Film: Berlin Express

Further evidence the world can’t have nice things in 2018 came with the news last week that FilmStruck, my favorite online source of classic and/or obscure movies, is shutting down at the end of November. With the dominant streaming services committing to more and more original content, FilmStruck has been an invaluable source of classy, quite interesting older films—a source, it seems, that I’d been taking for granted. There’s no way I can clear out my watchlist in the service’s last month, but this weekend I started with Berlin Express (1948), which turns out to be a perfect example of why I love FilmStruck. Here’s another old movie I’d never heard of that turned out to be exactly what I needed to see.

Filmed on location in France and Germany during the immediate aftermath of World War II, Berlin Express opens with an odd blend of formal, omniscient narration and smart visual storytelling, setting a tantalizing scene of intrigue. Something strange is afoot as a train prepares to set off from Paris to Berlin. The train is full of international travelers, among them self-effacing American agriculture expert Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), earnest French secretary Lucienne Mirabeau (Merle Oberon), British schoolteacher James Sterling (Robert Coote), French businessman Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin), and quirky, humorless Soviet soldier Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toparow). Also in their train car is a man who appears to be of considerable importance to the Allied occupation authorities. While the disparate passengers have various opinions and seem destined to be at odds in the fractured landscape of post-war Germany, the events of the journey bring them together in unexpected ways, uniting them in a crisis that touches on their mutual humanity.

While Berlin Express falls just short of perfection—the narration, in particular, occasionally lurches into unsubtle didacticism—it holds up surprisingly well seventy years after the fact, a smartly structured, efficient, and surprisingly moving tale of noir intrigue. Its well cast and nicely delinated ensemble serves up a convincing cross-section of post-war personalities, who together give the twisty adventure a vivid sense of emotional realism. This authenticity is only enhanced by stunning location cinematography in the rubble of Frankfurt and Berlin, which adds striking, appropriate geographic verisimilitude. The story is full of classy visual touches, constructing its shots carefully to move the story along. Meanwhile, the script embeds a subdued message of cooperative promise into its intractable surface conflicts, one that strikes a fine balance between realism and hope. The entire cast is rock solid, especially the charming Ryan and the radiant Oberon, whose nuanced flirtations lend just the right touch of romance without detracting from the film’s tone of hopeful melancholy.

“Sometimes I think,” says a major character late in the film, “we shall never get together on this Earth until we find someone on Mars to hate. Sometimes I wonder why we keep trying.” Berlin Express answers that question, bringing its unlikely team together to deliver a wistful, realistic, and sincere message of hope.

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