Cast & Crew
In post-war Paris, revered German peacemaker Dr. Heinrich Bernhardt addresses a secret conference of United Nations representatives on the controversial topic of German reunification. In another part of the city, a coded message consisting of the number "9850," the European time "21:45," the letter "D" and the place "Sulzbach" is found tied to a dead pigeon. The French police are unable to decipher the message completely, but notify the Allied authorities to be on the alert for spy activities. That night, seven passengers board the same car of a Berlin-bound train: Robert F. Lindley, an American agricultural expert, Lucienne Mirbeau, a French secretary, German businessman Otto Franzen, James Sterling, an English schoolteacher assigned to "re-educate" the Germans, Lt. Maxim Kiroshilou of the Russian army, Henri Perrot, a former member of the French underground, and Hans Schmidt, a mysterious German. One Compartment "D" is occupied by an unseen dignitary, who Robert and James soon learn is Dr. Bernhardt. Robert then discovers that he has been moved to another compartment and that "D" is now empty. At 21:45, in the border town of Sulzbach, the train is stopped momentarily by an overturned horsecart. A few moments later, a man calling himself Dr. Heinrich Bernhardt enters his reassigned compartment and triggers a deadly grenade blast. Later, in war-devastated Frankfurt, the six male passengers are brought in for questioning at the American occupation headquarters. After they interrogate Robert, Colonel Johns and a major talk with Otto Franzen, who turns out to be the real Dr. Bernhardt and Lucienne's boss. Still concerned for Dr. Bernhardt's safety, the Americans insist that he continue his impersonation, but while standing alone at the Frankfurt train station, the German is approached by an old friend, Johann Walther. Seconds later, a woman screams, creating a distraction, and Dr. Bernhardt disappears. A desperate Lucienne reveals Dr. Bernhardt's impersonation to Robert, James, Perrot and Maxim and finally convinces the reluctant group to help her find her kidnapped boss. Dr. Bernhardt, meanwhile, is being kept by his German enemies at Walther's, who confesses that he betrayed his friend to obtain the address of his missing wife. That night, after a fruitless day of searching, the weary group stops at a public bulletin board, where Lucienne sees a notice posted by Walther. Believing that Walther may know something about Dr. Bernhardt, the team goes to his address, but Walther, who was informed by the Germans that his wife is dead, has hanged himself. With no leads, Lucienne is about to give up the search when Perrot suggests that they scour the underground German nightclubs. At one club, Robert and Lucienne notice a German woman smoking a cigarette identical to the type smoked by Dr. Bernhardt, and during a clown and mind reading act, Robert asks the performers if they know Dr. Bernhardt's location. The question leads to a fight, and in the mêlée, the clown, Ludwig, is knocked out and his costume is stolen. Sgt. Barnes, an American soldier who was flirting with the German woman, then leads Robert and Lucienne to her home in a bombed-out brewery. There the double-crossing Barnes, whose German name is Heinz, turns Robert and Lucienne over to Dr. Bernhardt's Nazi kidnappers, who include the clown and leader Kessler. Kessler confesses that he led Robert and Lucienne to the brewery because he believes that Lucienne will tell him the details of his unification plan, which Dr. Bernhardt has refused to reveal, in exchange for her boss's life. During the discussion, Ludwig bursts in and a gunfight ensues in which the fleeing impostor clown is wounded. When Lucienne then refuses to talk, Kessler prepares to execute both her and Dr. Bernhardt, but is interrupted by the arrival of Perrot and some American soldiers, who were tipped off by the dying impostor clown, who turns out to be the mysterious Hans Schmidt. In a corner of the brewery, Perrot gets Kessler alone and reveals himself to be the head spy. Mistrustful of Kessler, Perrot shoots him, then re-insinuates himself into the group. Later, as a grateful Dr. Bernhardt and the others continue on to Berlin, Perrot attempts to strangle the doctor in his train compartment. Robert stops the assassination, however, and Perrot is killed while trying to escape. In Berlin, after Lucienne promises Robert she will see him again some day, the American, English and Russian allies say hopeful goodbyes to one another, then drive off to their respective, separate sectors.
Peter Von Zerneck
William Yetter Jr.
Jack G. Lee
Fred Datig Jr.
Albert S. D'agostino
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
The opening credits contain the following written statement: "Actual scenes in Frankfurt and Berlin were photographed by authorization of The United States Army of Occupation, The British Army of Occupation, The Soviet Army of Occupation." Contemporary news items add the following information about the production: In late 1946, producer Bert Granet spent six weeks in Germany and France taking 16mm footage to use as a "reference point" in the writing of the film's script. "On-the-spot" exteriors, which included the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichschancellerie and the Hotel Adlon, were taken in Berlin and also in Paris. News items also note that the picture's crew was the first to receive permission to film in Berlin's Russian zone. (At the time of this production, Berlin was divided into three separate sectors, which were controlled by the English, Russian and American armed forces.)
In June 1947, Hollywood Reporter announced that John Garfield was being "negotiated for" as the film's star. Once shooting was completed in Europe in early September 1947, Hollywood production was delayed for several weeks because director Jacques Tourneur had difficulty getting an airplane out of Paris, and Merle Oberon suffered a fractured jaw. A studio reproduction of Paris' Gare de L'Est railway station was built for the picture. [Modern sources note that night-for-night exteriors were filmed at the actual station.] Although Hollywood Reporter reported in mid-October 1947 that Charles O'Curran was to stage a dance routine for the beer hall sequence, no routine was seen in the viewed print and O'Curran is not credited on screen. In early Hollywood Reporter production charts, William Dorfman, who is credited onscreen as "assistant to the producer," is listed as assistant director. Nate Levinson is listed as assistant director in later production charts. Reviewers commented on the picture's realistic, documentary-like depiction of post-war Germany, and its use of non-translated French and German dialogue. According to New York Herald Tribune, Major Edward C. Wilson and Private James B. Grundy of the British Army had parts in the picture, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. The film's Boston premiere benefitted the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, according to Hollywood Reporter.
An August 1997 American Cinematographer article adds the following information about the production: Granet first came up with the film's story after reading a Life magazine photo-essay about a Paris-to-Frankfurt-to-Berlin train. During location shooting, Col. George Eyster of the U.S. Army's public relations office served as liaison for the cast and crew. American soldiers stationed at the I. G. Farben munitions building in Salzburg, which deliberately was left untouched during bombing raids so that the U.S. could use it as an occupation headquarters, appeared as themselves in the film. Granet originally planned to shoot interiors in French studios, but because of fluctuations in the value of the franc, was forced to use RKO's Pathé Studios in Culver City.