After the end of WWII, a train is traveling from Paris to Berlin with an assortment of people deemed “important”, to the reconstruction of Germany. Included on this journey are an American, Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), a Frenchman (Charles Korvin), an Englishman (Robert Coote), a Russian Lieutenant (Roman Toporow), a German woman, Lucienne (Merle Oberon), and another (slightly mysterious) German (Paul Lukas). On the way, yet another German, who is on his way to speak at a meeting about the importance of peace, is murdered by a bomb explosion in his compartment.
Upon their arrival at the next stop, while being questioned about the murder, the group of strangers learn that everything is not what it seems to be, and even though they find that they are constantly in disagreement with each other about military and political ideas, they are forced to work as a team to retrieve the German (Paul Lukas) who has now been kidnapped. Lucienne explains to the group that this man’s retrieval is vitally important to the rehabilitation of Germany, and despite their initial reluctance, everyone begins a city-wide search through the ruins of Frankfurt for any clues to his whereabouts.
To call the plot a bit confusing is a gross understatement. There are several characters, all that get a brief introduction before the film dives right into the heat of things. There are too many people involved, and not near enough time to understand who they really are. In an attempt to help the audience, there is a narration designed to fill in several of the gaps. Unfortunately, the voice-over is required so frequently that after the first thirty minutes “Berlin Express” almost feels like a documentary designed to educate rather than entertain. Then the voice-over disappears completely, leaving us stranded, trying helplessly to keep up with the assortment of characters that are only vaguely familiar.
All of the acting here is good, without any of it being great. The roles are not extensive, but everyone seems to do the best that they can with what they have been given, including a very nicely written story and screenplay written by Curt Siodmak and Harold Medford. The real star of the film isn’t the acting anyway, but the location. Filmed throughout both Germany and France, “Berlin Express” benefits from the dilapidated shambles of a country, the likes of which American audiences hadn’t seen. Even today, films that bring this devastation to the foreground of a film are few and far between. Billy Wilder did it in “Foreign Affair” (1948), Fred Zinnemann did it in “The Search” (1948), and here Jacques Tourneur has done it as well. When you combine this location shooting with fantastic cinematography by the great Lucien Ballard (Merle Oberon’s husband at the time), it is then that “Berlin Express” actually starts to improve. Unfortunately the film’s short running time and anti-climactic climax, with predictable twists and turns, only brings the entire revival to a crashing halt.
It’s really too bad. With Robert Ryan, Merle Oberon, Paul Lukas (whom I like quite a bit), Jacques Tourneur, and Lucien Ballard all collaborating together, “Berlin Express” could have been something quite special. Instead, it’s just another easily forgotten post-war movie that does little more than hold its audiences attention for the 87 minute running time.