Following the end of WW2, the photographer Susanne Wallner, a concentration camp survivor, returns home to Berlin, where she finds her apartment occupied by Dr. Hans Mertens, a surgeon who fought in the war and is now trying to drown his traumatic experiences in alcohol. His desperate cynicism, strongly contrasts with Susanne’s wish to put the past behind her and to start a new life. Thrown together in the small flat, they eventually grow closer, and Susanne’s love seems to help Mertens regain his will to live. When he accidentally crosses paths with Brückner, his former captain in the army and now a successful business man, he is determined to make his former commander pay for the killing of innocent civilians in 1942 at the Eastern front. It was a massacre that Mertens feels he was too weak to prevent, which weighs heavily on his conscience, while Brückner doesn’t feel the slightest regret.
The Murderers are Among Us was the first feature film to be made in Germany after the Second World War and it was the first film to be produced by the DEFA, the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, which was founded on 17 May 1946 in the Soviet Sector and after the founding of the GDR in 1949 became its official state-owned production company.
Filmed between March and July 1946, the film makes ample use of shots of Berlin’s ruins and rubble and employs many stylistics traits of the expressionist cinema of the 1920s to underline its sombre mood and psychological drama. But beyond its visual impact and its documentary interest, the film has also remained significant for its content. Not only did it tell a story set in the immediate aftermath of the war showing the physical and psychological destruction it caused, but it directly addressed the urgency of persecuting the crimes of the Nazis of which many, like Brückner in the film, tried to disappear into a normal civilian existence or entered influential positions in public institutions and private industry. That the Germans themselves did not take up the persecution of Nazi perpetrators with all the necessary consequence has been picked up by recent films such as The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) or Labyrinth of Lies. (2014). What The Murderers Are Among Us does not strongly dwell on is the collective guilt of the general German population, who did not necessarily share Mertens’ sense of guilt. Neither did the film refer to the extermination of Jews.
The film premiered on 15 October 1946 in the Admirals Palast in Berlin and was generally well received. It made its female protagonist, Hildegard Knef, a star. For the director Wolfgang Staudte, who had participated in the production of films made under the Nazis and had even played a small part in the anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß, it was the first of several films exploring Germany’s fascist past, such as Rotation (1948/49), Kirmes (The Fair, 1960), and of Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor, 1959).
Germany (East) 1946, b/w, DCP, 90 mins. German with English subitles.
Director: Wolfgang Staudte. With Wilhelm Borchert, Hildegard Knef, Arno Paulsen, Robert Forsch.