The Devil Strikes at Night (German, 1957):
(Nachts, Wenn der Teufel Kam)

After years of devising cunning, stylish noir thrillers in Hollywood, German-raised Robert Siodmak took off to Europe in the '50s, supposedly after higher and purer things than the "potpoilers" he was being handed in America. This well-regarded German thriller, his most famous European picture, is certainly of interest, though for all its respectable trappings (post-WWII "insight," etc.) it isn't nearly as rich as, say, Cry of the City or Criss Cross. The fact-based plot, hinging on the capture of feeble-minded serial killer Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf) in Germany in the crumbing moments of the Third Fuhrer, inevitably evokes comparisons with Lang's M, but the parallels don't go very far. While both directors had roots in the UFA expressionism style, Lang had by this time pruned them down to the almost abstract rigor of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps. Siodmak hangs on to ominous shadow grids and emphatically dramatic angles (i.e., Bruno's slaughtering of a tavern slattern during a bomb raid), though there's nothing like Phantom Landy's delirious drum-session ejaculation. Rather, his interests are more attuned to the thick ironies of the Lüdke case, where a muscle-headed village idiot murdered 80 women while for years eluding the authorities. Bruno's irrational killing spree is contrasted with the regime's methodical extermination and racial purification concepts, as the ruthless Nazi logic is revealed as a far more horrible degradation of humanity than the madness it is pushing to suppress. The German people -- reflected in the healthy main couple (Claus Holm and Annemarie Düringer), neither an Aryan model nor explicitly supportive of the Party -- are not so much conspirators with the regime as helpless accomplices, trying to muddle through in a system that is hanging on to perverted ideals even as the ceilings of their offices come down on them. Auschwitz is mentioned by a young Jewish widow in hiding and there are the obligatory decadent, cadaverous SS officials, but overall the movie is less effective a critique of a cancerous society than Lang's American films around the same time. (If Siodmak was less a determinist than Lang, he was also less icy -- he views the fall-guy ordeal of piggy, pathetically lecherous officer Werner Peters with characteristic sympathy.) In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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