Immediately after the war, West Germany shied away from getting back into the business of filmmaking. The country was still in ruins; Germans were embarrassed by the enormity of the horrors for which they were culpable; and the Allies didn’t really want to remind the rest of the world of the destruction wrought on the most beautiful country in Europe. It would take a few more years for the west to get back to making movies, and even then, the films tended to be lighthearted comedies, romantic costume dramas, and an endless parade of Heimatfilme—those pictures about the joys of alpine living that only people in the Bavarian regions of the Germany, Austria, and Switzerland can truly appreciate.
East Germany, on the other hand, was anxious to start making films again. This was partly thanks to the influence of the Russians, who considered cinema was one of the most powerful media for enlightening people to the benefits of communism, but it was also due to the fact that the heralded UFA Studios in Babelsberg were now in the Russian-controlled sector. In 1946, the first film of the GDR started filming before DEFA was fully established. That film, The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns), still stands as one of the greatest films to come out of East Germany.
The Murderers Are Among Us is the first of what became known as Trümmerfilme (literally “rubble films”). These are films that were shot in and among the ruins and debris of post-war Germany. They do not shy away from the severe destruction that was left after WWII, and often show the characters wandering amid piles of bricks and twisted metal. But the Trümmerfilme (and the ensuing Trümmerliteratur movement) were also about the effects of this destruction on the German psyche. The people in these films are often dissolute and apathetic; the destruction on the streets mirrored in their eyes.
The Murderers Are Among Us takes place in Berlin right after the war. Susan Wallner (Hildegard Knef), an attractive young woman is returning from a concentration camp where she was imprisoned for reasons that we never fully discover. She returns home to find that a strange, surly man named Hans Mertens (W. Borchert) has taken up residence in her apartment. All her attempts to placate or succor him are met with hostility. Clearly we are dealing with someone with a past. As the story progresses, we learn that Mertens was once a surgeon, but something he witnessed during the war has rendered him unable to stand the sight of blood or the sounds of human suffering. Just when it looks like he is starting to get over it, Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen), the man responsible for his nightmares, comes back into his life.
In some respects, The Murderers Are Among Us is a fairly run-of-the-mill film. It uses many of the tropes that were standard Hollywood issue at the time (an absurdly beautiful concentration camp refugee, and cliched use of music) It also features many of the signatures of expressionism that made the earlier German films so interesting, but were, by 1946—thanks to heavy influx of the best of Germany’s craftspeople—fairly common in Hollywood film noir, (the use of reflected and diffracted images to represent the psyche, chiaroscuro, and unusual focus shifts). Nonetheless, the film remains powerful; in part due to the inescapable truth of the situation. Germany was in tatters, and any melodrama inherent in the story was tempered by the fact that, indeed, things really were this bad, or worse. Director Wolfgang Staudte uses extreme close-ups to keep us off-guard and uncomfortable. He also has a flair for the cynical. In one scene the camera pans up from a newspaper headline reading, “2 Million Were Gassed,” to Brückner eating his breakfast. In another scene, while Brückner is protesting his innocence to the world, the scene around him transmogrifies from a building hallway to the inside of a jail cell.
In its original version, Mertens kills the evil Brückner. While this was and emotionally satisfying way to end the story, there was a problem with it. The trials were in progress in Nuremberg and it was already apparent that not everyone was going to pay for their crimes. Examples were being made, but some of the people responsible for the deaths of thousands were walking away with little more than a slap on the wrist (see The Council of the Gods). Putting out a movie that promoted the vigilante killing of these people was seen as a bad way to get the new Germany off the ground. The Allies appealed to the filmmakers to change the ending. In the final version of the film, the fate of Brückner is left up to the courts. This resolution feels forced and rings hollow, like some of the films from Hollywood under the Hays Code.
Hildegard Knef’s performance in The Murderers Are Among Us made such an impact on David O. Selznick that he offered her a contract, but only if she changed her name to Gilda Christian and told people that she was Austrian instead of German (one of life’s little ironies was that Americans didn’t like Germans because they thought that Adolph Hitler—an Austrian by birth—was a German). Knef refused but still found some success in Hollywood under the name Hildegard Neff, which was how Americans insisted on pronouncing her last name anyway. Both of her co-stars, Ernst Wilhelm Borchert and Arno Paulsen, also eventually ended up in the west before the wall went up.
Perhaps because it was made so soon after the war, or perhaps because the story didn’t require it, there is very little of the proselytizing found in later DEFA films. We suspect that Susan Wallner’s imprisonment and her willingness to share her space with a stranger have something to do with communism, but it is never explicitly stated. The bad guy is clearly a capitalist of the worst sort, selling pots made from the helmets of dead soldiers, but even here, he is evil because of his war-time activities; the connection between capitalism and his inhumanity is tacitly acknowledged, but never pounded home. The Murderers Are Among Us sets important precedents that will help shape the course of DEFA up until the state was abolished in 1990. There is an honesty and a commitment to artistic expression that the west wouldn’t rediscover for a decade. Later on, these same characteristics would put many East German filmmakers in direct confrontation with the GDR officials. It was a bold start to the beginning of a new order.