Berlin’s Trümmerfilme: the Aftermath of the Second World War

In this installment of our investigation into Berlin’s cinematic past we explore the so-called Trümmerfilme (rubble films) made in the city immediately after the end of the Second World War.

A City in Ruins

The Nazi films made about Berlin may have gone out of their way to avoid an overt discussion of the Second World War but, once Hitler’s downfall was confirmed in 1945, the destruction left behind in the city by the Second World War could no longer be avoided by Berlin cinema. The city lay in ruins and as a result a number films began to appear which explored the devastated city.

Such a brutally honest construction of the annihilation of Berlin’s urban space radically altered the city’s image in cinema, with the images of destruction at the heart of these films meaning that they have come to be collectively known as the Trümmerfilme (rubble films). These included domestic films, such as Die Mörder sind unter uns (Murderers Among Us, Wolfgang Staudte, 1946) and Razzia (Raid, Werner Klingler, 1947), as well as foreign produced films, such as A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, 1948), Germania, anno zero (Germany, Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini, 1948), Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur, 1948) and The Big Lift (George Seaton, 1950).

The escapism of the Nazis’ entertainment films was gone, as the Trümmerfilme produced a more realist treatment of the city on screen, which better reflected Berlin’s inhabitants’ attempts to come to terms with defeat and the remnants of the city that remained. Indeed, for those outside of Berlin, these films often allowed them their first glimpse of the altered city.

Many of these films used documentary style footage of the ruins of the city within their opening scenes to instantly establish the viewpoint of Berlin as a city in ruins. Therefore, The Big Lift begins with newsreel footage of the city being screened at a cinema on an American base in Hawaii, which shows the bombed out buildings of Berlin, whilst similar images are seen in A Foreign Affair, as the film shows aerial glimpses of the ruins of Berlin through an aeroplane window as it comes in to land in the city.

Crucially, whilst the Weimar films had focussed on domestic images of Berlin busy streets, the ruins featured in these films were sites of political and historical importance, such as the damaged Brandenburg Gate, the burned-out Reichstag, and the destroyed Reichskanzlei (Chancellery). As a result, these Trümmerfilme began to reconfigure concepts of Berlin, as the city became somewhat problematically stigmatised as a devastated, abnormal location. In place of the vibrancy of Berlin’s pre-Nazi decadence, it was images of Trümmerfrauen sorting through the rubble of the city, of black market gangsters, and the ruins of the Reichstag, which dominated the cinematic view of Berlin in the late 1940s.

However, although the city’s urban space may have changed, this does not mean that these films completely abandoned the legacy of previous Berlin cinema. In fact, many of the Trümmerfilme make reference to Weimar Berlin culture.

This can be seen in Die Mörder sind unter uns, which tells the story of Dr. Hans Mertens (Wilhelm Borchert), who has returned to Berlin after serving in the German army, but is struggling to come to terms with what has happened during the War. Meanwhile, his murderous Nazi commander, Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen) is now a successful businessman in the city, having escaped reprimand for his actions on the eastern front.

The film opens by showing the figure of Hans walking through the rubble of the city, a motif which continues throughout, as Hans is regularly seen traversing the city’s fields of rubble. His wanderings are an attempt to come to terms with the ruined state of Berlin and the transient position he now inhabits within the city. Such a view is further developed by Hans’s living arrangement, as he is shown to be squatting in a bomb-damaged apartment. Therefore, much like the Weimar figure of Franz Biberkopf, Hans is drifting through post-War Berlin, desperate to find a place to belong.

Furthermore, after introducing the viewer to the figure of Hans amongst the rubble, the opening shot of Die Mörder sind unter uns then pans up to the entrance of a cabaret, as the film highlights that, although Berlin lies in ruins, the city’s famous cabaret scene continues. Such images of Berlin cabarets are a feature of the majority of Trümmerfilme, with the criminals of Razzia being based out of the Ali-Baba club and the singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) playing a major role in A Foreign Affair.

Yet, rather than offering a positive continuation of Berlin’s reputation as a thriving metropolis found in the Weimar films, the use of such imagery acts as a stark point of contrast with the ruins, which further emphasises the complete destruction of Berlin. The city’s cabarets were the cornerstone of Weimar Berlin’s hedonistic lifestyle, but they are now shown to be precariously tucked away amongst bombed out buildings and piles of rubble. Consequently, just as the title of Rossellini’s film Germania, anno zero suggests, the Trümmerfilme’s references to Weimar Berlin illustrate that the old Berlin is gone and the city which has been left behind now faces a new zero hour from which it must rise again.

Berlin as a Political Hotspot

In particular, Berlin’s new role was one of a city at the very heart of post-Second World War politics, as the allied powers which had liberated Berlin now governed the city in an uneasy alliance. However, the manner in which this political element to life in Berlin was depicted varied between the different Trümmerfilme.

In those films made by domestic filmmakers, for a primarily domestic audience, the occupying soldiers were largely absent, as the struggles of German characters came to the fore in these films’ narratives. This is evident in the crime thriller Razzia, as it is the local police, led by Chief Inspector Naumann (Paul Blidt), and not the occupying armies, who are tasked with investigating the black market operations in the city. The film avoids any in-depth depiction of the military, with the busy black market at the burned-out Reichstag, the streets of the city, and the gangster run Ali-Baba club all being conspicuously empty of foreign soldiers.

The same cannot be said of the numerous Hollywood Trümmerfilme. Unlike the domestic films, these English-language films explored Berlin’s ruins from the perspective of the occupying soldiers who were stationed in the city. This alternative perspective can be explained through the different production backgrounds to these films, a fact that is starkly evident in the case of A Foreign Affair.

The film’s director, Billy Wilder, may be originally from Berlin, but the treatment of the city in the film is markedly different from the domestic Trümmerfilme. This is because there was in fact various different actors and concerns involved within the production of the film. The Hollywood studios wanted a film that would appeal to audiences in America, Germany, and further afield, whilst the military wanted the film’s narrative to positively promote the benefits of an Americanised version of capitalism. Therefore, A Foreign Affair had to contain a universally appealing, American-biased narrative, which meant that the domestic Trümmerfilme’s preference for tales dealing with the suffering of Berlin’s inhabitants would not have been palatable for international audiences, who only a few years earlier had been fighting against the city’s population.

Consequently, A Foreign Affair explores the lives of American GIs in Berlin, in particular Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who finds himself at the centre of a love triangle involving the German cabaret singer Erika and American Congresswomen Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur). By switching focus onto the allied soldiers, the film is able to still explore the post-war city, but does so through the eyes of main protagonists who have not been tainted by the stigma of Nazism for cinema-goers around the world. Indeed, even the potential problems associated with the character of Erika are partially offset by the choice of the German-born, but famously anti-Nazi, Marlene Dietrich to play her.

Such a perspective is also found in The Big Lift, as once again the American army is the focus for the film’s narrative, which tells the story of the Berlin Blockade from the point of view of two American airmen, Danny MacCullough (Montgomery Clift) and Hank Kowalski (Paul Douglas). Therefore, these Hollywood films may construct a similar image of Berlin as a city in ruins and engage with stereotypes such as the city’s cabarets but their choice of protagonists and international perspective meant that they disseminated a version of Berlin where the city was firmly codified as a politicised location.

This politicisation also influenced the manner in which the other occupying forces, in particular the communist Russians, were characterised in these films. Thus, the Soviet soldiers in A Foreign Affair are shown to be drunks, whilst in Berlin Express they do little to help in the search for Dr Bernhardt (Paul Lukas). However, perhaps surprisingly, these negative undertones remain only minor elements of the Hollywood films’ narratives.

In fact, despite Berlin being split politically into four zones, each governed by a different allied power, the films do not just stick to Berlin’s American-governed areas. Instead these films construct Berlin as a city with no borders. This is a view seen in The Big Lift as Danny is shown to enter the Soviet Sector, but only once he has shed his American uniform and joined the numerous Berlin natives freely moving amongst the different zones. Therefore, whilst there was no escaping the political atmosphere in Berlin at the time, the division of the city played a secondary role to the images of Berlin’s devastated urban space in these English-language films.

Instead, it was the native population who were cast as the real threat to these American soldiers in Berlin, as the Hollywood Trümmerfilme showed how the indoctrination and problematic morals of the Nazi period still plagued Berliners. Accordingly, the few German men found in these films, such as Stieber (Otto Hasse) in The Big Lift, were cast as either Nazis in hiding or opportunistic spies working in collusion with one of the other occupying powers for their own selfish gain.

Equally, the city’s women did not fare much better in these films. Although the struggles of characters such as Erika in A Foreign Affair offers a slightly more sympathetic view, as she is shown to be living in a bomb-damaged apartment similar to that of Hans in Die Mörder sind unter uns, this is tainted by these women’s calculating nature, as they look to exploit their relationships with the American GIs in order to find a solution to their problems.

Hence, in A Foreign Affair, Erika is shown to be the former girlfriend of a high ranking Nazi, who is manipulating her relationship with John in order to avoid being sent to a de-nazification camp, whilst in The Big Lift Danny’s German girlfriend Frederica (Cornell Borchers) only wants to marry him to gain access to America so that she can be reunited with her German lover, who has emigrated to St Louis.

The first few years following the end of the Second World War saw Berlin once more become a focus for world film production. Superficially these films may all have dealt with the ruined city but there was a stark difference in narratives amongst these Trümmerfilme. For the domestic films their overall aim was to address the shock found within in the native population as they sensitively explored the struggles of Berlin’s inhabitants in coming to terms with the legacy of Nazism. However, in contrast the English-language, American backed Trümmerfilme looked to appeal to a international audience scared by their fight against Germany and so the characterisation of Berliners in these Hollywood films failed to rehabilitate the majority of the negative German stereotypes that had been developed during the War.

This post is adapted from my PhD thesis which is available in full at etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/10758/

Further Reading

Mila Ganeva, Berlin in Ruins: World Film Locations: Berlin: Ed. Susan Ingram (2012)

Gerd Gemünden,  In the Ruins of Berlin: A Foreign Affair: German Postwar Films: Life and Love in the Ruins: Eds. Wilfried Wilms and William Rasch (2008)

Markus Münch, Drehort Berlin: Wo berühmte Filme entstanden (2007)

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