BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: a German Psycho.

THE GERMANS have made some excellent serial killer films in the past. What has made them so fascinating is that these films seem to be just as much about the society in which the killer operates in, if not more, rather than simply giving the audience any sort of perverse pleasure via a conventional thriller. While The Devil Strikes at Midnight (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam) could still also be seen as a rather conventional film, it’s also an interesting indictment on the German psyche, a compelling view of post-war anomie of a country trying to understand its own behaviour pre-and during World War II.

This film has frequently been compared to Fritz Lang’s brilliant M, a comparison which is probably reasonably accurate, but also a little misleading. (You could also make comparisons to the highly under-appreciated Ulli Lommel film Tenderness of the Wolves, which looked at the same serial killer Fritz Haarmann as M). Bruno Luebke, the killer in this film, was reportedly a real figure too. However, The Devil Strikes at Midnight barely focuses on the serial killer, rather it’s more a police procedural, and also looks at a bureaucracy that doesn’t want to acknowledge that a) an Aryan killer exists, not a Jewish or mentally subnormal man (though Bruno was probably out strangling animals when brains were being handed out) and b) he has managed to evade the ‘infallible’ Nazi police for so long. It’s also a demonstration that good, honest people existed during this period, but they were no match for a dehumanized bureaucracy, giddyingly hypocritical ideology, and petty power struggles.

It’s interesting that this film was made by a German Jewish émigré to Hollywood, who returned back to Germany to make a couple of films in the 50s. Siodmak’s Hollywood noir reputation is evident in the chiaroscuro lighting and occasionally unusual framing of this movie. A particularly notable scene is the frenzied camerawork that accompanies Bruno’s reenactment of a murder in the forest. The film also harkens back to German Expressionism (film noir’s visual style has frequently been linked back to the German movement as well), and the voicing of sociological concerns and the expression of war trauma and guilt by using serial killers has been used since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The film is less about a collective guilt (after all Siodmak wasn’t a part of it), rather, it catalogues a pervasive fear that operated throughout German society – a fear that allowed a serial killer who murdered over fifty people to be the least of everyone’s worries.