Berlin Express (1948)

Berlin Express (1948) is a train-bound post-war espionage cloak and dagger military mission movie with plenty film noir tones, themes and touches.

Drenched in the unappealing and captivating intricacies of the post-war milieu, rife with a tapestry of tropes, landscapes, and clichés that echo the discordant symphony of a world grappling with the aftermath of conflict, Berlin Express (1948) is an unusual and compelling espionage noir.

In the brutal theater of World War II's ferocity, where mushroom clouds etched indelible scars on history, few glimpses pierce the collective consciousness like the haunting images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's atomic abyss. 

Yet, within the silent reels of this revelation, a different, less heralded tale unfolds — a cinematic odyssey unearthing the aftermath of conventional bombardment upon the ancient lands of Germany.

Starring Merle Oberon and Robert Ryan, with Paul Lukas and Robert Coote in strong support, Berlin Express is a unique post-war noir meticulously helmed by Jacques Tourneur, which efforts to drip with an aftermathic ambiance that chills to the bone.

The film unfolds against the hauntingly authentic backdrop of the war-ravaged ruins of Frankfurt, and then an even more ruined Berlin, forming a cinematic canvas that complements a narrative steeped in intrigue, scandal, and the shadows of murder.

There is also an incredible shoot-out in a bombed out brewery including a fight in the depths of a damaged vat. 

Paul Lukas and Merle Oberon on the Berlin Express (1948)

Noir scripting provides the perfect psychological remove with which to express and validate the feelings of the post-war American male, as the voiceover moves into using the second person in order to express the mixed feelings and downright fear an American could legitimately feel upon visiting Germany in a year as fragile as 1948.

In fact the voiceover expresses the fragility well, albeit in tough tones, expertly delivered by Paul Stewart who deserves a credit but doesn't get one. 

The following short excerpt expresses what a man might and probably now should feel upon seeing his first German. An odd idea but this is war, which read backwards is raw. There is pure existential doubt and confusion, but this is till expressed through moral superiority, and in as philosophical a remove as can be made to bring it home bother personally and in the abstract. Quite a feat perhaps from Curt Siodmak, not just evoking two world wars but bringing it down home to the human as if this man the character witnesses embodies it all:

Robert Ryan — American Everyman sights his first German in Berlin Express (1948)
"There he was, his first German. You can't knock it out of your head. You've licked him in two wars and you're still not sure you have the upper hand. You could be wrong, though. Maybe he IS a right guy. Then you find yourself 'rolling over the former enemy border and the doubt is back. You're in his territory now."

A significant portion of the tale unfolds within the confines of a train, where a cast of characters engages in a delicate dance with lingering Nazis, undeterred by the inconsequential detail of losing the war. As a prominent scientist falls prey to kidnapping, it falls upon an American investigator to navigate the labyrinth of deceit, unmask the criminal syndicate, and mete out a brand of justice as cold and unforgiving as the post-war landscape.

Ruined city-scape seen from the Berlin Express (1948)

Emerging triumphant from the accolades bestowed upon him for the cinematic gem Out of the Past (1947), maestro director Jacques Tourneur embarked on a transcendent sojourn to the Old World, leading his ensemble through the labyrinthine landscape of occupied Germany. In this celluloid tapestry, he not only masterfully weaves the threads of a compelling noir thriller but also extends an earnest entreaty for unity and mutual understanding among nations, particularly those holding sway over the German landscape.

Charles McGraw in Berlin Express (1948)

A transcontinental odyssey unfolds on a train hurtling from the City of Lights to the heart of Berlin, with a diverse ensemble: Robert Ryan, the quintessential American agricultural sage; Robert Coote, the erudite British pedagogue; Roman Toporow, a stoic Russian soldier; Charles Korvin, the suave French bon vivant; and Merle Oberon, another denizen of La Belle France, entwined with a German VIP, Paul Lukas.

Paul Lukas in Berlin Express (1948)

Lukas, an eminent VIP cast in the mold of Konrad Adenauer, an anti-Nazi luminary, embarks on a fateful journey to a conference, bearing a visionary plan for the reunification of Germany. However, the lingering shadows of the erstwhile regime, lurking in the depths of obscurity, conspire to thwart this nascent hope. A failed assassination attempt, culminating in the demise of a decoy, propels these clandestine forces to brazenly abduct Lukas, casting a foreboding pall over the prospects of the pivotal conference.

Robert Ryan and Robert Coote on the Berlin Express (1948)

A film noir feel perhaps? It might be said at a stretch. In the smoky aftermath of WWII, where the shadows linger and secrets breed, a motley crew of souls from different corners of the world find themselves sharing a train ride through the divided heart of Germany. 

But when a German soul, a man preaching peace in a world torn by strife, is snatched away by the shadows that despise his vision, the others must cast aside their own vendettas and unite. 

The clock ticks menacingly as they navigate the labyrinth of betrayal and treachery, compelled by a common goal – to unearth the missing man before a crucial rendezvous could reshape the world. In this gritty dance of post-war intrigue, alliances are fragile, trust is a scarce commodity, and survival demands a gritty resolve in the face of looming darkness.

Curiously, the voice over in Berlin Express states: the war was long over, an optimistic sentiment for 1948, and somehow one that pleasantly defies the hardships and the ruination of Europe.

The villains in Berlin Express (1948) are not explicitly Nazi but neither in fact do they express any party or political allegiance. Instead they are kind of a fanatic post-war German underground determined to resist the re-build and foil the occupation. Of all the ironies chosen by the script and directorial team of Berlin Express (1948) they also employ at least two actual clowns, who turn up on the scene ready and willing to murder.

Robert Ryan

Paul Stewart's narration continues for one half of the film but is best in the earlier and explicatory scenes of travel as the carriages cross from freed France to newly occupied Germany — recently enemy territory:

"Then you find yourself rolling over the former enemy border and the doubt is back. You're in his territory now. The trees look the same. The sky is the same. The air doesn't smell any different. All at once, the vestibule was chilly and his own compartment suddenly seemed inviting and warm."

Some of the best train clichés are brought to bear upon the speeding action as the train traverses war ravaged Europe — probably the best of these is the broken cart on the tracks trope — used to stop the train. Really, honestly, this is where the wheel of my old cart fell off. Just happened to be crossing the tracks at the time.

An accident on the track — trains in film noir — Berlin Express (1948)

The travelogue is yet an invaluable glance into a nation destroyed as the damage done to both the cities of Frankfurt and Berlin needs top be seen to be comprehended, and also and of course makes for a dramatic backdrop. There is even a suggestion that compassion and forward planning were considered aspects of the blitz bombing of Germany.

Ruins of Germany in Berlin Express (1948)

In this manner stereotypes emerge like silhouettes against a chiaroscuro canvas—the sharp-witted American exuding nonchalant savoir-faire, the Soviet draped in principles and arrogance, the Germans navigating a web of suspicion and duplicity, the French ensnared in a delicate dance of interest tinged with victimhood, and the British, ever-humorous and unyielding.

Yet, within this seemingly scripted tapestry, the film deftly weaves these archetypes into a narrative where credibility intertwines with performance. Merle Oberon, in a portrayal that resonates with restrained brilliance, adds a nuanced layer to the cinematic tableau, embodying a character whose depth transcends the confines of stereotype, leaving an indelible mark upon the stage of post-war drama.

Tourneur's visual swagger in this joint is cut from the same shadowy cloth as Josef von Sternberg's. It's a canvas where every visual stroke in Berlin Express carries the allure of beauty, akin to Sternberg's signature touch. These maestros ain't no minimalists; they sling shots loaded with intricate webs of lines and curves, a visual symphony of complexity.

Berlin Express (1948)

Both directors fancy themselves composers of elaborate tapestries, their shots painted with intricate strokes of light and shadow. Elaborate backgrounds adorned with texture are their forte. For Tourneur, it's walls wrapped in ornate wallpaper, moldings, or grillwork—a labyrinth of textures. This stands in stark contrast to architectural maestro Fritz Lang, who deals in the pure geometry of his cinematic chambers.

Foregrounds don't escape the duo's penchant for complexity either. Berlin Express flaunts ornamental grillwork as its chosen veil, a ubiquitous adornment across Germany and, if the film's to be believed, even in France! Sternberg, on the flip side, swings with East Asian bead curtains and netting, a flourish that'd probably stick out like a sore thumb in Frankfurt. In the grand scheme, both Sternberg and Tourneur waltz in the tradition of Pictorialist cinema, crafting visuals that sing with a noir serenade.

Robert Ryan and Merle Oberon in Berlin Express (1948)

In the unforgiving mosaic of Berlin Express, resonances from the 1940s semi-documentaries cut through the smoke, infusing the narrative with a raw, streetwise edge:

A gravelly narrator, authoritative as a brass knuckle, conducts the symphony of deception. Each revelation, a sharp staccato note, guides the audience through the urban maze, a shadowy dance of intrigue.

Real-life great cities, stripped down to their bare bones, become the back alleys for this clandestine drama. The streets are a battlefield, where the drama of deception plays out against the unfiltered backdrop of gritty reality.

An inside look into the machinations of the French police and the American Occupation authorities peels back the veneer of bureaucracy. It's a shadow play of power and deception, a dance where every step could be a trap.

Marle Hayden in Berlin Express (1948)

Science, a cold ally in the underworld of espionage, takes center stage. The hero, a pragmatic agricultural expert, navigates the treacherous landscape with the precision of a switchblade in the dark.

The grand finale unfolds within the hallowed halls of a brewery, a den of secrets echoing with industrial heartbeat. It's a showdown, where the clash of forces mirrors the brutal climaxes of the street-smart semi-documentaries. In Berlin Express, the semi-documentary elements carve a path through the fog, revealing a world where fiction and reality bleed into each other, leaving behind the raw, unvarnished truth of a hard-boiled narrative.

In the gritty shadows of post-war intrigue, Berlin Express unfolds with a noble protagonist, a peacemaker personified by Paul Lukas. This unsung hero, a former anti-Hitler underground operative, carries the torch of reunifying Germany, his noble quest sponsored by the formidable arm of the US State Department. A man of admirable convictions, he stands as a beacon against the tumultuous backdrop of political machinations.

Herein a sinister force emerges, an enigmatic German underground, the malevolent architects of discord lurking in the film's shadows. The nature of their politics remains shrouded in ambiguity, a puzzle inviting speculation. Are they Neo-Nazis, remnants of a dark past seeking resurgence? Or could the specter of Communism cast its long shadow over their clandestine motives? The film, with its veiled narrative, refuses to unveil the truth, leaving commentators to navigate the murky waters of interpretation.

Amidst the skepticism directed at the Soviets, the film subtly suggests that the primary stumbling block to East-West peace lies in their own hostile disposition. A longing for harmony between the Cold War rivals pulsates through the narrative, aligning the film's political undertones with the liberal, yet non-Communist, ethos of its time.

And a conspicuous absence lingers—a silence on the discourse of democratic governance, the heartbeat of political discourse. In this labyrinth of post-war politics, Berlin Express weaves a narrative web where certainties blur into shadows of speculation.

Amidst this political fog, one aspect remains starkly illuminated—the film's vehement anti-war stance. With vivid brilliance, Berlin Express thrusts the devastating consequences of war into stark relief. Few films match its force and clarity in portraying the ravages of war. It is a fearsome testament, an impassioned plea against the warmongering that reduces nations to rubble. The film lays bare the harrowing journey from Hitler's once-popular pro-war policies to the ruins that now echo the price paid for such folly. In its raw portrayal, Berlin Express becomes a powerful chronicle, urging all who witness its cinematic tapestry to confront the grim realities of war-mongering and its inexorable descent into chaos.

In Berlin Express (1948), the cinematic craftsmanship unfolds in the riveting train journey from Paris to Frankfurt, meticulously crafted by the auteur Jacques Tourneur. This sequence, a manifestation of Tourneur's trademark "micro-landscapes," meticulously dissects the car housing our protagonists with an obsessive eye for detail, both from within and outside the train's metal veins. 

Here, Tourneur artfully employs a plethora of perspective shots, creating a cinematic symphony along the train's central aisle — a rhythmic dance of "corridor shots."

Tourneur's penchant for peering through windows finds a playground in the train sequence. His lens, like an omniscient observer, captures the dance between interior and exterior worlds, glancing out from the train through its windows to the bustling outside, and reciprocally, looking into the train from the great outdoors.

Merle Oberon and Paul Lukas in Berlin Express (1948)

A masterstroke emerges in the introductory shot, a cinematic ballet unveiling each character through the windows of various compartments, reminiscent of Clarence Brown's Possessed (1931). These compartments, a recurring motif in Tourneur's arsenal, along with the prominently featured bunks within, form his visual vocabulary, orchestrating a symphony of cinematic harmony.

This densely woven train journey serves as a narrative loom, weaving together the diverse tapestry of characters and nationalities—American, British, French, Russian, and German—all converging on occupied Germany. The spatial choreography within the train becomes a canvas, staging intricate political interactions, historical complexities, and the pulsating heartbeat of espionage. The micro-landscape, meticulously etched into the floor plan of the train, casts a spell of richness and delight, enveloping the audience in the romance and thrill of train travel.

Ruins of the Reichstag — Berlin Express (1948)

Tourneur, a maestro of perspective, unveils a cinematic panorama from every conceivable angle on the train. His lens peers from outside the train into compartments, from within the compartments looking into the train, from the corridor, and the reverse—each shot a painterly stroke, vividly painting the evolving mood of the narrative. Not one to rely on high or low angles, Tourneur's visual language evokes drama through meticulous choices, reaching its zenith in the murder aftermath where an elevated angle punctuates the surprise of the situation, capturing an army officer bending to the ground.

As the tale unfolds, Tourneur's lens transforms I.G. Farben headquarters and the brewery into geometric playgrounds. The brewery, a testament to circular harmony with its rounded barrels and circular handles, renders every visible element a geometric entity. Even the spherical crystal ball in the night club act, an exquisite geometric flourish, adds a touch of mystique to Tourneur's visual ballet.

I.G. Farben building in Berlin Express (1948)

"We're in Frankfurt now. Or rather, what's left of Frankfurt. The biggest ghost town you ever saw. A community of hollow shells, chipped and battered by Allied bombs, according to a methodical plan, a plan that would cancel out the city as a tough enemy centre, and still retain some choice spots. Like the Hauptbahnhof, the railroad depot, which served the occupation forces and experts in restoration who would enter this strange new world.


"Specialists in military affairs, clerical workers, statesmen, prosecutors, judges, educators, nutrition experts, as well as others you couldn't quite classify. This was a world of rubble, under strict military control, with a system of economy of its own. There was no such thing as the dollar, the franc or the pound. A person's bankroll is their special occupation money and their supply of cigarettes."

Paul Stewart, Voiceover narration in Berlin Express (1948) 

Dr. Bernhardt: Sometimes I think we shall never get together on this earth until we find someone on Mars to hate.

In the realm of shadows and celluloid secrets, Merle Oberon, with a quiet insistence, dictated that none but Lucien Ballard, her husband and maestro of cinematography, be entrusted with the lens. His craft, a masterful symphony of light and shadow, served not only to paint the frames but also to conceal the scars etched upon Oberon's visage, remnants of a fateful dance with destiny in a car accident.

Fritz Kortner in Berlin Express (1948)

Eddie Muller, the sage host of Turner Classic Movies' Noir Alley and repository of all wisdom on the noir, unravels the tapestry of film lore, revealing that this cinematic endeavor marked a pioneering stride. In the unforgiving aftermath of war, "Berlin Express" emerged as the inaugural Hollywood creation to unravel its narrative against the authentic backdrop of post-war Berlin, a triumph preceding even the illustrious "A Foreign Affair."

Charles Korvin in Berlin Express (1948)

The destruction of Frankfurt and Berlin are well photographed for effect and as a backdrop ultimately make sense of what otherwise would be a confusing story, simply because of the confusion of the military cultures in these cities. The voiceover is correct in asserting that sadly, these are no holiday destinations. At the same time Berlin Express (1948) does manage to squeeze in some anti-Soviet sentiment in the characters of the mysterious, unlucky, stolid and emotionless Russians which come and go, most notable of these being Lt. Maxim played by Roman Toporow.

This and an even modicum of sarcasm in the voiceover as comment for the US cinema goers. In a rough and ready and doubtless raw post-war world there is still room for hurt, in the acerbic and sardonic tones of the commentary:

Robert Ryan in Berlin Express (1948)

"There were other modern touches in this ancient city. The architecture, for instance - new lines, new shapes, generally referred to as early 20th-century modern warfare. So universal is the destruction, it blends into a continuous pattern. But there is more than the physical loss of stone and steel - the loss of human dignity. Commerce is conducted from cases holding prize possessions, to barter for the necessities of life. Everything from diamonds to diapers was here. The choice business offices are in the sun. And don't forget the social world. Bulletin boards with cards seeking the whereabouts of lost friends, relatives, displaced persons. These are features some don't see when they have other things on their minds."
                              Paul Stewart, Voiceover narration in Berlin Express (1948) 

In the obscured annals of post-WWII narratives, this film stands as a rare testament, shedding light on the clandestine anti-Western resistance that lingered like a phantom in the aftermath of war. A narrative uniquely poised amidst the prevailing silence, it dares to unveil the underbelly of history, a realm where conquered Germans, instead of acquiescing to their fate, forged a clandestine dance of defiance. 

While the mainstream narratives painted a canvas of smooth adaptation, this cinematic chronicle unveils the harsh reality – a backdrop haunted by murders and scattered acts of resistance, a clandestine symphony orchestrated by ex-Nazis, endeavouring to shatter the fragile peace. In this pivotal historical excavation, the film assumes its mantle of importance, unravelling the layers of an untold story, where shadows of dissent persisted long after the guns fell silent.

Frankfurt and Berlin, once proud citadels, now reduced to jagged, skeletal remnants, stand as eerie witnesses to the relentless onslaught of wartime fury. Amidst this apocalyptic tableau, a peculiar enigma unfolds — a visual paradox where the opulent Siemens corporate complex, a bastion of industry, remains defiantly unscathed, its architectural splendor untouched by the tempest of destruction. A riddle lingers in the air, inviting the curious to unravel the cryptic strands of a backstory that whispers of intrigue and survival amid the ruins of war.

"The IG Farben building, monument to German ingenuity and might, former administrative home of the Farben industries, manufactories of the tools of war. The boys in the Allied bombers saw this spot wasn't touched. Where munition makers worked to conquer the world, here would be ideal offices for the enforcement of the peace. Here would be headquarters for USFET - United States Forces European Theatre. Here the American soldier is helping form the history of the world. To keep the peace in Germany, to make it possible for people to resume their place in society, the army is on constant duty. No city is more important than Frankfurt. Clearing house and main hub for the entire American zone. This was Congress, the White House and Department of Justice under one roof. Here policy was made and executed, work permits granted, travel orders rewritten, checked, and enemies of the government were called to account."

                                        Paul Stewart, Voiceover narration in Berlin Express (1948)  

Berlin Express (1948)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Genres - Action, Adventure, Drama, Spy Film, War, Crime, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Action Thriller, Spy Film  |   Release Date - May 7, 1948 (USA)  |   Run Time - 86 min.  |  

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