Three whole hours for this one. It's a 'position paper' for a German film class. The movie's actually quite good, and beautifully shot and staged. The paper that it 'inspired', however, is stilted and hokey. But again, I only spent three hours on it. And most of that was probably printing and stapling.

Shadows and ruins used in The murderers are among us

copyright 22 April 2002 by Mike Lietz

Cinema has a visual language unique to that media, and some films use images to convey messages a scene much more powerfully than setting and dialogue alone could. One such film is Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns), comprising excellent use of shadow, framing and montage techniques which are apparent to even the casual film observer. The scenes created using these methods remain in memory long after the movie is over. Two details used particularly well by Staudte are the omnipresence of the ruins of Berlin and the dramatic use of bold shadows throughout the film.

Though bookended with images of the cross and graves, Murderers makes greater use of a less common symbol with fewer obvious religious and moral undertones, but to just as powerful of an effect. Staudte presents the ruins of Berlin as not just the decrepit skeleton of a once-great city, but also as a signifier for the destruction and desolation of a once-great surgeon and then army medic, Dr. Martens. In the striking opening scene, Mertens ambles through the ruins, backed by a vaudevillian soundtrack perfectly conveying the inner turmoil he faces-tragic glee surrounded by destruction and death. There the ruins are placed to provide a grave counterpoint to the bright, happy bliss Mertens is about to experience in order to ignore them or displace them from his thoughts. Other scenes throughout the movie linger on ruins at the horizon as the characters have left the frame, reinforcing the theme that the rebuilding is limited not to just the broken people but also the destroyed city (and nation).

Later scenes present the ruins more metonymically, as when Mertens confronts Susanne about the building formerly full of residents with lifetime leases just like hers whose apartments have become graves, standing behind panes of broken glass. The destroyed tenement across the street which they look at through those shattered windows is not shown to the viewer but does not need to be, as Mertens's outrage conveys all aspects of the desolation. The ruins are not limited to being just the destroyed (public) city buildings, as are shown prominently between scenes, but their chaotic disarray carries over into personal lives, as in Susanne's apartment, which has become the personal squalor in which Mertens sulks. He feels no driving organization in his life, and the environment he is surrounded by mirrors this. Whether used to denote the passage of time or to add gravity to the themes presented, the ruins are present to anchor the characters lives to the situation of the city.

Another memorable element of Murderers is the bold use of shadows in pivotal scenes of Mertens, whether he is entering Susanne's apartment after having a change of heart or when he confronts Brueckner at the films climax. Such use of stark contrast between the black and white of shadow and light provides a counterpoint to the moral gray areas found in the rest of the film. With the characters as they are presented, the viewer is presented with few choices for archetypes, with neither the gallant, brave hero with the white hat nor the black-clad dastardly villain opposing him represented in the film. Dr. Mertens is Murderers' protagonist, but instead of bravery he exudes doubt and self-loathing, and the shadows' white and black contrast shows the inner quarrel between polar opposites good and evil consuming him. His character is the only one shown with such attention to lighting, as both Susanne and Brueckner are lit more naturally, without definite shadowing. In fact the scenes with Brueckner, especially the family dinner and the employee Christmas party, are brightly lit and very pleasant to view, betraying the films casting of him as the villain, a convention that would suit the dimly-lit, frequently shadowed Mertens much better if not for the theme of the film.

While Brueckner is not completely evil-just as Mertens is not overwhelmingly benevolent-he is clearly the opposite of Mertens, characterized by complacent indifference and hypocrisy to contrast with the doctor's steeled conviction and moral integrity. Brueckner is indifferent about his current work, not caring whether he is turning helmets into soup pots or vice versa, with a casual near-apathy matching his detached, dispassionate ordering the death of hostages on Christmas Day during the war. His hypocrisy is revealed as he, the great proclaimer of rebuilding and getting everyone involved in the Aufbau, spends his day off not getting his hands dirty in the streets but instead engaging in drunken debauchery with burlesque dancers. Cast as white to Brueckner's black, however, Mertens is definitely not indifferent. He chooses to lay down his scalpel not out of apathy but based on his belief that human life doesn't matter, as he witnessed horrible evidence of in the war. At the films climax, Mertens becomes a shadow cast entirely over Brueckner, much larger than the cowering little man. Mertens is clearly the man in control of destiny, and the viewer is left with no doubt that Mertens would not have hesitated in snuffing out Brueckner completely, relegating him to the shadows where he belongs, had Susanne not intervened. Mertens's other scenes with Susanne and dramatic shadows present are just as cinematically powerful, as in the scene wherein his return to Susanne after the emergency tracheotomy is heralded by a long dark inverted shadow cast on the ceiling for a moments hesitation before Mertens enters the apartment, right-side-up and happy, an inversion of his previous characterization.

Staudte's excellent use of the ruins of Berlin and shadowing of Dr. Mertens makes them not just scenery and setting but active participants in the films story and theme, just as important as the cast to setting the right mood and impact on the viewer. Scenes such as the jarringly disorienting opener with its happy music and somber ruins, and the climax with a larger-than-life silhouette overshadowing Brueckner convey a greater depth to the ideas of reconciliation and accountability that the cast and dialogue, though excellent, could never achieve alone.


It's not funny like the others, I know.


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