THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT (Robert Siodmak, 1957)

Having left Hollywood and now back in Germany, Robert Siodmak took up the Lüdke case in Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam. It swept the German Film Awards, winning as best film and for Siodmak’s direction, and in eight other categories, including best actor Hannes Messemer and best cinematographer Georg Krause for his high-contrast black-and-white work. Siodmak also was named best director at Karlovy Vary.
     This sardonic film fascinates on its main subject: the political cover-up. “If only he had been a Jew or a foreigner,” someone notes; but Bruno Lüdke, who had strangled 80 women throughout Germany in the years 1924-1944, breaking their necks, was Aryan, and once Lüdke confessed Hitler himself ordered his liquidation and had his existence officially erased to bolster his (Hitler’s) routine assertion that others, not Aryans, are the ones capable of such criminal behavior as Lüdke’s. (Implicitly, the Nazis themselves are capable: the medical experiments; the Holocaust.) Meanwhile, an innocent man is tried and killed for a murder that Lüdke committed in Hamburg. “Justice,” Hitler once twistedly declared, “is whatever is best for the German people.”
     Also fascinating: the intertwining of Allied bombing and the rest of the action.
     The opening grips: a posse, expressionistic in the background, searches for Bruno, who hides in a river under brush that he slowly covers himself with. An even more brilliant passage comes later when, caught, Bruno re-enacts one of his crimes and getaways at the scene.
     The protagonist is Axel Kersten, who investigates the case at Berlin’s Homicide Division—a war-hero, lame as a result of a war wound, and someone who has refused Nazi Party membership. But, as Messemer plays him, it is Gestapo leader Rossdorf, who trumps Kersten’s authority, that becomes the film’s most memorable character.

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