The Murderers are Among Us is a haunting and indelible film on the process of healing and reconciling with personal accountability. The film opens to an imbalancing shot of a drunken Dr. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert) wandering through the bombed ruins of Berlin as he enters a disreputable cabaret. Once a successful specialist surgeon, Hans cannot return to his medical practice after the war, incapable of tolerating the sound of anguish and human despair. In another part of Berlin, an overloaded passenger train transports an artist named Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), a concentration camp survivor, back home. She feels an overwhelming sense of immediacy to return to some semblance of the routine of her former life, and has arrived to reclaim her apartment. Her first stop is to a neighboring shop to visit a kind, elderly optician, Herr Mondschein (Robert Forsch), who refuses to vacate his war-ravaged building and relocate his business in the resolute belief that, one day, his son will return and look for him there. Susanne learns that Hans has been living in her apartment, but rationalizes that her long-term lease validates her residential claim. She offers to share the apartment with Hans until he can find other lodging, but soon finds herself drawn to the troubled, self-destructive, and angry young man. One day, a gust of wind penetrates through the shattered window of the apartment and displaces a letter from a German officer, Ferdinand Brueckner (Arno Paulsen) to his wife. Hans, who had served a tour of duty during the war, had been entrusted with the delivery of the letter, but his suppressed, haunted memories prevent him from carrying out the officer’s dying request. However, when Susanne unwittingly contacts the recipient to deliver the long-delayed letter, Hans is forced to confront his past and find a means of closure from the unspeakable tragedy.
Filmed in 1946 amid the ruins of the former Soviet-controlled East Germany, The Murderers Are Among Us is a compassionate portrait of hope, resilience, and personal atonement. Rooted in the tradition of German expressionism, Wolfgang Staudte juxtaposes the bleak austerity of realistic filmmaking with rapid montage sequences, unusual camera angles, and sharp contrasts of light and darkness to create a pervasive sense of disorienting harsh reality that reflects the fractured lives of the war’s survivors: the exaggerated shadows cast by the gossiping tenants as they discuss Hans and Susanne’s unorthodox living arrangements; the ominous darkness and sharp angle of the tenement staircase as an inebriated Hans staggers up the stairs; the suffused light that punctuates Susanne’s presence. What emerges is not a menacing portrait of a faceless Cold War enemy, but a poignant tale of profound humanity and a sincere, desperate cry for justice.
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