Berlin Express (1948)

“No one was here without a purpose.”

Berlin Express Poster

Synopsis:
In post-WWII Germany, a group of international train passengers — including an American agronomist (Robert Ryan), a British schoolteacher (Robert Coote), a French businessman (Charles Korvin), a Russian soldier (Roman Toporow), and a French secretary (Merle Oberon) — band together to locate a kidnapped doctor (Paul Lukas) who has been working for peace and political unification.

Genres:

Review:
Jacques Tourneur directed this taut ensemble thriller set on-board a moving train and throughout the ruins of post-WWII Germany. What seems at first like a “simple” murder mystery (a la Murder on the Orient Express) quickly reveals itself to be a tale of mistaken identities and deceptively shifting national loyalties; by the climactic pseudo-finale taking place inside an abandoned brewery in Berlin, we’re solidly hooked and pleasantly on edge. Berlin Express is notable as the first American feature film actually shot in post-war Europe — and to that end, it has an unfortunate didactic tone at times, especially during the first half-hour; the anonymous narration (by Paul Stewart) could and should have easily been cut, though I suppose it was assumed that audiences at the time were used to a Voice of God explaining to them the terrible truths of war-torn Europe. Thankfully, one can choose to ignore this and focus instead on both the exciting, twist-filled narrative and the lovely cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, Oberon’s husband at the time).

Note: Listen for the best response in the film (I won’t give away context or spoilers): “I think you’ve got that now.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Lukas as Dr. Bernhardt
    Berlin Express Lukas (2)
  • Reinhold Schunzel as Walther
    Berlin Express Schunzel
  • Lucien Ballard’s cinematography
    Berlin Express Cinematography
    Berlin Express Cinematography2
    Berlin Express Cinematography3
  • Respectfully authentic integration of multiple languages (without subtitles)

Must See?
Yes, as a fine (if subtly flawed) outing by a master director.

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One Response to “Berlin Express (1948)”

  1. First viewing – must-see.

    As per my posting in The ’40s-’50s in Film:

    [“Sometimes I think we shall never get together on this Earth, until we find someone…on Mars to hate. Sometimes I wonder why we keep trying.”

    …Ain’t it the truth?

    ‘Berlin Express’ (1948): Just watched this unique, post-WWII thriller by Jacques Tourneur. This was his follow-up film after creating one of the best in film noir, ‘Out of the Past’. And it’s a good example of Tourneur’s ease in various genres. (He also did 3 films for Val Lewton: ‘The Leopard Man’, ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ and ‘Cat People’.) ‘BE’ is largely set on a train and against the recently-bombed-out ruins of Frankfurt. Kind of a whodunit – only more of a who-will-do-it? Though it works well as an action mystery flick, it has an underlying message of the value of international cooperation, for The Greater Good. It’s quite a brain tease, this one – with excellent camerawork by DP Lucien Ballard. In the cast: Merle Oberon, Robert Ryan, Paul Lukas.]

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