Apr 7, 2012

The Devil Came at Night

I doubt it would be a stretch to say that, since the birth of cinema, Germany has consistently been the #1 producer of top notch and innovative serial killers flicks, especially of the authentically audacious and bloodcurdling, yet artistically merited sort. Whether it be German expressionism (Fritz Lang’s M), the German New Wave (The Tenderness of Wolves), or obscure arthouse splatter flicks (Schramm), few other nations can boast (not that Germany needs nor wants to further the case for their ‘bloodstained’ history) of such truly visceral and intriguing films about bloodlusting cut-throats. Undoubtedly, Germany’s relatively vast history of true crime during and after both World Wars played an imperative role in influencing these films. While some everyday citizens were literally prostituting themselves so as to avert starvation as chaos in the cities reigned during both wars, the circumstances were ripe for German serial killers like cannibal Fritz Haarmann, child/sex killer Peter ”The Vampire of Düsseldorf” Kürten, Carl Großmann, cannibal Karl Denke, Nazi stormtrooper sergeant Paul “the S-Bahn murderer” Ogorzow, and retarded peeping tom Bruno Lüdke to evade the law for a more extended period of time. Despite not knowing how many minutes are in an hour, supremely mentally defective serial killer Bruno Lüdke managed to kill upwards of 51 victims, mainly women, during a 15-year stretch of unrestrained sadism that peaked during the most hectic days of the Second World War. Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of viewing the West German film The Devil Came at Night (1957) aka Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam aka The Devil Strikes at Night directed by Robert Siodmak (Son of Dracula, The Killers); a work depicting Bruno Lüdke’s ghastly homicidal delinquency amid the pandemonium of WWII-era Germany. Resembling parts of a number of great films created before and after it, The Devil Came at Night is like Fritz Lang’s M (1931) meets Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) meets Ulli Lommel's The Tenderness of Wolves (1973) meets Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (2004), but it is also an original masterpiece in its own right. In short, The Devil Came at Night is a distinctly delectable work that totally transcends  formulaic genre classification, yet offers some of the best elements from a number genres/subgenres, including the traditional German World War II film, true crime detective story, film noir, serial killer horror flick, and somewhat traditional melodrama. Personally, I cannot think of a more exciting prospect for a setting for a serial killer running rampant than a National Socialist-era war torn German city during a malefic storm of steel. 

The Devil Came at Night follows an apolitical (but highly decorated) military officer turned detective sergeant named Axel Kersten (played by Claus Holm) who aims to profile and inevitably jail a serial killer while somewhat precariously jumping over the many hurdles of the bureaucratic Nazi legal system. After finding out that a low-level Nazi party member is wrongfully accused of murder, Kersten does his research and is eventually led to Bruno Lüdke (who is played in a most impeccable fashion by Mario Adorf); a profoundly idiotic strongman whose savage lack of intelligence is only rivaled by his supremely scant morality. One can only wonder why daft lunatic Lüdke was not conscripted into the Dirlewanger Brigade – a patently delinquent and collectively deranged division of the Waffen-SS that was comprised of mental patients, perverts, and criminals of all colors (including Gypsies and Slavs) – as the strangely proficient daft serial killer may have proven to be a murderous war hero of sorts. On top of being mentally retarded, big boy Bruno is a bodacious braggart who quite eagerly (but somewhat unknowingly) spills his aberrant beans to investigator Alex Kersten. Despite his exceptional performance in implicating and apprehending a much desired serial killer in a hopelessly chaotic and collapsing nation that is facing the very real possibility of absolute annihilation, Mr. Kersten soon learns that if you fail to play by the official National Socialist playbook, there are dire consequences. Despite his lack of mental competency, Bruno quite adamantly cites Nazi Article 51 as an excuse for his gross and unforgivable criminality. Unlike most Nazi-related films, The Devil Came at Night takes a somewhat subtle approach to criticizing the bureaucracy of blood that resonated throughout the Third Reich. Misusing Nazi eugenic ideas, even Bruno, a mentally vapid creature, is able to rationalize his heinous and coldly calculated crimes. To illustrate the absurdity of these laws, a careerist SS-Gruppenfuehrer (‘group leader’) named Rossdorf (who has a striking resemblance to real-life Waffen-SS Sturmbannführer-turned-Muslim Johann von Leers) cites virtually the same argument as deranged dullard Lüdke in regard to the 'genetic' blameworthiness of the killer. 

Although born in Dresden, Germany (despite claiming Memphis, Tennessee for passport purposes), The Devil Came at Night director Robert Siodmak – who was born a Jew – would leave his homeland for Hollywood (after a brief stay in Paris, France) in 1939 due to the rise of National Socialism. During his fruitful career in Hollywood, Siodmak managed to direct 23 films, most specifically a signature style of film noir flicks, including Phantom Lady (1944) and The Killers (1945); which the director earned a ‘Best Director’ Oscar nomination for. After failing to create acclaimed works outside the film noir style (which was apparently unpopular with the majority of Americans of that era), Siodak returned to Europa in 1952 and after directing a couple films including an adaptation of Gerhart Hauptmann's 1911 play Die Ratten ('The Rats'), the auteur eventually completed his post-Hollywood masterpiece The Devil Came at Night. Upon viewing the film, I noticed it had a slightly Hollywood film noir ‘feel’ to it, but I was totally ignorant in regards to the director’s transnational background. Generally, I would be most repelled by the prospect of a Hollywood-ized filmmaker directing a European production, but for The Devil Came at Night, the ‘Tinseltown tint’ works to the film’s advantage. After all, one could hardly think of a better setting for a film noir than the dark alleyways and shadowy hallways of steadily dilapidating WWII era urban Germany, aside from maybe the Warsaw ghetto. Like a typical Hollywood film, The Devil Came at Night lacks any sort of domineering artistry as it is most specifically a solidly crafted work that tells a captivating story, and therein lays its greatest strength. The Devil Came at Night is a gripping and grim flick that, like witnessing a real-life stabbing or fatal car accident, echoes in one’s mind long after the film has concluded. Although lacking the buckets of blood and fetishistic brutality of a modern Hollywood serial killer films, The Devil Came at Night is fundamentally more sinister and compelling. Maybe David Fincher should have taken notice of the German precision behind The Devil Came at Night when he worked on Zodiac (2007) as he could have easily avoided assembling an overly monotonous test in stagnant banality and derelict dillydallying. 

The Devil Came at Night concludes with the phrase, “Wheels shall roll for victory” painted on the side of a train en-route to the hellish, but cold Eastern Front. Essentially, this ironic expression sums up a major theme of the film: the absurdity and futility of stern idealism amongst imminent defeat.  In the end, human bodies roll and defeat ascends. For mere political reasons and beside the fact the Third Reich is crumbling, SS officer Rossdorf justifies his mission to have an innocent man executed. Kersten, who is undoubtedly a more talented and intelligent man, selflessly puts his own career on the line to vindicate the wrongly accused. Of course, the innocent man sentenced to death is undoubtedly symbolic of the Holocaust. Although few will admit it today openly, a small segment of the German Jewish population was actively involved in nation-destroying communist uprisings and war profiteering, but the majority would pay for the sins of the few. During The Devil Came at Night, a middleclass Jewess mentions that her once-respected professor husband died at Auschwitz concentration camp. Clearly, this man was not Kurt Eisner – the once infamous (but now memorialized) Jewish ultra-left-wing journalist that led the Communist Revolution that dismantled the Wittelsbach monarchy in Bavaria – but he was killed just the same due to his mere ancestry. Somewhat ironically, Nazi law worked in the favor of mentally defective Aryan Bruno Lüdke for a period of time. In one particularly humorous scene in The Devil Came at Night, Bruno states, “I’m only Bruno, the retard…I am a mental case. FUCK ALL OF YOU”, after a cop insinuates that he was involved in a theft. Nazism aside, The Devil Came at Night is a work the highlights the universal failure of human law and order and the unintentional destruction it sometimes begets. Nowadays, we give special legal protection to members of‘victim status’ groups because of who they sodomize and the size of their lips, and the entire Occident is beginning to rival Nazi Germany in terms of absurd authoritarian laws. Regardless of politics, The Devil Came at Night was impressive enough on the international level to be nominated for The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which is not bad for a film that portrays the SS saving the Fatherland from a retarded serial killer.

-Ty E

No comments: