Berlin Express is a great little film, set primarily in post-war Germany. I have always been a sucker for those stories set on a train, with a multitude of mysterious characters, all suspects, for a crime that happens on the journey. Although in this film, the characters get off the train before it reaches its destination, and race around the bombed out streets of Frankfurt. But maybe it’s best if I go back to the beginning.
As the film starts, in Paris, a group of passengers board a train bound for Berlin. Among them is Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), a German peace campaigner – who is on his way to a conference in Berlin. You see, after the war, Germany was split in four sectors – American, Soviet, English and French – each had a sector to control. The exception being Berlin itself, which despite being in the Soviet sector, was also split into four sectors – and although these countries were allies, there was infighting amongst them. And the Germans were almost second class citizens in their own country. Bernardt is considered the guiding light in bring all these disparate factions together. Of course, there are some groups who don’t want peace.
As the train rattles through the countryside a grenade in Bernhardt’s compartment goes off – and he is killed, or so we believe. In fact, the man in Bernhardt’s compartment is a decoy, and the real peace campaigner is still alive. But the enemy know this too, and when the train reached Frankfurt they kidnap him.
But rather than the authorities, who are encumbered with red-tape, it is the passengers of the train who mount a search and rescue operation. Leading the group is Lucienne Mirrbeau (Merle Oberon), who was Bernhardt’s secretary. The others are Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), an American agricultural expert, Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow), a Russian soldier, James Sterling (Robert Coote), an English ex-soldier, and Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin), a business man who was a member of the French resistance. As you can see, it is a veritable United Nations.
Our team of five, search high and low through the seedy bars and nightclubs of Frankfrank (in the American sector) searching for Bernhardt, and eventually their quest leads them to a murderous gang of neo-Nazis. As you may have already guessed, and as is common in a film such as this, one of the team is actually a Nazi spy, and responsible for the grenade on the train – but which one?
Berlin Express is still, after all these years, a cracking thriller – only marred by some lengthy travelogue shots. But having said that, this travelogue footage may be of interest to those who are interested in seeing the devastation that the continual aerial bombardment by the allies had on the city of Frankfurt. Frankfurt itself, is almost a character in this film – skeletal, broken and twisted, and in the abandoned ruins, there are a myriad of places where Nazi spies can hide.
If you like old-style spy adventures, in black and white, that keep you guessing to the very end, then you could do a lot worse than Berlin Express.