vt Vicki Baum’s Hotel Berlin
US / 98 minutes / bw / Warner Dir: Peter Godfrey Pr: Louis F. Edelman Scr: Jo Pagano, Alvah Bessie Story: Hier Stand ein Hotel (1943; vt Hotel Berlin; vt Hotel Berlin ’43; vt Berlin Hotel; vt Here Stood a Hotel) by Vicki Baum Cine: Carl Guthrie Cast: Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine, Raymond Massey, Andrea King, Peter Lorre, Alan Hale, George Coulouris, Henry Daniell, Peter Whitney, Helene Thimig, Steven Geray, Kurt Kreuger, Frank Reicher, Richard Tyler, Paul Panzer, Wolfgang Zilzer.
In some ways a companion piece to CASABLANCA (1942), but set in a swanky hotel in Berlin during the final months of the war rather than the somewhat more bohemian environs of Rick’s Café Américain, this surprisingly neglected movie has strengths of its own, not least an electrifying performance from Peter Lorre in a subsidiary role.
The Gestapo has deduced that Dr. Martin Richter (Dantine), an escapee from Dachau, has taken refuge in the Hotel Berlin, and its officers are combing the place in search of him. Also at the hotel are various high-ranking Nazis, including General Arnim von Dahnwitz (Massey) who, although renowned as the butcher of Kharkov, has recently participated in an unsuccessful coup against Hitler; all the other conspirators have suicided or been executed, and even von Dahnwitz’s old and dear friend Baron von Stetten (Daniell) reckons the man should kill himself before the Gestapo hauls him in. Von Dahnwitz, however, believes there’s a chance for him and his mistress, celebrated actress Lisa (or Liesl, as she’s sometimes called in dialogue) Dorn (King), to escape to Sweden.
Raymond Massey as the hapless Gen Arnim von Dahnwitz.
The fugitive Martin Richter has a network of allies among the hotel wait-staff. One of these, Fritz Renn (Reicher), is soon arrested, but not before he has equipped Martin with a waiter’s coat. Fritz believes that, if Martin can contrive to be serving in Lisa’s suite during the search, the chances are that the searchers, dazzled by her fame, will overlook him. The plan works, although Lisa becomes convinced Martin is a Gestapo spy. Another significant ally is Bellboy #6 (Tyler), a child with courage and fortitude beyond his years, the son of underground leader Walter Baumler (Zilzer).
The fugitive Martin Richter (Helmut Dantine) and the world-weary turncoat Professor Koenig (Peter Lorre).
The resident of the room next to Lisa’s suite is one-time Nobel prizewinner Professor Johannes Koenig (Lorre), who befriended Martin when they were both confined to Dachau; Koenig was lucky enough to be released, however, and now the regime is currying his favor. In particular, von Stetten plans to take him with a group of pragmatic Nazi officers to set up a new headquarters in South America, where, he hopes, they can rebuild until they recover sufficiently to re-establish the Reich. Koenig, alas, has been so scarred by the horrors of Dachau that he’s now devoted to little more constructive than drinking himself to oblivion.
Nazi-fellow-traveling actress Lisa Dorn (Andrea King) studies one of the wanted posters for escapeed Resistance hero Martin Richter (Helmut Dantine).
One of the most affecting scenes in the movie occurs when Martin has slipped into Koenig’s room to reintroduce himself and ask for help. Koenig announces that he has renounced science in despair: he had always assumed the progress of science would always be in the direction of improvement, but instead he has witnessed science progress to the super-efficient slaughter of his fellow humans, with even the corpses from the gas chamber being put to productive use. Martin tries to look to the positive, at which Koenig starts to deride him:
Koenig: Maybe you still believe there are some good Germans left.
Koenig: Amazing! Have you seen them? Where are they? [He pretends to look around the room.] Maybe he’s here. Maybe in the closet—let’s see. Good Germans? We have to find him. [Starts laughing.] A good German, huh? Have you not read the Bible, Martin Richter? God would have forgiven Gomorrah if He could have found ten righteous men there. Ten. Only ten. But He did not find them, and He destroyed Gomorrah. There are not ten good Germans left, and He shall destroy Germany. We shall be wiped off the face of the earth. Serves us right.
Lisa has discovered that von Dahnwitz is not going to be her safe passage to Sweden or anywhere else, and, despite her established Nazi fealty, switches allegiances to begin actively helping Martin. Unfortunately for her, Gestapo Commissioner Joachim Helm (Coulouris, in a superbly sleazy performance) cottons on; when he confronts Lisa and Martin in her suite, the latter dressed in a stolen SS uniform, Martin beats him unconscious and, guided by #6, hurls him down a disused elevator shaft.
Lisa successfully gets him out of the hotel, using a suave but fundamentally brutish fan of hers, Major Otto Kauders (Kreuger), as patsy. But then, on learning from von Stetten that she could accompany him and the other Nazis to South America, she turns coats yet again, offering to sell out the underground. Luckily for the good guys, this conversation is overheard by the waiter Kurt (Panzer), who uses #6 to give her false information about the location of the underground safe house and then, after she’s dutifully reported this to von Stetten, abducts her to her deserved doom.
Baron von Stetten (Henry Daniell) breaks it to his old friend General Arnim von Dahnwit (Raymond Massey), the butcher of Kharkov, that he really has no way out save suicvide. This time von Dahnwit believes him . . .
A quite different plot strand concerns the hotel’s hostess Tillie Weiler (Emerson), who hooks among the Nazis and sells information to Helm. Her current obsession is with getting herself a new pair of shoes, her old ones having holes in the soles. But then she’s visited by Frau Sarah Baruch (Thimig, in a finely touching performance), the mother of Tillie’s old fiancé and onetime boss Max, a Jew whom Tillie believed had long ago died in a concentration camp, having been ousted from the store he owned by his assistant, Herman Plottke (Hale), who has now risen high in the Nazi ranks although under investigation for embezzlement. On hearing that Max is still alive—and on seeing how Mama Baruch still loves her despite her subsequent career change— Tillie begins to see things rather differently . . .
Humble hotel “hostess” Tillie Weiler (Faye Emerson) tries on some of the armada of shoes owned by famed Nazi actress Lisa Dorn (Andrea King).
The Austrian writer Vicki Baum was an international bestseller in her day, although far less recognized now. She first came to significant attention with another novel about an hotel, Menschen im Hotel (1929; vt Grand Hotel); it has been filmed as
- Grand Hotel (1932) dir Edmund Goulding, with Greta Garbo (who famously has the line “I just want to be alone” in it), John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone, a movie unique in having received a Best Picture Oscar without so much as a nomination in any other category;
- Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) dir Robert Z. Leonard, with Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, Edward Arnold, Robert Benchley, Keenan Wynn, Leon Ames, Phyllis Thaxter and George Zucco;
- Menschen im Hotel (1959) dir Gottfried Reinhardt, with O.W. Fischer, Michèle Morgan, Heinz Rühmann, Sonja Ziemann, Gert Fröbe, Dorothea Wieck and Wolfgang Wahl.
Perhaps a dozen of her many other novels have been filmed, some more than once; of noirish interest among these is The GREAT FLAMARION (1945).
The movie ends with a noble declaration signed by the three Allied leaders. Just a few years later, Warner must have become concerned about the inclusion of that third signatue . . .