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Not To Be Missed
on March 10, 2005
This was the very first film made in post-World War II Germany, and it is ranked as one of the most important German films ever made. 15 million Germans saw it between 1946 and 1950. The story begins as a concentration camp survivor, Susanne Wallner, returns to her home in Berlin. She discovers that her apartment is occupied by a former Wehrmacht doctor, Hans Mertens. An experience during the war has seared his soul, and he is a damaged human being. Ultimately, we find out why. The event in question, and the callous manner in which it took place, is horrific.
This film takes on, in a hard-hitting way, the fact that many Germans walking around in 1946 had been complicit in, or even ordered, atrocities. (Hence, the title, "The Murderers Are Among Us.") It raises, and attempts to answer, the question of how it affected them. According to the film, some were tormented by their actions; others refused to accept any blame for them and went right back to "normal" life.
The film does not attempt to take on, however, the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Susanne is a Christian, as is everyone else in the film. The graves all have crosses. At least in the English subtitles, the word "Jew" is not used once in this film. One would walk out of this film without knowing that there had ever been Jews in Germany, or understanding that their annihilation was a prime effort of Nazi Germany. (However, the film's 1946 German audience surely would have been able to put the film into context.) Additionally, the film nowhere describes what Susanne went through in the concentration camps. The focus is entirely on how the war psychologically damaged Dr. Mertens. Susanne is there to love and support him, and enable him to achieve redemption. But who is really the victim here?
These criticisms do not in any way diminish the power of the film, which cannot possibly cover all the ground of Nazi atrocities. Future films, from many different countries, would explore other aspects. Given that the film was made in Germany in 1946, it is remarkable that it is as hardhitting as it is.
The backstory of this film is interesting, too. Immediately after the war, the western Allies, concerned that German filmmakers were too steeped in Nazi propaganda to make films, did not allow moviemaking in the western sectors. This fear was not unfounded. According to the liner notes, the star of this film, Ernst Wilhelm Borchert, had been a member of the Nazi party and Wolfgang Staudte himself had had a small role in the film "Jud Suess," described on another site as an "Anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda film, depicting the Jew as a financier to dukes and noblemen." The Soviets, however, were interested in getting films made in German. Thus, Staudte filmed it in the Soviet sector, using the new DEFA studios, which would later become the national studios of East Germany. This film demonstrated to the world that Germans were capable of facing their past and moving forward toward democracy.
The fact that this film was made in 1946 enabled Wolfgang Staudte to film in the actual ruins of Berlin -- even interspersing a shot of the Trummerfrauen (rubble women) rebuilding the city. This adds an unmatchable sense of realism to the topic. This film is a must-see.