When we first meet Willi Keun (Werner Peters), he’s distributing prizes—flowers, Nazi flags, and small sacks of flour—to a group of young women as a reward for their work during the harvest. It’s 1944 and things are rough in Germany, but Keun is making out OK—thanks to a missing thumb, he is in no danger of being sent to the front lines, and he’s clearly not missing any meals—in fact, he’s able to take a gift of bacon to his mistress Lucy (Monika John). Meanwhile, the hulking Bruno Luedke (Mario Adorf) is eating potatoes and sauerkraut in a basement café where Lucy works. While Willi is avuncular and a bit bumbling, Bruno appears dim-witted and creepy, as well as almost superhumanly strong, as he demonstrates by driving a wine cork into the bottle with his index finger.
Later that night, Bruno lies in wait for Lucy, whom he strangles, then takes advantage of an air raid to dump her body in back in her apartment, where Willi is too drunk to realize what’s happening. So Willi is arrested and it looks like he’s going to be convicted, because the Nazi officials just want the case closed. Fortunately, police inspector Axel Kersten (Claus Holm), a dogged investigator, has just returned from the front, and is more interested in finding the truth than in accepting the official version of events. The rest of the film pits Axel, an honest cop, against a corrupt criminal justice system. On the side, Axel strikes up a romance with Helga Hornung (Annemarie Düringer), a clerk in the police department.
Robert Siodmak is best known today as a Hollywood director of film noir (Criss Cross, The Killers, etc.), and there’s plenty of noir imagery in The Devil Strikes at Night,* courtesy of cinematographer Georg Krause and production designer Rolf Zehetbauer, even if the plot runs more like a combination of police procedural and political satire. Siodmak, a Jew who fled Germany for France and then the United States, may have particularly enjoyed the chance to take a little cinematic revenge on the Nazi regime; besides the main story, there are many little digs, from Helga’s cousin (Carl Lange), who’s always in uniform (including an Iron Cross) and always drunk, to the over-the-top villainy of SS-Gruppenführer Rossdorf (Hannes Messemer).
The Devil Strikes at Night draws on the story of an intellectually-disabled man, Bruno Lüdke, who confessed to being a serial killer. Ironically, he may well have been innocent: due to his disability, he was never put on trial, but was sterilized, confined to an institution run by the SS, and died in 1944 as a result of a medical experiment gone wrong. It was Germany’s 1958 nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (losing out to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria) and picked up a ton of wins at the 1958 German Film Awards. It hasn’t been seen that much in the U.S., however, making the release of this Blu-ray particularly welcome. Besides the craft of the film itself, it offers special interest because it was shot in what was then (1957) West Germany, including location shooting in Berlin and Munich as well as studio work at the Divina-Studio in Baldham. | Sarah Boslaugh
*The German title is more evocative: Nachts wenn der Teufel kam.
The Devil Strikes at Night is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, with a street date of March 29. The disc includes a commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, who makes a case for the film being, among other things, a film noir and an “anti-detective film”.