Jul 12, 2014

Der Verlorene

While best known as an iconic actor who starred in countless masterpieces of German and Hollywood film, including Fritz Lang’s M (1931), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942), Austro-Hungarian-born Jewish actor Peter Lorre was eventually typecast as a creepy kraut villain and suffered an undignified end to his acting career as a regular in hokey Roger Corman horror flicks, though he would write, direct, and star in one rather underrated cinematic masterpiece before dying somewhat prematurely at the age of 59 as a result of a stroke after suffering for years from gallbladder trouble and a soul-crushing morphine addiction. Like many Jewish actors/directors of his time, Lorre left Deutschland in 1933 after Uncle Adolf came to town and revamped the place, thereupon eventually landing in Hollywood where he starred in masterpieces like Mad Love (1935) directed by fellow Austrian-born immigrant Karl Freund, though, unlike many of his contemporaries, the actor came back to rubble-ridden Germany after the Second World War to direct what would be his first and last film as an auteur, Der Verlorene (1951) aka The Lost One. Indeed, The Lost One is a particularly invaluable work in that it features a depiction of the Fatherland from the perspective of a Hebrew who had to leave Germany due to Nazi persecution, only to return and see the world he once knew totally destroyed and literally and figuratively reduced to rubble. Undoubtedly, one of the things that makes Lorre’s decidedly dejecting directorial debut so curiously enthralling and strikingly idiosyncratic (especially for a work of its time) is that he seems to implicate himself in Germany’s collective guilt regarding the Nazi era, as if he too bled from the same Aryan fratricidal/suicidal wound that forever soiled the Fatherland’s reputation and reduced hundreds upon hundreds of years of Teutonic kultur to a seemingly perennial taint. Before Lorre directed The Lost One, fellow Austrian-born Jew and top expressionist character actor Fritz Kortner, who fled Germany from the Nazis in 1933 but returned to the land of the Teutons in 1949 after having a less than successful character in Hollywood, played the vaguely autobiographical leading role in the Josef von Báky flick Der Ruf (1949) aka The Last Illusion as a German Jewish professor who flees the Third Reich, returns to his homeland after the Second World War, and dies tragically after realizing that nothing has changed since the demise of National Socialism.  Undoubtedly, when comparing the two films, it is not only apparent that Lorre felt more German than his contemporary, but that the post-WWII situation was more hopeless, as if all of the Germans, including the Germans of Hebraic blood, had been condemned to a sort of permanent, pathological upheaval of the soul.

 Released to an unenthusiastic German public that was infatuated with sentimental Heimatfilme and wanted nothing to do with dwelling on the darker days of National Socialism and the rubble films that were quite popular immediately following the conclusion of the Second World War, The Lost One was ultimately such an economic and critical failure that it forced Lorre to return to Hollywood even though he hoped to direct a Teutonic adaptation of Macbeth set in post-WWII Germany. A reasonably audacious and aesthetically idiosyncratic work utilizing German expressionism (naturally, Lorre’s performance is oftentimes compared to his role in Lang’s M), film noir, Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) and Brechtian aesthetic techniques/conventions, Lorre’s work's production history is as curious and as metaphysically afflicted as the film itself, as a troubled and seemingly cursed film production where the producer, Arnold Pressburger (who was also an Austrian Jew), died halfway through filming, co-star Karl John suffered an injury that resulted in an eight week delay that cost the project a lot of time and money, and where the sole finished print of the film burned up in a fire (luckily, editor C.O. Bartning somehow managed to reconstruct the entire film using a surviving negative). While I cannot say for sure as a non-German who was not born during that time, I have a feeling that The Lost One comes closer than any other film of its zeitgeist in expressing the feeling of malignant melancholy and abject hopelessness that plagued the Fatherland after it was destroyed after WWII, so it is only ironic that an opium-addled Jew known for portraying sinister yet pathetic murderers and who was paid a grave disservice by being featured in a Nazi propaganda film (an excerpt from Lang’s M is featured in Fritz Hippler’s 1940 Nazi propaganda flick The Eternal Jew) would prove to be arguably the most effective at cinematically expressing the post-Auschwitz Teutonic Volksgeist. 

 Edited in a seemingly sloppy and incoherent fashion, The Lost One is ultimately a work that intentionally makes next to nil distinction between the past and present, for there can be no forgetting of the past, especially if it is plagued by acute internal plan, lingering metaphysical torture, survivor's guilt, and—not least of all—a history of coldblooded murder of the highly personal sort. Opening with an inter-title stating that it is “drawn from factual accounts of the recent past” (apparently, the film was based on a newspaper article written by Egon Jameson, who also wrote an article that inspired Lang’s M, about the dubious suicide of a 43-year-old man named ‘Dr. Carl R.’, who it is believed has also killed his medical assistant ‘Hannes R.’), the film tells via a series of flashbacks about how an ex-Nazi scientist, who is living under a new identity in a refugee camp, became a quasi-misogynistic serial killer after his fiancée betrayed him to the enemy. A mostly Third Reich set work that is all but completely devoid of swastikas, brownshirts, blackshirts, Terminator-esque goose-stepping and passionate Sieg Heils, The Lost One is largely set during the last month of 1943 when it was fairly obvious that the Germans were headed towards a terrible defeat and a fiercely foreboding feeling was in the air that drove men to do ungodly things that seemed quite unthinkable only a couple years before. Beginning in the present in ruined post-WWII Germany, the film revolves around antihero Dr. Karl Neumeister (Peter Lorre), who works as a head doctor at a refugee camp called Elbe-D’venstett. Of course, Neumeister is not who he seems, as his real name is Dr. Karl Rothe and he only took on the alias ‘Neumeister’ after becoming a serial killer and faking his own death after an Allied bombing attack that destroyed his home. When a sinister stereotypically Prussian-like character from Rothe’s past, Hösch alias Nowak (played by Karl John, who was popular during the Third Reich for playing rampantly heterosexual Prussian elitist types and who somewhat ironically concluded his career starring in Jewish American auteur William Friedkin’s unsung masterpiece Sorcerer (1977)), shows up at the refugee camp, the ex-Nazi doctor must confront his pernicious previous life as a serial killer who began his murdering spree after strangling his own fiancée to death upon learning she had stolen and given away some of his scientific research on some sort of presumably deadly virus that was being created for the benefit of the Third Reich. When Hösch shows up at the refugee camp, he remarks to Rothe that their reuniting “couldn’t be avoided,” though he will ultimately come to regret this less than auspicious reunion.  During the Second World War, Hösch worked as Rothe's slimy Gestapo assistant. While getting drunk and waving around a handgun that was once owned by his ex-assistant, Rothe accurately declares that, “We are the last ones” and tells through a series of flashbacks, beginning on December 8, 1943, how the doctor’s then-happy life changed for the worst, stating to Hösch, “You know, it bears me down. Just think about it: Since December, the 8th 1943. With Tax. It’s heavy. Wait…the strange thing is…I had it very good in the past, when you imposed your help on me.”  Of course, the ever conspiring assistant had less than altruistic reasons for helping Rothe, who could not have found a worst group of friends.

 On December 8, 1943, Rothe learned from a conspiring Nazi colonel named Colonel Winkler (Helmuth Rudolph), who is responsible for counterintelligence for the Third Reich, that his beloved 24-year-old fiancée Inge Hermann (Renate Mannhardt) had stolen his important scientific research, which she gave to her Stockholm-based father who, in turn, gave it to the British. While talking with Winkler, Hösch describes Inge as a “slut.” Ultimately, Winkler and Hösch will help to cover up Rothe’s murder of his girlfriend, as the two men need the murderous doctor for his research and couldn't care less about a treacherous slut. While Winkler complains, “I can’t stand to see blood, especially when it’s from little defenseless animals,” upon seeing blood drawn from a cute little bunny rabbit, he has much blut on his hands, though he is quite good at hiding it. After a somber dinner with Inge and her mother Frau Hermann (Johanna Hofer), Rothe confronts his deceitful lover and when she asks for reconciliation, he strangles her during an intimate moment of embrace when she least suspects it. Despite being the actual killer, Rothe feels the guiltiest about the murder of his fiancée and goes on to describe himself, Hösch, and Winkler as “bacilli,” which takes on a second meaning due to the nature of their sinister scientific work. Of course, figuratively speaking, all three men are also an infectious disease that is eating away at what is left of the once seemingly invincible Third Reich. Winkler is disgusted by Rothe’s guilt and berates him in a Nietzschean, automaton-like fashion by stating, “Your antiquated ethical lifestyle doesn’t fit in these times […] Keep on working and get along with the fact that you’re still alive.” Indeed, Winkler fully approves of Rothe's murder of Inge, stating, “We’d have had to eliminate her anyway. This way, she’ll have a decent burial.” Indeed, Inge’s official cause of death is listed as, “a clear case of suicide by strangulation with a black leather belt.” After all, Winkler needs Rothe to further his research on deleterious chemical weapons to destroy the Anglo-Saxon and Judeo-Bolshevik enemy. Of course, the Gestapo murder cover-up is so immaculately executed that not even Inge’s mourning mother suspects foul play. As one can expect from a spiritually condemned man who has discovered the wonders of homicide, Rothe does not stop with Inge. Ultimately, Rothe encounters five women during the film and virtually all of them are dead by the end of the film, though not all of them are liquidated by the tiny yet strangely intimidating frog-egged Herr Döktor. Indeed, while the doctor kills some of the women, including one amidst the complete chaos of an Allied bomb raid, others, including Mrs. Hermann and a young 22-year-old teacher named Ursula Weber (Eva Ingeborg Scholz), are killed in the bombing of Rothe’s apartment building. In fact, Rothe fakes his own death by listing his name as amongst those who perished in the raid. Rather interestingly, a street savvy hooker (Gisela Trowe) is the only one in the entire film that suspects Rothe of being a murderer and calls him out as such. After mindlessly staring at the bulging bosoms of a busty babe (Lotte Rausch) who comes on to him and warns him, “you don’t live anymore if you are always frightened,” Rothe demonstrates he is done with women and impulsively strangles her too, as if reenacting his murder of Inge (notably, none of the murders are actually depicted in the film, thus alluding to how the antihero has attempted to erase them from his mind). 

 Flash forward to the present, Rothe yells at Hösch for passing out drunk while telling his story and then proceeds to tell him how he planned to kill him and Winkler (who was eventually hanged), back during those events in December 1943. Rothe proceeds to say to his ex-assistant with more than a tint of survivor’s guilt, “Unbelievable. The bomb night was over, thousands were dead. Thousands who wanted to live. But I, I was still alive. Unbelievable.” After Hösch calls Rothe a pathetic coward and amateur due to his depression over the past and guilt over surviving the war when so many other innocent people died, the doctor kills his ‘friend’ and then himself by standing in front of a moving train. Needless to say, The Lost One is a decided downer any way you look at it and it could have only concluded with the death of virtually every character, especially the antihero himself.  As the film demonstrates in the end, the only way for a person to truly escape their past is through a swift death.

 It should be noted that after Peter Lorre fled Germany and eventually headed to the United States, he felt immense guilt over the fact that he left much of his friends and family behind and tried to compensate for it by getting actively involved in Hollywood anti-Nazi propaganda (of course, this would ultimately contribute to him being typecast as a freakish foreign villain). As described by his niece in the A&E documentary Peter Lorre: The Master of Menace (1996), Lorre was apparently advised by National Socialist Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who was certainly a cinephile of sorts and once offered the half-Jewish auteur Fritz Lang the job of becoming the head of filmmaking for the Third Reich, of all people to flee Germany before it was too late, so one can only assume the actor felt extra guilt due to the fact that one of the top Nazis and Jew-baiters of the twentieth-century more or less saved his life. Undoubtedly, one of the most revealing scenes of The Lost One is when Lorre’s character states, “Unbelievable. The bomb night was over, thousands were dead. Thousands who wanted to live. But I, I was still alive. Unbelievable.” And, indeed, it was not only the death of Jews that caused Lorre survivor’s guilt, but innocent Germans as well as demonstrated by the various innocent and virginal Aryan woman that are senselessly killed in The Lost One. Whatever was going on in Lorre’s head at the time, it is undeniable that he did something totally daring and seemingly inexplicable when he decided to direct a film where he also portrays a Nazi serial killer scientist instead of a sympathetic and persecuted Jew like Fritz Kortner played in Der Ruf. Ultimately, The Lost One is an exceedingly nihilistic work where not even the slightest shade of redemption is made possible, with even Rudolf Hess’ failed secret peace mission to England in 1941 and the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler being mentioned in passing as if they were futile and ultimately worthless attempts to thwart the arrival of hell-on-earth. Starring Lorre as a sort of low-key cuckold take on Josef Mengele in a role where the actor effortlessly demonstrates he is not only one of the greatest portrayers of malignant melancholy and empathetic mad men/mass murderers, but one of the suavest cigarette smokers in cinema history, The Lost One quite arguably features the Austrian-born actor at his greatest. It should also be noted that not a single one of the ‘Nazis’ featured in the film is portrayed as a real National Socialist ‘true believer’ who actually believed in the Hitlerite Weltanschauung, but instead, as innately immoral opportunists who used the new regime as a deplorable means to obtain power and carry out deplorable crimes, thus making The Lost One less an anti-Nazi work than a patently pessimistic look at the intrinsically flawed human character under precarious circumstances. Of course, one of Lorre’s other greatest achievements with the film was that he managed to transcend the Aryan and Jew dichotomy to create a work that is uncompromisingly critical of humanity as a whole. Indeed, while some Germans and Jews were able to forget about the war and its post-apocalyptic aftermath, Lorre, at least in spirit, was one of the people that was left behind, hence the title ‘The Lost One.’ 

-Ty E


Jennifer Croissant said...

I still think one of the best of the 'rubble' films is "The Big Lift" (1950).

jervaise brooke hamster said...

In the poster advertising the film Peter Lorre looks exactly like the way he was drawn by the animators at Warner Brothers when he made guest appearances with Bugs Bunny in the 1950`s, the resemblence is quite uncanny actually. Those cartoons are still hilarious.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

"You dont live anymore if you`re always frightened"...WOW...i can definitely verify (perhaps more than anyone else in the entire world) that that phrase is 100% true ! ! !.

Jennifer Croissant said...

As relatively recently as the 1970`s and 80`s the films that Peter Lorre appeared in in the 1930`s and 40`s seemed quite cosy when they were shown on television, but now they seem totally unwatchable.

Jennifer Croissant said...

In 1977 Lorres daughter Catherine was almost abducted in Los Angeles by a group of serial killers known as The Hillside Stranglers, when they recognised her as being Lorres daughter they let her go, she was a lucky 24 year-old slag that night otherwise she would`ve been fucked, buggered, sodomized, and strangled.