This spy thriller which is set in the period just after the end of World War 11, depicts in documentary-style, the level of devastation, turmoil and political intrigue that was prevalent in Germany at that time. An assassination, a kidnapping and the presence of a group of Nazi activists illustrate the type of dangers that had to be overcome in order to achieve a more peaceful future for the country and an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion amongst the Allies did nothing to make this aspiration any easier.
Shortly after a military train travelling from Paris to Berlin makes an unscheduled stop because of an obstruction on the line, an explosion in one of the compartments kills a passenger who the other travellers believe is Dr Heinrich Bernhardt. Dr Bernhardt, the German head of a fact-finding commission, had formulated a plan to unify his country and was on his way to an important conference in Berlin.
When the train reaches Frankfurt, the passengers who were travelling in the same car as Bernhardt are taken in for questioning by a U.S. Army Colonel and it becomes apparent that the man who’d been killed was a decoy and that the passenger who’d called himself Otto Franzen was actually the real Bernhardt (Paul Lukas). A mysterious French lady called Lucienne Mirabeau (Merle Oberon) is also revealed to be Bernhardt’s secretary.
At Frankfurt station, before he’s able to continue his journey, Dr Bernhardt is kidnapped and a desperate Lucienne pleads with some of the other passengers to help in the search for the missing diplomat. An American agricultural expert, Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), English schoolteacher James Sterling (Robert Coote), French businessman Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin) and a Soviet Army Officer, Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow) are eventually persuaded to help.
Lindley and Lucienne’s search leads them to a bombed out brewery where Bernhardt is being held by a group of Nazis and they get involved in a shootout before being able to escape and continue their journey. Unfortunately for Bernhardt, yet another attempt is made on his life before the train finally reaches its destination.
In typical docu-noir style, a voice-over is used to provide some exposition and also information about various important landmarks etc. The whole movie has a realistic feel and Lucien Ballard’s location footage of the heavily bombed cities of Frankfurt and Berlin is extremely impressive and also very affecting.
The rather strained atmosphere which existed amongst the passengers of different nationalities at the beginning of the journey is later replaced by a spirit of cooperation when individuals from the four allied countries symbolically work together to search for Bernhardt. This suggests a feeling of optimism for the future which is in line with the idealistic views of Dr Bernhardt. A more noirish aspect of the plot, however, is the misleading identities and motivations of the characters, especially early on in the action.
Director Jacques Tourneur’s work is exemplary throughout but an interesting technique that he uses at various junctures is to utilise windows to frame some important shots. Examples of this are the sequence during which the various train passengers are introduced, the footage which shows a number of the ruined buildings and also a scene during which Dr Bernhardt is attacked on the train.
“Berlin Express” is an interesting movie with a talented cast whose performances contribute strongly to the way in which the mood of a particular point in time is captured so convincingly.