One thing I missed while living in Japan was being able to switch the TV on late at night and catch some random old picture I otherwise wouldn’t have watched. Switching on the TV late at night in Japan, you were likely to only get television shows trying to teach you Italian. If it was a movie, there was a horrible chance it might be Ivan Reitman’s Evolution with David Duchovny. So you can see how just not switching it on at all was the better option.
And generally, the same is true of North American television. Randomly flicking will probably land you Maid in Manhattan or Lethal Weapon 2, or skimming between channels like TCM will net you a bounty of pictures you’ve already seen. While I’m glad that The Searchers is being shown in heavy rotation (it’s a good film and gives people less of an excuse not to have seen it) if you have seen it, on a screen even, your options narrow.
But there’s something to be said about 24 cable television. Movie channels can excel for the same reason that news channels suffer. They need material to fill a 24 hour schedule. As such, a whole fistful of movies, that many years ago in the UK might have been several weeks of Sunday programming for BBC2 and Channel 4, can get cycled through in a a night.
And so it was that I caught Hotel Berlin, a film I’d never heard of before. I’m not sure why I starting watching, perhaps because the film was just beginning, but I’m glad I did. Hotel Berlin is interesting for a number of reasons, despite the fact it is a B-movie by anyone’s criteria. My first hint was the cast. There are very few familiar names, and those that are come from Warner Bros dungeons.
I mean people like Raymond Massey, who I remember from appearing in pictures like Arsenic and Old Lace and East of Eden, but whose stern face was far from a regular sight. Arsenic and Old Lace “co-star” Peter Lorre also appears in the film. And George Coulouris, who played Mr “I thought it would be fun to run a newspaper!” Thatcher in Citizen Kane, also takes an important role as a Gestapo chief. If you did not know this was a B-picture before you saw it, the confidence of Warners casting ought to convince you.
Hotel Berlin has an interesting premise. It looks back at two other films and tries to lift two fistfuls out of them. The first, and largest, influence is Grand Hotel. The title almost suggests it. Grand Hotel was set in Berlin (pre-war), and followed a handful of guests, from all different backgrounds, and how their stories play out and interconnect during their stay. Grand Hotel has been aped a million times since then, from contemporary knock offs to modern time winks like the Japanese film The Uchoten Hotel.
Hotel Berlin definitely has Grand Hotel in its sights, but that’s part of what makes it so entertaining. Where as Grand Hotel, 13 years previous, featured a star studded cast (Garbo, Crawford, Barrymore and Barrymore) Hotel Berlin has a bargain basement line-up. Where as Grand Hotel followed the Barons and Vons of a growing new Germany, Hotel Berlin follows the Barons and Vons of the Nazi party, all but defeated.
The overall story of Hotel Berlin is very simple. Nazi Germany is about to collapse. The hours are being counted. A wide variety of German people can be found at Hotel Berlin, where we follow a day or so of their lives. High ranking generals and even the Gestapo are now aware that the war is over. The main point of concern is who is on the Allied list of war criminals. Various political figures are now caught between the wrath of a drowning Nazi evil and the (imagined) revenge of the Allies.
At the same time the plot concerns Martin Richter (Helmut Dantine, the gambling young groom from Casablanca) a resistance member who has recently escaped from a concentration camp. A huge reward goes out for his capture, and of course he ends up at the Hotel, where friendly parties try to arrange his escape from the country. The characters such as a famous actress and a prostitute seem at first just a retread of Grand Hotel.
The plot is quite clever on it’s own. But the timing, to me, makes it especially interesting. This picture, which almost fully concerns the Nazis and the fall of the Nazi empire, was not made in 1948 or 1950, but in 1945. And was released in March, 1945. I have watched a number of wartime pictures, but it is very rare for a picture of this time to focus on quite the same specific issues this picture does.
First of all, Hotel Berlin focuses mostly on Germans. I quite expected this to soon change, but it doesn’t so much. The trails of Martin Richter, as a home-grown provocateur, does inject an interesting element but he never becomes the star of this film. The star is the story, which in a more gentle way, links hands with Downfall. This is a movie about the Nazi regime strangling itself to death, but with military matters all on the fringes.
It’s about failure in the face of horrible pride, but it’s all about the people who did this and why they did. When Richter confronts his mentor, Peter Lorre, the scene (thanks to Lorre) is hazy, awful, understandable and surreal. Nazis are run through so many filters. High society Nazis, looking for the advancement of German glory. Scientific Germans, seduced by the evil freedom of Nazi rule. Military circles and military families getting their ‘brave’ chance. And the working class, at the end of it, forced to pay for all the above successes and failures at a level the bosses will never understand.
That this film was released, and therefore completed well before, March 1945, long before the fall of Nazi Germany, was great insight on the part of Vicki Baum who wrote the original novel, or Alvah Bessie and Jo Pagano who made the screenplay. Together they show the bottom of the Nazi system. It turning on itself. I’m sure Raymond Massey thought his honourable general was the best character, but I love Welles’ friend George Coulouris as Helm, the Gestapo man. His poisonous attitude and quiet suspicion is marvellous.
Another very important point about this film is the Holocaust. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film made during the war that dealt with the Holocaust to quite the extent of this film. They don’t quite tackle the thing head on, but this film talks about the anti-Jew agenda. It talks about camps. A German officer tells a girl her boyfriend looks like a Jew and beats her because of it. A characters mother skirts the corner for a while because she is a secret Jew and the shame is something a modern audience feels very strong.
Now, I’m not saying this film is a huge watermark for anti-Nazi film, but Hotel Berlin ought to be recognised for it’s small successes. Director Peter Godfrey never made another movie worth watching and I don’t think he made this one with any sympathy of the plight of the Jewish people or the evil and complexity of Nazi Germany. However, by purpose or accident, he’s made a very interesting film that touches on all these issues long before they became the fodder of common weekend cinema.