Filming Over There --- Part One --- Berlin Express
Someone had to go first into occupied Germany with movie cameras. Events there were hot news and the US public couldn’t get enough of it. Many had family members still in service with American forces overseeing restoration of European order. There was no little uncertainty that it could be achieved, for underground resistance continued in bombed-out German cities, and many doubted Nazi threats were truly quelled. All this was rich soil on which to cultivate a thriller. Berlin Express led a parade of US location seekers eager to lend authentic background to drama arising from a devastated landscape. For stateside audiences, there was impact just seeing what Allied bombers had done to once mighty urban centers in Germany. Nearly all the majors took a turn. MGM did The Search, Fox had The Big Lift and Decision Before Dawn, and Paramount’s Billy Wilder mined comedy out of ruins with A Foreign Affair. These plus Selznick’s higher-profile The Third Man left Berlin Express behind in a public’s estimate, but revisiting suggests Jacques Tourneur’s 1948 lead-off might be the most vivid and evocative of the lot. For all there is wrong with it, those parts that click trump aforesaid more celebrated samplings, and I’m mighty glad Warners has seen fit to add Berlin Express to its Archive catalog.
Princeton’s definition of austere says severely simple. That’s how I’d describe wrecked buildings and lives on sites we visit in Berlin Express, but there’s nothing simple about visual punch and noir flavorings Tourneur gets out of his real thing landscape. Others treating the occupation hewed closer to "responsible" approaches. The topic was too serious for intrigues Hollywood typically grafted onto Euro-set suspensers. Berlin Express digs into bags Hitchcock and von Sternberg emptied for The 39 Steps and Shanghai Express, plus so many Continental-based forays before the war when dark agencies stalked ambassadors of peace and international order. Were it not for earnest hands-joining Allied do-gooding and over-cooked narration RKO added here, Berlin Express might be pure Tourneur exotic fantasy of Europe gone chaotic with an ending maybe in doubt that order would ever be restored. Could that have been the Berlin Express he brought back from seven weeks filming on German soil? Some late-term grafting looks to have been done. As Dore Schary was in charge of production, I’m wondering how heavily his hand fell upon it. Nobody’s ever cared enough about Berlin Express to ask, but what we have plays suspiciously as though someone wanted to pull in horns too sharp for a public needing reassurance of ongoing success in the victor’s rebuilding mission.
Tourneur makes the complex politics of occupation simple. Really, he just ignores it. Perhaps austere is the right word to describe Berlin Express. RKO should have let it go out without jerked off the headline frills. Schary and RKO likely wanted a newsreel sprung to dramatic life. That’s not unreasonable considering the topical theme. What they got from Tourneur was something more akin to blacked-out chillers he’d directed for Val Lewton’s unit during the early forties. Current event lecturing sits awkwardly beside clown-clad assassins and stranglers reflected on passing train windows. These are what I’d imagine people wanted then as now. Tourneur was showman-minded enough to realize that and give it to them. Schary and his likely eleventh-hour narrator come off as schoolmasters throwing wet blankets on fun we’re there to have. It’s good they only fitfully succeed. Tourneur’s set-pieces are too effective and plentiful for such interference to dissipate what he’s achieved with Berlin Express. The best of it reminds me not only of Hitchcock and Sternberg, but also Fritz Lang still in Germany. I’d submit Tourneur was the director who most successfully explored perils and mystery of that blighted place after the war. Wilder might have run him a photo finish had had he done A Foreign Affair more seriously. As it is, Berlin Express is by far the most Germanic (as we best enjoy that flavor) of the Occupation pieces set there, and the one to beat for fun viewing.
Berlin Express flopped, but so did a lot of other RKO releases in 1948. No one was immune from failure in that dismal year when bottoms fell out of ticket windows. The negative cost was $1.740 million, a lot for merchandise lacking major names. Robert Ryan had gotten notice for Crossfire, but his leading man qualification was as yet unconfirmed. Of male stars at RKO, it seemed only Bob Mitchum caught fire among those cultivated since the war’s winning. Leading lady Merle Oberon represented a dogfall, her name neither hurting nor particularly helping. Berlin Express (at least Schary’s conception and finished version of it) posited optimism that international teamwork could wrest the peace, as its characters are quick (unconvincingly so) to throw in and rescue a German activist working toward same. Coming on the eve of Cold-Warring, Berlin Express included a Soviet among the group who surprisingly does not double-agent on them. High costs borne by location shooting made a final loss of $985,000 perhaps inevitable. Reviews were good as this trade ad attests, but critics went stronger for The Third Man that followed, its zither theme suggesting trends to come. Both these plus others of the cycle were influenced by art films off the ravaged continent so downbeat as to make ours look like fairy stories. Sending crews to Europe was partly effort to beat this suddenly fashionable lot at their own game, and indeed, just pointing American lens at so much devastation was enough to breathe reality into Berlin Express and its kin.