DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT, THE (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam) (director/writer/producer: Robert Siodmak; screenwriters: Werner Jörg Lüddecke/from an article by Will Berthold; cinematographer: Georg Krause; editor: Walter Boos; music: Siegfried Franz; cast: Mario Adorf (Bruno Luedke), Claus Holm (Inspector Axel Kersten), Hannes Messemer (SS-Gruppenfuehrer Rossdorf), Peter Carsten (Mollwitz), Carl Lange (Major Thomas Wollenberg), Werner Peters (Willi Keun), Annemarie Düringer (Helga Hornung), Monika John (Lucy Hansen), Walter Janssen (Kriminalrat Dr. Boehm), Rose Schäfer (Ana Hohmann); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Claus Hardt; Beta Film/Facets; 1957/Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“A chilling wartime murder mystery.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Robert Siodmak based his disturbing black-and-white German film The Devil Strikes at Night on an actual case. Bruno Luedke, in the film, confesses to murdering over 80 women all over Germany during the course of 11 years. In the true case, he murdered several women in Hamburg during WW11 using the method of strangulation depicted in the film. Siodmak equates the Third Reich with the mentally ill serial-killer, and shows how the regular Germans existed in their everyday lives during the war under the command of the omnipresent Gestapo. It spends more time showing the political reality of the times than in being a mystery story. The chilling story is set during the last days of Hitler’s regime and focuses on how venal and corrupt was the Nazi system, where justice is merely a matter of luck and human life is diminished in importance. The serial killer’s uncontrollable urges to kill was much like Peter Lorre’s serial child killer role in Fritz Lang’s classic thriller M, but without all the melodramatics and the involvement of society.
The film opens in wartime Hamburg and a superfluous pompous, obese Nazi party official, Willi Keun, decorates a group of 32 young German lady harvesters for their efforts during the war. He’s unable to be in the front because he lopped off his thumb with a power-saw as a child. The married man later retreats to the pub to meet his waitress girlfriend Lucy, where he exchanges his gift of bacon for sexual favors. During a nighttime air raid Lucy is down in the cellar getting cherries where Bruno, who ate supper in her pub, is hiding. She is strangled to death in such a brutal way that her tongue-bone is broken. The driver’s helper also robs her and returns to Berlin but not before he dumps her body back in her room. When a neighbor enters her room to warn her to take shelter, he discovers her dead body on the floor and a drunken Willi in the apartment. This leads to the arrest of Willi.
The mentally retarded Bruno’s full-time job is as a handyman for Mr. Hohmann, and he is smitten with his boss’ pretty blonde daughter Anna who has just returned to her family home to train to be a Red Cross nurse. Bruno wants to take her dancing and to impress her, and shows her a purse filled with money he says he found. Anna insists that he return it, and he reluctantly goes to the police station where he’s recognized as an habitual petty criminal who is never charged because of his certifiable mental illness.
Inspector Axel Kersten has just returned from the Eastern front with war medals, cynicism, and a leg injury that makes him limp while walking with a cane. His police boss Dr. Boehm is eager to have the honest cop working with him again, as the police are under the constant scrutiny of the Gestapo and their ruthless commander Rossdorf. After a cheerless get together between Rossdorf and Kersten, who is not a party member, the inspector retreats to a pub and meets an attractive blonde, Helga Hornung, who works as a clerk in the central police office. The non-smoker bribes the looker with cigarettes and gets her address when he pretends to know someone who can wallpaper her apartment. It turns out that he’s the paperhanger, and that encounter begins their romance. Also trying to make time with Helga is her distant cousin Thomas, a major who always appears to be drunk in her presence.
Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.
The arrest of Bruno comes quickly after the police send the purse to the inspector, and the mentally ill strongman confesses and leads them to many of the bodies. But his arrest is kept a secret because the Third Reich refuses to admit that a mass-killer eluded them for over a decade and that the number of men they executed for those crimes was a mistake. There can be no miscarriages of justice in the Third Reich. The Führer himself takes an interest in this case and plans to enact a new law to eradicate the misfits. But the honest inspector is unhappy that the innocent Willi is still to be hanged, even though Bruno not only confessed to that murder but had some of the victim’s personal belongings in his possession. When the inspector goes to Hamburg to stop the hanging, he reveals the secret documents about the Bruno case. For this political breech, the Gestapo orders him sent as a buck private to the front and Helga is forced to flee with her cousin to Sweden as the Gestapo is about to have her arrested. Meanwhile, Willi is shot and the explanation given is that he tried to escape.
It’s a chilling wartime murder mystery showing the impact of Nazism on their home turf, as they even pervert justice among their own kind to advance their insane idea of civilization. The heartless way they deal with justice is likened to their mass killings in extermination camps, as the serial-killer is just as insane and as much a cold-blooded murderer as the Nazis. Siodmak does a remarkable job in keeping the story taut and showing how frightening it is to live in a despotic place where freedom has no value. Hannes Messemer as the Gestapo leader makes for a more frightening menace than the mass-killer. While the good policeman Claus Holm acts as an interesting counterbalance to the corrupt and dissolute Gestapo agents. Mario Adorf as Bruno, made his acting debut an auspicious one and effectively played his role as well as Peter Lorre did in M.
REVIEWED ON 7/23/2003 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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