Doctor Karl Neumeister (Peter Lorre) is not who he seems. He is a medical official at a refugee camp in post-war Germany, and today is taking care of the vaccinations of the new attendees, but before he can get around to that a new doctor has turned up, and he is less than pleased to see him. He is calling himself Nowak (Karl John), but he knows him from a while back, during the war years, when he was calling himself Hoesch, and had a bad experience with his machinations. For Neumeister is not who he claims to be either, he is Dr Karl Rothe, a research scientist who was conducting experiments into inoculations where Hoesch had a job in the laboratory. It was top secret stuff, and that can get you killed in wartime…
Except it doesn’t get either Hoesch or Rothe killed, in this, the directorial debut of star character actor Peter Lorre. It turned out to be the only film he was at the helm of, and much like Charles Laughton’s similar one-off The Night of the Hunter from the same decade, it was much misunderstood at the time of its release, yet has gone on to be a cult movie, especially among fans of Lorre’s acting. The problem back in 1951 when it hit West German cinemas was perhaps that it was taken to be the work of this pampered Hollywood celebrity returning to Europe to tell the Germans where they had gone wrong, and the population were sick of being told how awful they were, thus hardly anyone wished to see it.
However, Lorre, working from his own story, was not simply admonishing the nation, he was inviting them to admit to their failings, which had seen him exiled and many of his friends and family murdered as a result, so it was not as if he was out of touch with events back home. In spite of his good intentions, Der Verlorene was a difficult film to get on with anyway, plainly influenced by Fritz Lang who had given Lorre his big break with serial killer drama M, and it was that the director adopted his expressionistic visual style from, with deep shadows and sinister faces looming from the darkness, not least his own. He played with audience’s expectations as he had long been typecast as the villain, so we were primed to see him get up to no good.
Yet Rothe was presented as a product of his environment, the Nazi era where all sorts of seemingly respectable citizens were indulging in terrible cruelties and in many cases, mass murder, descending into genocide. Lorre’s character is pushed into his first killing when he is betrayed by his wife who gives his research secrets to Hoesch, who is actually a Gestapo spy, and he cannot live with her any longer, taking drastic action to erase her from his existence. Yet the authorities – and this is the crucial bit – allow him to cover up his crime, indicating the bone-deep sickness at the heart of this society, which traumatises Rothe so much that he is compelled to kill again. He toys with killing a prostitute, then in a particularly tense sequence in a railway carriage he cannot resist the urge any longer.
The train was a symbol of death here, no wonder given what the world then knew about the transport to the concentration camps, though Lorre went further in his allegorical imagery than anyone else with his truly chilling final shot that suggested to many self-destruction was the only way to deal with the immense guilt the Germans were enduring. It was true to say Der Verlorene (which translated as The Lost One) was not as accomplished as Laughton’s efforts, as Lorre tended to try and be too wide ranging in his concerns, and the flashback structure necessitated one of those set-ups where one character has to explain the plot to another, even matters he would already know which seemed unavoidably redundant. But while it had its problems, when it was on form it was as good as any film noir out of Hollywood, something else Lorre knew plenty about, and if it was tempting to call it a curate’s egg then when it did get it right it was the work of a most imposing voice. As with Laughton, you wonder what Lorre could have achieved directing further films. Music by Willy Schmidt-Gentner.