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"Berlin Express (1948) is really two movies - one in the background, the other in the foreground," proclaimed a May 3, 1948 Timemagazine review. The movie in the foreground is a fairly typical Hollywood plot about Nazis and a kidnapped international leader. It stars Robert Ryan as an American officer who's teamed up with a Brit (played by Robert Coote), a Russian Lieutenant (Roman Toporow) and a French secretary (Merle Oberon) to rescue peace movement champion Paul Lukas from the Nazis. The second movie serves primarily as a backdrop, but stands more importantly as a historical document. Interspersed in the post-war intrigue, is actual post-war footage of Berlin and Frankfurt, making Berlin Express the first Hollywood production allowed into Germany after the war. And Lucien Ballard's stark cinematography of urban ruin is often as fascinating as the story it supports.
The idea for Berlin Express came from a Life article about an army train moving through the Russian Sector of the city. Producer Bert Granet worked with writers Curt Siodmak and Harold Medford to develop the story. On the surface a simple rescue yarn, the movie also serves as an allegory for Allied cooperation. The choice of the characters' nationalities is obviously symbolic. Each player represents one arm of the Allied forces. The Big Four, whose combined efforts won the war, must work together in this movie to free Paul Lukas and thus further the peace process.
Once the script was finished, Granet applied to the U.S. Army for assistance. The Berlin Express crew was not only the first allowed into Germany, but it was the first American feature to be shot in post-war Europe. And it certainly was no easy task. Film equipment was very hard to come by on the continent. Billy Wilder reportedly had to wait for Berlin Express to finish filming so he could borrow what he needed for A Foreign Affair (1948). The European leg of the Berlin Express shoot lasted seven weeks with location filming in Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin. Footage was shipped back to Hollywood for processing as they went along. The experience was said to have made Robert Ryan a strong anti-war advocate as he finally saw the horrible aftermath of the war close-up while filming the movie.
Granet later remarked on the film's look (which has been called a noir-documentary), "we could never have made the picture if we'd had to duplicate the ruin and devastation of Germany. I figure we got about $65 billion worth of free sets." Perhaps it was the wartime reliance on newsreels, but audiences had developed a taste for movies shot on location. The trend was most apparent in Italy, where lack of money played a big part in the emergence of the Neorealist movement (which used a documentary style, real life settings and often non-actors). But Hollywood too, began the move out of the studio to real and natural locations. Cinematographer Ballard was careful in his approach in Berlin Express, realizing the importance of what they were shooting and the film's schedule was even revised "to take full advantage of cross-lighting by the sun" on the bombed out remains of Frankfurt.
Ballard had been hired for the project against Granet's wishes, at the insistence of his wife, Merle Oberon. But Granet had hand picked Jacques Tourneur to direct, based on his previous work in films like Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (1947). And the partnership was a happy one. Tourneur remembered Berlin Express as one of his longest scheduled film shoots, but one that he liked. And years later, Granet would give Tourneur work again, on two television series he was producing -- The Walter Winchell File and The Twilight Zone.
Producer: Bert Granet
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Harold Medford, Curt Siodmak
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred H. Herman
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editing: Sherman Todd
Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Merle Oberon (Lucienne), Robert Ryan (Robert Lindley), Charles Korvin (Perrot), Paul Lukas (Dr. H. Bernhardt), Robert Coote (Sterling), Reinhold Schunzel (Walther), Roman Toporow (Lt. Maxim).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
By Stephanie Thames