(The Lost One)
by Anne Sharp
It’s a truism that Peter Lorre was wasted as a popular entertainer because he had so much potential as a serious actor, and the best way to test this proposition for yourself is to examine his performance as Dr. Rothe in “Der Verlorene” (“The Lost One.”) Whether or not you think it’s qualitatively better than his work in mainstream American films, it’s radically different in approach and effect. Peter infused his early European and Hollywood film roles with a certain arresting intensity, pulling out all the stops to amuse and thrill his audiences, but there’s none of Peter’s characteristic sense of fun or showmanship in Rothe. He’s a slow-moving, passive screen presence, not at all what you’d expect from the actor who created Hans Beckert in "M" and Joel Cairo in "The Maltese Falcon." Certainly Rothe was meant to be the opposite of Peter himself, a psychoanalytic case study of the sort of ethnic German who went along with the victimization of the Jews under Hitler and found himself victimized in turn. However, in its stripped-down naturalism it seems as though Peter was showing something closer to his real self through Rothe than he’d previously revealed on screen.
Peter had wanted to direct for a long time–he’d had a directing option written into his Warners contract–and the idea of a suspense film written and directed by one of Hollywood’s premiere suspense stars was an obvious commercial decision, as was having him make the film in Germany, as the postwar boom in European art films would have made it salable both in German-speaking Europe and the U.S. There was also an uplifting element of political correctness in a Jewish refugee from the Nazi era returning to contribute to the Allied de-Nazification effort with a film set in Nazi Germany that would both hammer in the guilt and offer interethnic reconciliation. As executed it’s plain to see why the film was a commercial failure on its release, though it offers considerably more to contemporary audiences, and for anybody who’s at all interested in Peter it’s essential viewing.
It's not easy to summarize “Der Verlorene.” One of the things this film does remarkably well is tell a story that's dependent on a lot of personal backstories and interpersonal complications in a simple, elegant way--something that Peter himself excelled at as an actor. Essentially the action revolves around a man, played by Peter, who is working as the resident physician at a postwar displaced persons camp near Hamburg under the name Dr. Neumeister. When a man calling himself Nowak (played by Richard Widmark lookalike Karl John) shows up at Neumeister's camp, we discover that both men are hiding from a shared past in Nazi-era Hamburg. Neumeister, aka Dr. Karl Rothe, was a research scientist whose work on pathogenic microbes was keenly valued by the Nazis, and Nowak, whose real name is Hoesch, was an undercover goon assigned by intelligence chief Col. Winkler (Helmuth Rudolph) to find out who was leaking Rothe's research to the Allies.
Reliving these incidents along with Rothe, we experience the devastating moments when Winkler and Hoesch reveal to him that his fiancee Inge (Renate Mannhardt) is the leak, and that in the process of finding this out Hoesch had sex with her--just out of professional duty, of course. It's as though Winkler and Hoesch deliberately provoke Rothe into a jealous rage so that he'd murder Inge, then conspire to cover up the crime so that Rothe can go on doing his research for the Fuehrer. Only the combination of murdering Inge and being forced to go on as if nothing had happened triggers a sort of PTSD in Rothe. Whenever in a situation with an attractive woman that reminds him of the rage and humiliation that made him kill Inge, he finds himself overcome with the urge to reenact the murder. The catastrophic bombing of Hamburg puts an end to Rothe’s compulsion and gives him the opportunity to remake himself as Dr. Neumeister. But the return of Nowak provides him with a long-delayed opportunity for revenge.
It was Peter’s name alone that sold this picture, which is why he undertook the very difficult task of playing the lead role as well as directing “Der Verlorene.” But to make a Peter Lorre film for a German audience when he hadn’t performed for the German public in nearly twenty years was problematic. He couldn’t simply carry over his American persona, which was hard enough to quantify in an American context. His solution was to reinvent himself as a German antihero to fit the new realities of postwar Germany. The look that his cinematographer Vaclav Vich would give the film was a harsh, high-contrast black and white similar to that used in film noir and by the Italian neorealist filmmakers, and Peter made no attempt to soften the look when he was photographing himself. He had lost weight, and the loose skin on his face and neck, his complexion toughened and discolored by the California sun, and his watery eyes and thinning lips gave him a weathered, Bogart-like look. He really needed the sort of tactful Hollywood lighting, makeup and camera angles that made Bogart’s decaying beauty tolerable to look at. Rothe is supposed to be a sad, defeated man, but the fact that he looks so badly prematurely aged, combined with Peter’s depressive characterization of Rothe, makes for a painful viewing experience for those who come to the film anticipating the sort of crowd-pleasing tactics and boyish energy they’d every reason to expect from Peter’s earlier film performances.
“Der Verlorene” dutifully follows conventions of the Hollywood noirs that Peter had appeared in over the years. There is heavy liquor and cigarette consumption, handguns are brandished and femme fatales swarm over the wary protagonist. But Peter and his collaborators, like most European filmmakers who’ve tackled the noir genre, lacked the essential American instinct for anomie-driven violence, and so these elements of American noir fit uncomfortably into the film’s European setting. The most problematic element in the film’s noir paradigm is Rothe himself. Hollywood relies on the assumption that any American, sufficiently stressed, can pick up a gun or a knife and become an outlaw. However, respectable middle-aged Germanic research scientists do not transform overnight into serial killers as “Der Verlorene” requires Rothe to do, and this unreality is the film’s chief weakness as well as its greatest strength. Will the viewer just go along with the story for the pleasure of seeing Peter Lorre kill again, or find some deeper meaning there? Critics often interpret “Der Verlorene” as a fable about the crimes of the Nazi regime (as they also do with “M”) but I don’t think it was really Peter’s intention to rub the Germans’ noses in what they’d done. Dr. Rothe’s predicament might be more of a metaphor for what happens to people during wartime, when they see and do things so traumatizing that they can never return to what used to pass for a normal, civilized life.
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. When it was finally given a U.S. theatrical release in the 1980s, critic Vincent Canby dismissed it as “a curiosity.” The habit of trivializing Peter is so ingrained in us. Nevertheless “Der Verlorene” is essential to understanding Peter’s American career because that’s what the film is really about.
What did Peter have to say to the German people in 1951? Other than sharing some prewar history and the same language, what did they have in common? Peter came from the main ethnic group that Germans had collectively persecuted and slaughtered during the Hitler regime. However, as a Hollywood star he had enjoyed luxuries and privileges most Nazi-era Germans, except perhaps in the upper echelons of the Third Reich, would have envied. This couldn’t have been lost on the Germans of 1951, preoccupied as they were with doing what Germans do best in hard times, surviving, salvaging and rebuilding. They didn’t need one more reminder of their dishonor and defeat, especially such a sanitized, fictionalized one as “Der Verlorene.” There is not a single swastika or image of Hitler to be seen in “Der Verlorene,” probably an artifact of Allied censorship but which adds to its atmosphere of unreality, as does the fact that Dr. Rothe, both in his wartime apartment and postwar displaced persons camp, apparently has no problem obtaining luxuries like tailored menswear, cognac and cigarettes. As Peter historian Nancy SimPanda points out, Dr. Rothe experiences life more like a movie star than an epidemiologist. Delectable women fawn on him wherever he goes. A crowd of patients waiting for vaccinations seems more like fans in line for an autograph. There’s always someone ready to take Rothe’s coat, light his cigarette, or offer him refreshments. He chain-smokes in his laboratory in a way that must surely contaminate his specimens. An adoring peasant girl offers him a cup of goat milk, a lab assistant offers a rabbit for a blood sample, again like fans holding out autograph books. A drunken stranger follows him around repeating “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” no doubt something that happened to poor Peter about fifty times a week.
But Rothe/Lorre is a wary, disillusioned star. Note that he never makes the first move with a woman, not even his fiancee. Females in Rothe’s world are always the aggressors, wanting his attention, his caresses, his patronage, while he reacts with a sort of weary irritation. It’s significant that in the ecology of this film Rothe does not seem aware of his desire to kill in the moments before he attacks, or to have any motivation to harm these women, until they push him over the edge by deliberately arousing him sexually. Rothe’s first murder takes place when his fiancee Inge tries to win him back after leaking his secret research to the Allies and cheating on him with Hoesch. She kneels before him like a cat asking to be petted; he caresses her face and necklace while she reacts by closing her eyes with pleasure. Rothe’s eyes flutter alarmingly and he abruptly stands up, his dark jacket blacking out the screen. We then see Rothe sitting on the floor, sadly toying with Inge’s necklace, no longer on her neck. When I told a German-speaking friend that I assumed from this that Rothe had raped Inge while murdering her, she insisted that’s not what happened. Even so, in the novel version of “Der Verlorene” Rothe’s first-person narration of his fatal assault on Inge sounds like an echo of Dr. Gogol strangling Yvonne at the end of “Mad Love,” which is plainly a lust murder (“I’m not hurting her. Only stroking her neck. So tenderly. You… you… why are you afraid? You haven’t done anything…I heard what you said… Hold still… I’m not hurting you… no… nothing… you… Inge… this neck…”) Maybe it’s just my prurient American attitude towards sex and violence. American critics commonly assume that Hans Beckert in “M” rapes the children he murders, although the only point at which the film even implies such a thing is in one brief sequence (often deleted in American prints of the film) in which a forensic profiler suggests that the killer has a strong sex drive.
Peter portrays Rothe as a man fighting a losing battle with emasculation, nominally powerful but in practice a pawn of stronger men. His scientific genius is callously exploited by the Nazis who employ him and the Allied agents who steal his work, in the process using his woman to humiliate him sexually as well as professionally. Throughout the film Rothe experiences the attentions of women as baffling, threatening, annoying, smothering, manipulative, anything but loving and nurturing. The two overlords in his life, Winkler and Hoesch, treat him with outright contempt. His fortunes are unstable, dependent on situational politics. He is pampered one moment, treated with cruel disdain the next. His privileges and in fact his survival are dependent on doing what he’s told and acting the role he’s given, whether it’s Rothe the Nazi scientist or Neumeister the DP camp doctor. He is subject to unwanted familiarity and unsolicited sexual offers while starved of real affection. No wonder he compulsively reaches for nicotine and brandy to get through each unnerving moment. Though Peter probably didn’t consciously describe his own life situation in “Der Verlorene,” it was the only frame of reference he knew, having been a movie star most of his adult life. Relating to this wouldn’t be a problem for American audiences, as we’re used to thinking of ourselves as the stars of our own movies. But the Germanic Europeans the film was primarily intended for had a very different frame of reference at this time in history.
There was another, more delicate issue. A man who’d lost friends and family in the Holocaust couldn’t be reasonably expected to emphasize with Germans who had died in the firebombing of Hamburg, but to make one of the most lethal attacks on a civilian population in the war a pivotal incident in “Der Verlorene” must have seemed tactless, though in a way Germans couldn’t have openly expressed. Hamburg suffered devastation comparable to Hiroshima minus the radiation poisoning, but “Der Verlorene” only alludes to this indirectly. All we see in the aftermath of the bombing is the rubble from Dr. Rothe’s destroyed apartment building and the names of some of the dead on a wall next to it. Though when Rothe adds his own name to the list of the dead, realizing that this is his chance to abandon the past and reinvent himself, that is one point in the film where we can all meet Peter and understand exactly what he’s talking about.
(c)Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.