Ashes as Remains: Peter Lorre, ‘Der Verlorene’, and Post WWII Germany (Monochrome May Special)
The 50’s was a drought for the established character actor Peter Lorre, but perhaps things seemed brighter at the start of the decade with his directorial debut, a postwar German thriller, Der Verlorene, or The Lost One, sometimes translated as The Lost Man.
Released in 1951, Der Verlorene tells the story of one Dr. Karl Neumeister (Peter Lorre), working at a refugee camp shortly after World War II. Kindly, personable, and efficient in his work, Dr. Neumeister is above reproach, seeming on the surface to be just a normal man finding his legs after the war. Enter Nowak (Karl John), a man brought on to assist Neumeister in his work only for Neumeister to quickly retreat from him.
Later, the two confront one another, and different names are dropped between them. ‘Nowak’ is actually ‘Hoesch’, and ‘Karl Neumeister’ is actually ‘Karl Rothe’. They depart to a nearby public house on the camp grounds, and exchange stories over drinks while smoking, the atmosphere between them tense, to say the least. What follows after the bartender leaves, asking Rothe to lock-up when him is his friend are done, is a series of flashbacks through Rothe’s and (sparingly) Hoesch’s narratives.
We find that Rothe was conducting pathogenic research for the Nazis on animals in Hamburg Germany, and that Hoesch was his assistant, who also spied on him for the Gestapo. The Gestapo pay Rothe a visit one day at his laboratory to inform him that his young, gorgeous fiancee (the truly gorgeous Renate Mannhardt) has been leaking his work to the allies, and that this was discovered through an affair she was having with his assistant, Hoesch.
Told, if not subtly threatened, to quiet his wife by the Gestapo, Rothe is driven to passionate fury by the situation and subsequently kills his fiancée when he arrives home, strangling her with his bare hands. The Gestapo are all too happy to cover up the killing, and Rothe is a numb wreck, but seems recovered not too long after.
In reality, Rothe has been fundamentally changed on a psychological level, and gains an impulse to kill when aroused by attractive women, later claiming another victim in a train car. The predatory nature of Lorre’s Rothe is reminiscent of his earliest success in M (1931 – Fritz Lang) where he played Hans Beckert, killing children out of an uncontrollable, dark urge. But The Lost One is not a retread of M, nor is it just Lorre returning to old Hollywood form, bumping people off while chain-smoking in front of the camera.
The Lost One is a meditation on self destruction, and how we rebuild with what is left over from it. Like any self-respecting noir film, The Lost One is stark, desolate, harsh, moody, dour, and completely joyless. Its subject isolating shots put Lorre at the center of the camera, and a wartime Germany coming apart at the seams just as much as the protagonist he plays is.
When Rothe’s apartment is firebombed towards the end of the later narratives (and the film) and he is presumed dead with the majority of the occupants, Rothe is then able to be reborn into the kindly Dr. Neumeister. A literal rise from the ashes. Yet, Rothe is still guilty of the evil acts he has committed in the past, and is unable to escape them when Hoesch waltzes back into his life.
In good noir fashion, there can be no phoenixes, no clean getaways, no pure victories for hero or villain alike as Lorre portrays a full spectrum of criminal, caregiver, judge, jury, and lastly execution in the final denouement of the film.
Given the nature of the film’s story, it would be an understatement to say that it was unsuccessful with a postwar German audience that was trying to escape the very recent past, much like the characters in The Lost One itself!
The German public had moved on to lighter, kinder fair in Heimatfilm (homeland-films), and Lorre’s harsh reminder of their country’s devastating acts, and the self-devastation it inflicted back in turn, was the ghost walking through the hallways that no one wanted to acknowledge.
Penned, directed, and acted in by Peter Lorre, the film is driven by the whole of his being, and while not initially celebrated, it grew appreciation over time. Anne Sharp pointing out in her article for The Peter Lorre Companion:
Latter-day Germans have taken pride in “Der Verlorene,” including it in critical discussions of their postwar cinema, releasing a festschrift version of the novel Peter published based on the film’s screenplay, and keeping the film in circulation in home video editions. In contrast, most Americans don’t even know it exists.
Though it did make it our way in the early 80s. Vincent Canby reviewed it for the New York Times in 1984, and while he wasn’t exactly gentle in his critique of the film, he still paid the deceased Lorre something of a compliment:
Lorre’s carefully controlled, intense performance is far more impressive than the movie that surrounds it. It’s also moving in a way he could not have foreseen, in that it demonstrates how his physical being – his distinctive looks and manners – would inevitably limit the sorts of roles available to him in spite of his talent.
”The Lost One” is a curiosity.
Hard to find on a shelf anywhere, The Lost One is, perhaps, lost to American audiences in physical format, but it can be found in complete length on YouTube. A worthy noir if there ever was one, thanks to Lorre’s impressive performance both in front of, and behind the camera.
Happy Monochrome May!
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