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It's a forgotten movie, less than minor or obscure or "cult," genuinely discarded amid the oceanic press of American film since WWII, but Hotel Berlin (1945) is something of a brave, strange freak amid movies made during the last few years of that crucial war. Based on Vicki Baum's novel itself one of the prolific potboiler-doyenne's retreads of her own famous novel Menschen im Hotel, filmed in 1932 as Grand Hotel the movie bears all the earmarks of being a typical Warner-assembly-line mid-range sedan from its era, reusing sets from recent, bigger films (including Casablanca, 1942), employing a hefty contingent of familiar contract players in roles just ill-fitting enough to make the characters seem unpredictable and compelling, and directed by an undistinguished nobody (Peter Godfrey) counted on for efficiency and elegance on a tight budget within the cast-in-iron Warner system. But there's much more meat on the movie's bones for one thing, politics. Wartime Hollywood, on express propaganda assignment from the State Department, churned out an enormous amount of feel-good, pro-Allies, home-front-celebration fodder during the war years, and though the war compelled American movies to pick over global relations and recent history as never before or since, there was no getting around the hard and fast, and completely understandable, dictate that Germans were to be depicted as irredeemable, goldbricking slimeballs (if not the genocidal maniacs they were realized to be soon thereafter).
Or so you thought. Baum was an Austrian Jew who'd lived in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. just as the Nazi Party was rising to power. She apparently felt no need for broad-brush stereotypes, and neither does Hotel Berlin remarkably, here we have one of the very few Hollywood films made and set during WWII in which every single character, sympathetic, villainous or caught somewhere in the middle, is German. We're not talking about the refugee German Jews of Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm (1940), which was set safely during the Reich's rise, but rather Germans enduring the weft of Berlin life well into the war, during the Allied bombing, in cahoots with or merely tolerating the Nazis, smuggling freedom fighters or ratting on black marketeers, exploiting the military for one's own purposes or ignoring it altogether. In fact, the film actively quotes both Roosevelt and Churchill in making its case that the German people in general should not be considered culpable for the Nazi crimes but regarded as victims as well.
It's a moral dilemma that's still hot to the touch in European cultural discourse, but Hotel Berlin gives extraordinary depth and empathy to every German on its docket, from Raymond Massey's heartsick Nazi general marked for execution because of an anti-Hitler plot, and Faye Emerson's self-hating bar-tramp/informer, to Peter Lorre's nihilistic alcoholic doctor, Helmut Dantine's single-minded Resistance fighter (almost as cold-blooded as the Fascists!), Andrea King's narcissistic theater star and even George Coulouris's rat-sniffing Nazi officer. The situation is both cynical workaday chaos a la Casablanca (the trips to the bomb shelter only interrupt drinking and dancing), and ripe with tension the officers (including Alan Hale as a domineering buffoon) know the war is winding down ("It doesn't matter now" is a common conversation ender), and are scrambling to flee the continent before the ceiling falls in. Into the fray comes Dantine's wanted rogue, hiding in closets and masquerading as an officer, as well as, remarkably, a fear-eyed Jewish refugee from Emerson's past, played delicately by the legendary Helen Thimig, wife of emigrated Austrian theater pope Max Reinhardt.
Godfrey, a Brit who left behind an undistinguished filmography of Warner B-movies and TV episodes, kept his camera moving throughout Hotel Berlin, but what's more his touch with the cast is uniform, touching and humane. Though King and Emerson have their clumsy, second-rate-starlet-for-a-reason moments, and Dantine is as stiff and reserved as he was as the angsty Hungarian refugee in Casablanca, the otherwise veteran cast is coaxed into dignified subtlety. Massey, truly a Golden Era master incapable of a misjudged line or unintelligent reading, is no surprise, but watch Henry Daniell, a too-often villainous character star usually nudged toward lizardy evil, quietly fill out the role of the doomed man's fellow officer, constantly bringing him bad official news and bearing a guilt-stricken friend's burden like a soldier. Still, the centerpiece of Hotel Berlin might belong to Lorre, who has an enormous, seven-minute scene in which his booze-sodden man of science debates with Dantine's idealistic rebel about the usefulness of fighting, and the hopelessness of being German, in the face of so much malice and death and suffering. "Good Germans?" he cries at one point, looking around the hotel room, "Where? Where are they? Hello?"
It's not surprising that one of the adapting screenwriters was Alvah Bessie, a devoted Communist and one of the famed Hollywood Ten; nobody knew how to craft startlingly fresh humanistic characters, jets of dialogue, and three-dimensional sympathies within the studio system like the old-school, labor-union-culture liberals, a category that includes blacklistees Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Jr. and Abraham Polonsky. But Hotel Berlin was also surprisingly timely for most of the world in early 1945 the concentration camps were still just a rumor, but here characters talk in ominous terms about Dachau and Birkenau, whose gas chambers could kill "6,000 people in 24 hours!", in a movie that hit theaters one month before Auschwitz and Dachau were liberated and exposed to the world. Even the typical Warner clutter evoking a bombed-out luxury hotel that must be held up by support beams echoes the characters' moral ambiguities and troubled moment in what was, of course, the century's most wracked mortal conflict. You won't see another movie made on American soil that so dares to sympathize with Nazi Germany and attends to its dread of the war's end, and its day of reckoning.
Producer: Louis Edelman
Director: Peter Godfrey
Screenplay: Alvah Bessie, Jo Pagano; Vicki Baum (novel)
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Art Direction: John Hughes
Music: Franz Waxman, Paul Dessau (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frederick Richards
Cast: Faye Emerson (Tillie Weiler), Helmut Dantine (Martin Richter), Raymond Massey (Arnim von Dahnwitz), Andrea King (Lisa Dorn), Peter Lorre (Johannes Koenig), Alan Hale (Herman Plottke), George Coulouris (Joachim Helm), Henry Daniell (Von Stetten)
BW-98m. Closed captioning.
by Michael Atkinson