As Peter Lorre, Hungarian-born László Löwenstein was memorable for Hitchcock in England (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934; Secret Agent, 1936) and, in Hollywood, for Sternberg (Crime and Punishment, 1935), Huston (The Maltese Falcon, 1941), Capra (Arsenic and Old Lace, 1941; released 1944) and Florey (The Face Behind the Mask, 1941; The Beast with Five Fingers, 1946); but he would never again be so brilliant as he was in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), as a compulsive child rapist and killer, until he returned to Germany after the war to star in the one film he also wrote and directed, the masterful Der Verlorene. Lorre, who was Jewish, had left Germany shortly after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship. Now he made one of the finest works about the degree to which the culture generated by a fascist government can warp ordinary humanity.
Under an alias, medical doctor and researcher Karl Rothe administers vaccinations to the endless stream of the displaced that enters a refugee camp. Looking up one morning, he sees at his desk a former colleague, Hösch, who in 1943 cuckolded him with his fiancée. His strangulation of Inge Hermann, who had also betrayed Rothe by selling his research data to the enemy, Hösch helped him cover up; but Rothe’s first burst of homicidal violence has unleashed a compulsion that claims other female victims, one of which we see—after Rothe absents himself from two other near victims—during a long flashback that corresponds to an all-night drunken session between the two men haunted and hounded by their joint past. Cunning cuts that duplicate Rothe’s expression and pose across the intervening time let us know that this healer remains a killer.
Perhaps the film’s most unforgettable shot occurs after Rothe bolts from his responsibilities in the refugee camp after exchanging words with Hösch. Within the frame, Rothe walks away from the camera, at an angle, at a distance, while a much closer-in tumultuous train, at an angle, doubtless bringing in more refugees, approaches the camera, dominating the composition. This symbol of the impacting past, of course, deepens the identical thematic push achieved by the engrossing flashbacking structure.
Throughout, Lorre and black-and-white cinematographer Václav Vích achieve solemn, intermittently piercing poetry, some of it expressionistic. At the last, Rothe commits suicide by allowing an incoming train—to our eye, the same train we witnessed earlier—to run him over while he faces the camera, his back to his fate. The screen goes black, just as it had done when Rothe committed murders. Pity us all that Lorre did not make other movies!
Every bit of acting is exact; but Lorre simply astounds as the alcoholic, chain-smoking Dr. Rothe. And the almost good-humored expression at times in his slightly bulging eyes reminds us of those “Bette Davis eyes” as never before.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB INLONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.