RKO was the first Hollywood studio to shoot a fictional film in postwar Germany, and while ostensibly a spy/whodunit set on a train with a lengthy stopover in Frankfurt to open up the drama, it’s also an intriguing piece of Allied propaganda meant to provoke support for the reunification of a former enemy in order to thwart an underground, unnamed German resistance movement set on furthering divisions and bickering between American, British, French, and Soviet occupation forces.
The message in the Harold Medford script (based on a story by Curt Siodmak) is quite clear: don’t hate the Germans anymore; there are good ones trying to establish a progressive democratic state with peaceful international goals.
It’s that progressive thinking which ultimately convinces four figurative members of the allied powers – Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), an agriculture scientist; Perrot (Charles Korvon), a travelling Frenchman; Soviet Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow); and a British bureaucrat named Sterling (Robert Coote) – to help Dr, Bernhardt (Paul Lukas ) and his French assistant Lucienne (Merle Oberon) evade assassination attempts by the resistance movement.
Of course, they all begin their train journey disliking each other, spouting unflattering remarks as well as harboring a collective disdain for Germans in general, but the sudden assassination of a fake Dr. Bernhardt has the group arrested in Frankfurt, where they’re examined by an American staff before permission is granted to head onwards to Berlin. Before the group can get on the train, though, the good doctor is snatched, and the distrustful travelers reluctantly band together and search through the city, and they eventually discover clues to the resistance’s secret hideout.
The stopover in Frankfurt yields startling footage showing a bombed out, ruined city, and Paul Stewart’s narration, a regular feature throughout the film, wryly offers location details and short editorial comments as war-ravaged survivors barter cigarettes and personal belongings, or gather among large city bulletin boards where posters of missing family members have been stapled en masse. (The latter proves to be an important clue for the quartet of allied sleuths, as Lucienne is able to find a clue that eventually leads them to the missing Bernhardt.)
Stewart’s narration also provides some geographical help, since it describes the route where the characters are bussed through ruined city streets, their passage through a U.S. military checkpoint, and their approaching the former I.G. Farben Building (now the Poelzig Building), commandeered as headquarters of the Supreme Allied Command after WWII. It’s in that massive building where the characters are interrogated about the bomb blast on the train, and the actors were filmed inside the office complex, notably being assisted on and off paternoster elevators by U.S. military police.
When Bernhardt goes missing, the group splits in two, and they wander throughout Frankfurt, eventually passing through an illegal club, as well as wrecked city blocks slowly being reclaimed by grass and weeds.
Berlin is only seen in the finale, but again Stewart’s narration points out the locales, such as the Wannsee train station – “Wannsee is as close as you can bring the Berlin Express today” - as well as the unrecognizable Hotel Adlon, the ruined Reich Chancellery, Unter den Linden, and the Brandenburg Gate, where the group separate and are driven off towards their respective sections. As Bernhardt and Lucienne stand together by the famous gate, there are several glimpses of the bombed out Reichstag, later seen in greater (and more colourful detail) in the Soviet propaganda monster Fall of Berlin, The / Padeniye Berlina (1949).
Among the leading characters, the screenwriters did some cheating by having a faux love interest between American Lindley and French babe Lucienne; although he flirts and tries to get her attention, by the time the characters are doing battle with the German resistance, it’s clear Lucienne is Bernhardt’s lover – an unusual and rather European arrangement, since most conventional American dramas would insist on the stars embracing in the final scene.
(Lindley also dabbles in a few double-entendres, which, like the illicit love affair, managed to glide past U.S. censors. Just as amusing is the film’s title sequence which features several shots of long legged women clustered among Parisian location footage.)
Lucienne does give Lindley a peck on the cheek, but it’s a token gesture, and knowing this, he gives Bernhardt a glance that’s less about a grain of respect from a once German-loathing American, but a gesture acknowledging the old man has won the battle over the French pastry.
The Soviet character doesn’t get any romance because he’s a cardboard cliché of the emotionless, unsentimental Russian robot typical of American film. In a comedy like Ninotchka (1939), the stereotype is broken by love for an American who teaches the Russian how to lighten up without guilt, but Berlin Express has political messaging, so while the Soviet soldier isn’t ‘humanized’ by the end credits, he does take a few symbolic steps forward: he aids the other nationalities in finding the kidnapped German, and does stop to pick up the American’s business card after first tossing aside.
Before giving the Soviet his card, the American says “I really tried to figure out what makes you tick, Max… What makes all of you tick… We try to understand you, why don’t you try to understand us?” Within the film’s progressive politics, it’s a rapprochement that would soon become anathema to Hollywood’s Red Menace films, and likely marginalized Berlin Express as naïve postwar liberal nonsense.
The film is ostensibly a message of hope, crystallized in the final footage that has Lucienne and Bernhard walking through the Brandenburg Gate together, while a one-legged soldier passes in front of them, seen only as a stark silhouetted figure moving forward rather than backwards into a ruined past, over which Frederik Hollander’s score (which bears a striking similarity to Miklos Roza’s El Cid fanfare) surges upwards.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan