Paul Lukas, Merle Oberon, and Robert Ryan in Berlin Express (1948)


(director: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriters: from the story by Curt Siodmak/Harold Medford; cinematographer: Lucien Ballard; editor: Sherman Todd; music: Frederick Hollander; cast: Merle Oberon (Lucienne), Robert Ryan (Robert Lindley), Charles Korvin (Perrot), Paul Lukas (Dr. Bernhardt), Robert Coote (Sterling), Roman Toporow (Lt. Maxim), Reinhold Schünzel (Walther), Charles McGraw (Col. Johns), Peter von Zerneck (Hans Schmidt), Otto Waldis (Kessler), Fritz Kortner (Franzen), Michael Harvey (Sgt. Barnes); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bert Granet; RKO; 1948)

“An ideological spy thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jacques Tourneur’s (“Out of the Past”) Berlin Express is an ideological spy thriller shot in black and white that makes the most of its absurd plot and the history used as background to its fictional narrative. It is based on the story by Curt Siodmak and the screenplay is by Harold Medford. The unflinching camera shots of the ruined cities of Frankfurt and Berlin by Lucien Ballard realistically depict Germany’s despair in the postwar occupation period, giving the film an historical documentary look (an official sounding narrator also gives the film a semidocumentary feel). There are shots of once booming cities in rubble, showing where once stood the Reichs chancellery, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and the Adlon Hotel. The I. G. Farben building in Frankfurt, the key manufacturer of Germany’s tools of war, remains intact. That building is now the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University.

Though a minor work, it sparkles at times because of its ever hopeful humanistic viewpoint in the face of ambivalence by the main characters, the intriguing realistic location shots, the sequences shot on the train were gripping and the sinister atmosphere it creates over German reunification and the hints at the coming Cold War. The narrative is less interesting, as it is grounded in the conventions of the thriller and is more politically moralizing than it should be for a work of film noir.

On a special train (with US army personnel, displaced persons and diplomats) from Paris-Frankfurt-Berlin that is controlled by the American military, four representatives of the Occupying Powers — the British educator Sterling (Robert Coote), the American agriculture expert Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), the Soviet army officer Lt. Maxim (Roman Toporow), and the French official Perrot (Charles Korvin) — are on their way to Berlin to help a German humanitarian visionary, a leader in the anti-Hitler underground, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), realize his dream of a peaceful and unified Germany.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

An assassination attempt at an unscheduled stop in Sulzbach fails to kill Dr. Bernhardt, as the Nazi insurgents responsible kill instead someone hired to be a decoy. But when the train stops at Frankfurt, Bernhardt is kidnapped by the Nazi group after being betrayed by his old friend Professor Walther. This results in the four representatives overcoming their differences and working together to try and find Bernhardt. The army under the command of Colonel Johns (Charles McGraw) conducts the official search. But the four are better able to search undercover and are aided by Bernhardt’s French secretary, Lucienne (Merle Oberon), who is familiar with her boss’s reunification plan and his contacts in Germany. Lucienne goes on the search through the nightmarish rubble of Frankfurt dressed to the hilt in evening gowns, which looked ludicrous. In any case, she and Lindley eventually find clues of where Bernhardt is by attending a nightclub that is off-limits to American service men. After a shootout with the Nazi gang holding the victim in a bombed out building, the American army rescues the humanitarian. But on the train ride to Berlin one of the four representatives turns out to be a Nazi agent and is stopped from killing Bernhardt only by the alertness of Lindley.