BERLIN EXPRESS, a nifty thriller from 1948, was the first Hollywood picture filmed inside Germany after WW2 was over. RKO production exec Dore Schary was impressed by the documentary-style realism Italy’s Roberto Rossellini captured in 1945’s Open City. He sent director Jacques Tourneur and crew to location shoot, first in Paris, then into the devastation of Frankfurt and Berlin, getting co-operation from “the United States Army of Occupation, the British Army of Occupation, the Soviet Army of Occupation.” The French aren’t mentioned. *
“That’s right—the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon.”
The War is Won: now to Win the Peace. On a train from France into Occupied Germany are a half dozen people with an interest in seeing that the shattered post-Hitler Germany can recover as a functioning country. When one of them, esteemed German peace activist ‘Dr. Bernhardt’ (Paul Lukas) is kidnapped by die-hard Nazis, his companions undertake a search through the ruins of Berlin. They are his French secretary, ‘Lucienne Mirabeau’ (Merle Oberon), American agriculturist ‘Robert Lindley’ (Robert Ryan), British teacher ‘James Sterling’ (Robert Coote), another Frenchman, ‘Henri Perrot’ (Charles Korvin) and ‘Maxim Kiroshilov’ (Roman Toporow), a Soviet Army officer. One of them has ulterior motives.
“Sometimes I think we shall never get together on this earth until we find someone on Mars to hate.”
At first the ‘official sounding’ narration (done by Paul Stewart) is a bit taxing, but it necessarily sets up what follows, and the rest of the story builds momentum to an exciting showdown. The movie ends on a hopeful note, quite sad in retrospect as the Cold War kicked into gear the same year this was released. The actors are fine, the scenes of the destroyed cities and destitute citizens are bracing.
Story by Curt Siodmak, script by Harold Medford. With Otto Waldis, Reinhold Schünzel, Charles McGraw, Peter von Zerneck, Gene Evans. Told in a trim 87 minutes, placing 123rd in ’48, earning $2,500,000.
* Talk about undercover Allied cooperation! In “The Lives Of Robert Ryan”, biographer J.R.Jones mentions that besides the extensive difficulties of shooting a movie in areas ravaged by war and poverty, attitudes & adultery volunteered service. In contrast to their characters espousing humanitarian concerns, most of the cast were not inclined to go gently into the former enemy’s pulverized household. Oberon and Coote had lived through the Blitz, Hungarians Lukas and Korvin lost people to the Holocaust, and Toporoz, who was Polish, equally despised Germans and Russians. Only ardent liberal Ryan expressed hope for the Marshall Plan, asking “How can you let 80 million people starve?” Passions were not confined to politics: producer Bert Grenet and actor Korvin spilled beans on a brash affair between Oberon (something of an adventuress) and Ryan, despite the presence of Lucien Ballard, not just the film’s cameraman but Oberon’s husband of the moment (her 2nd, divorced a year later). Oberon’s star faded, Ryan’s rose; his marriage survived, and he worked again with Ballard on Inferno, The Proud Ones, Hour Of the Gun and The Wild Bunch.
The perilous trip the Berlin Express took into the war’s debris was immediately followed by Foreign Affair, then The Search, I Was A Male War Bride, The Big Lift, Germany Year Zero and Decision Before Dawn.
As to “peace in our time’, given the current careen to the right most of us wish would somehow evaporate, it’s a tonic to watch this and hear one of the unreformed Nazis in the script warn us back in 1948: “I too believe in unity. But unlike you I know that people will only unite when they are faced with a crisis, like war. Well, we are still at war; you are not. So we are united; you are not. So we will succeed; you will not.”