

Sir Carol Reed is the man responsible for ‘Night Train to Munich’ and Jacques Tourneur for ‘Berlin Express. The better known ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Out of the Past’ are two of my favourite films. Of the two movies it is actually Tourneur’s ‘Berlin Express’ that has the most in common with Reed’s ‘The Third Man’.

As their titles suggest they also are both set in Germany and largely on trains. Both deal with plucky English speaking leads trying to protect elderly boffins from the Nazis. More interestingly they were both filmed very close to the Second World War and have a lot of interest to say about attitudes to Germany.

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‘Night Train to Munich’ is a British movie from 1940 set during the period leading up to the declaration of war and the first few days of it. ‘Berlin Express’ is a 1948 American RKO feature from a French director that was filmed on location in Paris, Frankfurt and finally Berlin during the early years of the post war occupation. The film opens with a declaration that it was made with the help of the various occupying powers including the Soviets. It was notable as the first Hollywood production filmed in Germany after the war.
In ‘Night Train to Munich’ the Germans invade Czechoslovakia and imprison Margaret Lockwood, the daughter of a noted armour plating specialist, in a concentration camp. The British have flown her father to safety in London as the tanks rolled in. With the help of Paul Heinreid, a fellow prisoner she escapes and makes her way to London only for it to turn out that her fellow escapee is a German intelligence officer who kidnaps them both and brings them back to Germany.

With the countries on the brink of war British intelligence officer Rex Harrison, flies to Germany and passes himself off as a Wehrmacht Engineers officer with a history with both Lockwood and her father. He promises the Gestapo that given time alone with her on the train from Berlin to Munich he will win them both over to the Nazi cause. His cover is eventually blown but with the help of travelling cricket fans Charters and Caldicot he gets Lockwood and her father safe to Switzerland.

The presence of Lockwood and Charters and Caldicot as well as the Mittleuropean railway setting often gets this movie referred to as an unofficial sequel to Hitchcocks 1938 film ‘The Lady Vanishes’. Indeed Harrison’s character of an upper class irreverent hero with musical leanings is also very close to Michael Redgrave’s lead from the Hitchcock film. It also shared script writers Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. The male lead in this film was originally intended to go to Michael Redgrave and indeed there are internet references to Hitchcock being intended to direct, however he had left England for the safety of the United States by this point.

Despite the same script writers ‘Night Train to Munich’ suffers in comparison to the Lady Vanishes, Lockwood doesn’t have the same chemistry with the male lead and the impact of the war changes the tone considerably. Ironically in some ways the menace of the villains works far better in that film which really gives the impression of an unprepared childlike Britain still trying to play by a sense of honour the fast arming continent has left behind. Redgrave and Lockwood try to cling to rules that are clearly out of date and a genuine sense of menace is generated despite some fine witty dialogue. Amateur heroics and spying old ladies are up against automatic weapons and German efficiency.

Here with Britain at war with Germany we have British agents, no longer seemingly doddery old ladies like Miss Froy but charming, bilingual young men at home with a gun and clued in on the workings of the Nazi regime. The idea that Britain is ready and prepared to match German espionage and can get people in and out of Berlin under the noses of the highest levels of the German Military works as a propaganda idea during the Phoney war, as does the idea that the buffoonish Charters and Caldicot will snap to attention and play their part once war is declared. However it does remove the edge of the Hitchcock movie.
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If I’m honest I’m not a fan of Rex Harrison and just wished I’d been able to see Redgrave in the part. Harrison spends a lot of time charming the Nazis with promises of being able to seduce Lockwood and this just accentuated the aspects of his persona I don’t like, as did his singing. Lockwood is beautiful here but not witty or exciting in the way she is in ‘Lady Vanishes’
Interestingly Harrison is matched every step of the way by Gestapo officer Heinreid (still billed as Paul Von Hernreid rather than the more wartime friendly alternative name of his Casablanca days). While Heinreid is not shown to be heroic he is dashing, ultra-competent and resourceful and very much the Teutonic mirror of Harrison’s lead. This kind of respectful portrayal of a German officer as a foe to be feared but not a monster would soon disappear from wartime movies and is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie. In fact he probably has more chemistry with Lockwood than Harrison does and at times you kind of resent him falling for Harrison’s supposed charm.

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It’s an enjoyable, patriotic adventure movie of a sort that would soon disappear as the reality of the war became clear. One that could only have been made in a very small window of time and one with enough cinematic connections to set any film buff thinking throughout. While it didn’t push itself to the top of my personal pantheon it’s still well worth seeing. Charters and Caldicot are funny, worrying about how the impending war will get in the way of a German friend returning some golf clubs and wondering just how that German officer can so resemble someone they once saw play for the Gentlemen. Surely no Nazi would have done such a thing.

Berlin Express is also enjoyable and propanda laden, it looks at Germany from the viewpoint of the immediate post-war period and replaces ‘Night Train to Munich’s’ model alps and cable cars with footage shot in the devastated cities of occupied Germany. Like Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ it deals with the issues thrown up by having four, still officially co-operating, occupying powers at work and how they relate to the conquered and still distrusted residents.

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Robert Ryan plays an agricultural nutritionist sent by the US to combat the starvation and deprivation being felt by millions of Germans. His train from Paris to Frankfurt contains other essential parts of the rebuilding process that we have now largely forgotten. Teachers, business men, Russian attaches and German academics with visions of how their country can be peacefully rebuilt. The last, Doctor Bernhard is seen as the best hope of forging a unified de-nazified Germany and is under threat from Nazi loyalists and provokes strong but mixed reactions for his pacifist ideals. Before the train gets to Frankfurt he is seemingly assassinated.

Bernhard is played by Paul Lukas, an Austro-Hungarian Jewish actor who, to continue the movie connections at play here, a decade earlier played a sinister doctor on a similar train in ‘The Lady Vanishes’. Similarly Ryan as the decent, athletic but unsophisticated and maybe out of hisdepth American reminded me of Joseph Cotten in Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ and the scenes here of Ryan in a shadowy underground brewery, all that was left intact in a devastated city had a lot in common with that movies famous scenes in the Vienna sewers. Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric cinematography here reminded me a lot of his acclaimed work on 1942’s ‘Cat People’.
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In ‘The Third Man’ Cotten can’t penetrate the webs of intrigue between the competing occupying powers and the Germanic public. Ultimately he leaves disillusioned and taught a harsh lesson. Here Ryan’s all American energy and decency do win the day and strive to bring together the various distrustful European groups, including at the end offering a glimpse of entente with the Russians. It’s a propaganda film really, a vision for a new Europe where so many people were living hand to mouth in devastated surroundings that old allegiances and politics needed to be discarded and the idealists listened to. As such it can be a little hard to take seriously at times even though Ryan is an excellent lead who embodies quiet, tough decency and the stark photography of ruined German cities make their own very powerful case.
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Similarly to the way ‘Night Train to Munich’ treated the Germans the movie allows its Red Army character to come out on top in a lot of the interaction with the western characters. The cold war might have been starting and the divisions in Germany are a key part of the story but memories of the war were very fresh and there is a respect here for the tough directness of the Russian army.
It’s a pacifist propaganda movie shot by a stylist whose best work came in Film Noir and Horror with a lead man who was best known for playing villains or at least tortured heroes and that makes a very interesting mix. None of it quite fits but you do still get to see a killer clown hunting someone over the shadowy real life ruins of Frankfurt and rather than seeming camp in Tourneur’s hands it is genuinely creepy.

As are the brutal Nazi loyalist villains, preying on the hopes of a broken displaced population. As with everything else the stark reality of the destroyed Germany on show elevates their hatred of the occupying forces from the cartoonish. The film shows the Germans for a once historic city following the US occupiers for cigarettes and sweets, offering sex to soldiers for essentials , crowding around boards for news of missing loved ones. The amazing documentary nature of the filming gives depth to what could have been a pretty shallow movie.

I’m a big fan of Tourneur and of Ryan and this movie is good work from both. It doesn’t get into the psychology of the occupation in the way ‘The Third Man’ does, it believes in the ability of American goodness to put everything right in the way that movie doesn’t but in some ways that works, the faith in the ability to put things into the past and rebuild from literally nothing is perhaps more prescient for the West German post-war reality than the bitterness of Reed’s masterpiece is.

I can’t imagine anyone is going to come to any of these films before ‘the Third Man’ or ‘The Lady Vanishes’ or ‘Cat People’ or ‘Out of the Past’ but for anyone who wants to see more and accepts they won’t be masterpieces they are two interesting movies.

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