by Robert Weston
“The dove of peace was a pigeon - a dead pigeon.”
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France is still licking its wounds of war and occupation. At the base of the Eiffel Tower, a pigeon is mysteriously shot from the sky. A group of schoolboys take the dead bird to Sacre Coeur for a dignified burial; but one of the boys’ mothers decides it will make a better meal than funeral service. As she prepares dinner, she finds a message strapped to the pigeon’s leg. The message reads: “21:45 D 9850 Sulzbach.” News of the note is relayed to the Douzieme Bureau (the French Secret Service) but they can make nothing of it. What they don’t realize is that the most important train in Europe—the Berlin Express—will be traveling through Sulzbach, Germany later that night.
The Berlin Express: The high-security military train running direct from Paris to occupied Berlin immediately following the War. The train transports supplies, personnel, soldiers and diplomats to the capital city. The train is carrying people from every Allied nation. American agriculture specialist Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan); French diplomatic secretary and benign femme fatale, Lucienne Mirbeau (Merle Oberon); James Sterling (Robert Coote), a British school teacher assigned to ‘re-education’; Henri Perot (Charles Korvin), former member of the French resistance; and Lieutenant Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow), a gruff Russian soldier. The most important passenger of all is Dr. Heinrich Bernhardt, a German diplomat who longs for peace and reconciliation in Germany. He alone holds the critical plans to unify a Germany split by four occupying nations. Nazi loyalists will stop at nothing to see that Bernhardt’s plan fails; a divided Germany offers a hospitable environment for an active Nazi underground.
As the Berlin Express glides into a town called ‘Sulzbach’, a horse and cart block the rails. The way is cleared and no sooner is the train back on course that a bomb explodes in Dr. Bernhardt’s cabin. It’s a debilitating blow to Allied hopes for a revived Europe—Dr. Heinrich Bernhardt is dead. Or is he?
Jacques Tourneur is known as a director of atmospheric horror films like Cat People (1942), but he was no stranger to black thrillers. Preceding Berlin Express, Tourneur made what could be called the perfect noir with Out of the Past (1947) and returned to the genre in 1956 with Nightfall. Berlin Express may not be Tourneur’s best noir, but it might be his best film…period. With a flawless ensemble cast, suspense by the bucketful, and more twists and turns than a Jayne Mansfield pinup, Berlin Express is exceptional. Certainly, however, all great noir shares these same characteristics. What sets this film apart is its peculiar educational value, its astounding authenticity and its surprisingly uplifting narrative.
The film opens in Paris shortly after liberation. A narrator explains the political chaos that followed the war, and the humanist drive to reintegrate Germany into the international community. Initially, the didactic narrator is a necessary but distracting guide, who thankfully recedes into the background when the real action begins, but not before letting the audience in on historical tidbits about post-war Europe. Specifically, the narrator explains the comings and goings of Frankfurt, a city in appalling ruin. Following the war, Frankfurt was a central hub for the provisional government shared by the occupying forces of France, Britain, Russia and the United States.
We are told about Frankfurt because the Berlin Express never reaches Berlin, where Dr. Bernhardt is scheduled to deliver his thesis for reunification. After the bomb explodes on the train, everyone is put under ‘technical arrest’ by U.S. military police and seconded to the defeated city.
Jacques Tourneur and his crew traveled to Frankfurt and shot the film under the auspices of the four occupying nations. The result is extraordinary location work that lays bare a city of rubble and despair. Adding to the film’s authenticity is the casting—the Russians are played by Russians, the Germans by Germans and so on. Moreover, every actor is given brief opportunities to act in their first language without subtitles. It appears that this was what prompted RKO to add a narrator—because the film opens in Paris, the first page of dialogue is in French.
These alone are reasons to see the film, but what I enjoy most about Berlin Express is the film’s enriching humanism. Although Lindley, the American, is roughly set up as the protagonist, no character really takes precedence over another. Everyone—German, French, American, British and Russian—must put aside their biases and prejudices to work against a Nazi resurgence. Screenwriter Harold Medford’s democratic approach to narrative is fully expressed in Dr. Bernhardt, a diplomat who believes so strongly in unification and peace he is willing to risk everything to bring it to a disillusioned Europe. Without a doubt, Berlin Express, for all its shadows and subterfuge, is the most uplifting film noir you’re likely to find. Highly recommended.
Robert Weston is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
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