BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: the post-war German cinema season concludes.

IT’S AMAZING to think a film like this was made one year after World War Two ended. Made by the soon be East German DEFA studio, The Murderers Are Among Us tackles Germany’s war guilt head on, looking at the casual way in which war criminals assimilated themselves back into society. The film is a plea to not forget, for Germans to confront their past and shows the way in which Germany should advance forward.

The opening scene is quite remarkable in its depiction of the milieu. The ruins, the abandoned Towers of Babel, the shuffling destitute aren’t simply an elaborately constructed set or extras. It was the real Berlin in which people found themselves re-populating or re-building their lives, following the fall to the Soviets. We see a Dr. Hans Mertens wandering through this, inebriated, drinking to allay his own guilt. He picks arguments with a chess opponent when she sacrifices two pawns to “protect” her king, he disavows his medical training. When he arrives home, the former occupant (Susanne Wallner) of his barely functioning flat arrives back from a concentration camp claiming to be the true owner. This is a remarkably bitter film, as far removed from the late 1930s German cinema as one could imagine.

From there an unlikely (almost too unlikely) relationship forms – this film is as much about reconciliation and the need for people to acknowledge each other’s humanity. Wallner sets herself the task of fixing up the flat, a none too subtle Soviet appeasing message. Reportedly funding was rejected by the Americans, who said they weren’t going to allow German cinema for twenty years as they were fearful of Nazi propaganda. The Soviets were a little more forthcoming, setting up the DEFA studio. However Wallner’s behaviour also forms an important counterpoint to the sentiments of the film’s villain, Ferdinand Bruckner, a former concentration camp officer, who muses that people should just demolish the ruins and go on with their lives. Never mind, that people are living in them.

The interaction between Bruckner and Mertens becomes the film’s main struggle – almost to the point that Wallner seems to become reasonably irrelevant (until the end). The film exhorts its audience to not act as Bruckner did, who was discarding the horrific German actions as some by-product of war. The film’s also about the redemption of Mertens (and therefore Germany), counter-weighing the impulses of bloody revenge and justice. The film is also a direct confrontation of an ordinary German’s culpability. In this way, the film draws on German Expressionism tropes as seems to be the German way of expressing war trauma and guilt with garish close-ups, off-centre framing, and occasionally wild melodrama.

It’s interesting to note that the victims at the end are portrayed as innocent Christian victims (there were simply crosses on the grave), and there was no mention of why Wallner was in a concentration camp (except to say it was because of her father). It seemed too early to confront the ethnic cleansing of Jewish or Romani people, rather the film occasionally points to “victims”. Perhaps simply acknowledging the victims’ humanity was revolutionary considering the propaganda that led to particular groups being victimized. But this film is remarkable considering the country’s war guilt given its proximity to the actual events, even if it wasn’t ready to get into the specifics just yet.

Special thanks must go to the Goethe Institut for this fine wee selection of post-World War Two German Cinema at the Film Society.