Trapped on a Train of Terror!
Director Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express sat in my queue for quite a while before I decided to give it a watch. Perhaps there was something behind that premonition. Avid readers (and thanks for that!) will know that we are not die hard admirers of Robert Ryan, who stars in this film. The strong points of the film are the setting and dramatic location footage. Sadly you’ll note I didn’t mention cast or storyline as among the strong points.
The story flows behind Robert Ryan, here playing an American Agricultural expert on duty in the newly conquered Reich. He plays the American in this international potpourri, with all the leading players in the Second World War represented.
Once the players are settled in on the train, high-ranking German activist Dr. Bernhardt, with his keen ideas on unifying Germany in the postwar world, is smuggled onto the train. However, the smuggling job is done none too well, as Dr. Bernhardt is almost immediately assassinated by a cell of folks still loyal to the now deceased Hitler. One plus for at least realistically depicting that all Germans hadn’t lost their maniacally misplaced adoration of old Adolf post capitulation.
Of course the fine travelers on the train are all suspected as complicit in the murder plot. Even at this early point in the cold war, we can already see a few tears in the alliance’s fabric as the tension builds on screen between the once Allies. However, they unite perhaps- at least it is implied as such- for the last time to clear their collective names and symbolically their nations in the plot. They learn rather quickly that another passenger with them, played by Paul Lukas, is the real Dr. Bernhardt and is travelling incognito with his secretary, played by an almost unrecognizable Merle Oberon.
After the exposure of Lukas’ true identity the film spends the rest of its running time going sideways. There are a few fights along the way, including an out of place (but truly Tourneurian) vaudeville clown act. However, even amid the dark shadows and nicely shot scenes, each scene seems almost more irrelevant than the last. By the end of the picture you realize you haven’t a clue why most of the second half of the picture happens. A visual spectacle it is though.
The characters are all of the flat and undeveloped variety, and one cares neither where they have been nor where they are going. The cast themselves are almost merely bit players in what at times becomes a historical travelogue.
Better than the plot is the location filming, which is full of bombed out cities (notably Frankfurt and Berlin) and the desolation of the final months of the war. If you don’t realize what you are seeing there is a helpful- but slightly intrusive- narrator to philosophize a bit on things as well. Although never identified, the message (if not the voice) is one of rebirth and the pitfalls of man’s inhumanity to man and surely sounds like something Lukas’ Dr. Bernhardt would say.
Only at times is the narrator cloying and intrusive, but in any regard his presence is purely a distraction. We get the message that we all need to work together pretty quickly.
There are quite a few quite obvious projection shots, which reinforces the impression that the storyline is almost a backdrop for the impressive visuals. Berlin Express isn’t a great film, but is merely good. This isn’t one you’ll watch for the acting or the story, but rather for the one of the rare examples of stories set in the bombed remains of Germany. And filmed in front of the same to boot.
On rare instances Berlin Express airs on TCM, but thankfully recently was released as part of the Warner Archive, being the holder of the rights to the RKO pictures.
No review copy provided.