Noir City 12 widens its focus — but it still ain't afraid of the dark
FILM Though its definition has been stretched hither and yon to accommodate films that might appeal to the same retro-minded audience, film noir is a well you can go to only so many times before risking excess repetition or bottom-scraping. So it's good news that the latest annual edition of SF-bred Noir City at the Castro Theatre — kicking off Fri/24 — expands its programming to the separate-but-equal terrain of 1940s and '50s crime melodramas made outside the genre's traditional home. Dubbed "It's a Bitter Little World," Noir City 12 has a smattering of Hollywood titles, but otherwise for the first time ranges far afield, hauling in tough dramas from places like England, Argentina, Germany, and Japan.
The somber post-war mood that spurred noir cinema was, in the US, fomented largely by the trauma and disillusionment suffered by both returning vets and those they came back to. But in many other nations, the damage was more than personal and psychological — people returned to cities reduced to rubble after years of fighting, surviving residents already accustomed to extreme deprivation. Plus, former allies and enemy combatants alike were now regarded with suspicion as they lingered at the war's end to oversee "reconstruction," the language and cultural gaps and unfamiliar new lines of authority in turn breeding new avenues of corruption and resistance.
Two films most directly dealing with that atmosphere are double-billed Mon/27. Made in 1946 (though it wasn't released in some parts of divided, occupied Germany until some time later), The Murderers Are Among Us was the first of the "trümmerfilm," literally "rubble film" — movies portraying Germans' struggles with recuperation and loss in the wake of humiliating defeat, not to mention the revelations of heinous Nazi war crimes. Returning home from a concentration camp, Susanne (Hildegard Knef) finds her Berlin apartment already occupied by Hans (Wilhelm Borchert), an embittered, alcoholic physician who no longer practices.
Forced to uneasily cohabit, they try to re-establish some semblance of ordinary life, though that effort is imperiled when former military doctor Hans discovers the superior officer he'd thought dead is in fact alive, well, and prospering — suffering no consequences at all for ordering the massacre of a hundred Polish civilians, including women and children. (Purportedly, occupying Soviet authorities insisted on changing the film's intended ending, fearing that if Hans actually assassinated the officer, viewers would be tempted toward vigilante justice themselves.)
Duly shot amid a city in ruins, Murderers remains potent stuff, even if it soft-pedals certain aspects: For instance, concentration camp survivor Susanne is as Aryan as can be, the subject of a Jewish Holocaust apparently still being too touchy to mention. Knef (who actually had spent time in a prison camp) became an immediate star, a refreshingly unconventional one who spurned Hollywood offers and shrugged off outrage over a nude sequence (in 1950's The Sinner) with the memorable observation that such "tumult" was ridiculous coming "five years after Auschwitz!"
Its 1948 co-feature Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur (of 1942's Cat People and other horror classics) was a Hollywood production shot on location in Europe, with a multinational cast playing various figures traveling on a train from Paris to the German capital. When one who'd been an important German anti-Nazi resistance figure is killed en route, lingering wartime animosities are overcome to solve the crime — the tentative friendships among them a simple metaphor for the cooperation required among nations to rebuild after catastrophic conflict.