Monday, November 20, 2017

Lost Years of German Cinema: The Lost One

Frankly, it is absolutely baffling how all those smart film programmers out there somehow almost never think to pair up the only film Peter Lorre directed with Fritz’s Lang’s classic M, featuring Lorre’s career-defining performance. They both dramatize the violent, corrupting influence of National Socialist ideology on German society, but Lang’s film was produced during Hitler’s rise to power, while Lorre’s film was made and set during the early post-war years. In any event, it is impossible to fully understand Peter Lorre until you see The Lost One, which fortunately screens in New York as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current series, The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949-1963.

Seriously, why is this film not revived every other month. Peter Lorre plays a murderer. Why is that so hard to market? Of course, there is rather more to it than that. Based on a historical incident, Lorre’s character is masquerading as Dr. Karl Neumeister, the kindly doctor caring for new arrivals at a displaced persons’ camp. However, a few years prior, he was Dr. Karl Rothe, a leading scientific researcher for the German war machine. His previous life comes rushing back to him when comes face-to-face with his former Gestapo minder, Hösch, who has assumed the identity of Nowak, a medical technician.

At the time of Rothe’s fateful meeting with one Col. Winkler, observant Germans could tell the war had turned against the Reich, but hardliners still controlled say-to-day life with an iron hand. Much to the doctor’s disappointment, Winkler informs him his fiancée Inge Hermann is suspected of smuggling his classified research documents to the Allies through her father in Sweden. Consumed by a feeling of betrayal, Rothe murders Fraulein Hermann that very night, but Hösch and Winkler very conveniently arrive to cover it up. In the process, we start to question how complicit Hermann really was or whether it was all part of Hösch’s plan to control Rothe. Regardless, when Rothe suffers no consequences for his action, the compulsion to kill, particularly women, will return to him on several subsequent occasions.

This really is a lot like the inverse-opposite of M. The two films would also make an intriguing triptych with von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment, starring Lorre as Raskolnikov. It was a bit of a disappointment to Lorre at the time, but it looks pretty good with the passage of eighty-some years. Arguably, it is the sort of film that suffers from speculation of what it could have been and therefore does not get credit for what it is. Taken together as a trio, they make quite a statement on guilt, compulsion, and otherness,

Regardless, Lost One is an excellent film in its own right. It was probably the first and maybe last time Lorre played a psycho-killer with the sort of subtlety a role like Rothe deserves. As a director (and co-screenwriter), he also clearly picked up plenty from Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and all the other journeymen film noir and horror directors he worked with. It is all kinds of dark and moody, but it puts us squarely Rothe’s disturbed headspace.

Lorre is terrific in the lead, but he gives his supporting cast plenty of time and space to shine. Karl John’s villainous portrayal of Hösch ought to be remembered as iconic—and maybe it will be in a few years. Renate Mannhardt’s Inge Hermann could be considered many things, but a stereotypical victim is definitely not one of them. Eva Ingeborg Scholz and Lotte Rausch also make quite an impression and forge vastly different chemistry with Lorre, as a fellow boarder and a victim he meets during an air raid.

Lost One must have great significance in Lorre’s life and career, since Stephen D. Youngkin used it as the title of his Lorre biography. It is not exactly a lost film, but it has been unfairly scarce. In fact, some cineastes might just get angry at their local repertory film programs when they finally see how compelling it truly is. Very highly recommended, The Lost One screens this Wednesday (11/22) and Thursday (11/23) in New York, at the Walter Reade.