Peter Lorre, 1951
Starring: Peter Lorre, Gisela Trowe, Karl John
Dr. Rothe is doing experiments for the Nazis during WWII. In a series of flashbacks, he relates how he discovered that his fiancé was selling government secrets to the Allies. He murders her and his friends help him cover it up so that it looks like suicide by hanging, rather than strangulation. He becomes increasingly paranoid thanks to his work, his depression, and the overbearing attentions of his landlady, who also happens to be his dead fiancé’s mother. He commits a few other murders and eventually goes into hiding under an assumed name after the war — until he runs into a former colleague.
Der Verlorene was Peter Lorre’s sole effort as writer and director, and he also starred in this bleak, melancholic poem about the horrors of Nazism and war. Lorre is one of the key figures of both noir and horror from his career-making performance in Fritz Lang’s M — which makes an excellent companion piece to Der Verlorene — to later efforts like noir-wartime dramas such as Casablanca and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Der Verlorene is one of the few German films that could be considered film noir and it is a uniquely depressing entry with an overwhelming sense of defeat, perhaps more than any other film noir except Detour.
Though the film is obsessed with death, wartime destruction, and decay, Lorre doesn’t overtly depict Nazism. There are plenty of veiled references to the war, such as air raid sirens, the refugee camp setting, and bombing late in the film. The evils of Nazi bureaucracy are shown in the scene where Hösch and Winkler — respectively a fellow scientist and a Nazi leader — help Rothe cover up his fiancé’s murder and joke about her alleged suicide. Due to health, romantic, and financial issues, Lorre’s life was bitter and difficult during the making of the film — at the time, Lorre was suffering from a morphine addiction and had spent time in a sanatarium where she received such traumatic treatments as electroshock therapy. He temporarily fled a frustrating career in Hollywood and hoped to help revitalize the German film industry. It had suffered since around 1933 or earlier, when the Nazi censorship yoke came down hard and filmmakers and actors — such as Lorre himself — had fled.
Lorre had worked with some of the world’s greatest directors — Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst, Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and more, and that obviously paid off on Der Verlorene. This blend of horror and noir benefits from some German expressionist-influenced cinematography from Vaclav Vich. The city is a skeletal, gray place on the brink of death. Lorre uses a complex and somewhat confusing narrative structure that builds the sense of dread and paranoia with flashbacks and disturbed memories. Is this Rothe’s paranoid fantasy or a violent reality? Either way, Rothe’s plight is symbolic of the psychosis and perversion experienced during Nazi Germany. Like Lang’s M, much of the film’s plot is partially based on a real-life crime. Though it was influenced by Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” it’s also inspired by a news story about a Hamburg doctor who murdered his assistant and committed suicide.
This is one of Lorre’s finest and most personal performances, and certainly one of the most restrained. Disturbingly, Lorre spends much of the film smiling serenely. It’s a sad, empty smile and the character seems constantly on the verge of giving up, admitting defeat, and committing suicide. He speaks of death for much of the film, both his own, Germany’s, and the deaths of the women around him. There are equally solid performances from the five women in the film — Renate Mannhardt (Roberto Rossellini’s Fear) as the fiancée, Johanna Hofer (Possession, Veronika Voss) as her mother, and Lotte Rausch, Eva Ingeborg Scholz, and Gisela Trowe. Karl John (Sorcerer) and Helmuth Rudolph (Teufel in Seide) also have memorable performances as the deplorable Hösch and Winkler.
While Der Verlorene shares thematic content with Lang’s M, it shares a history with Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Both are the one-time directorial efforts of renowned actors, and are powerful films ignored in their time that later rose to classic status. Der Verlorene was hated upon its release in Germany — likely because Germans were desperate to forget about the war and their role in it — but it eventually became popular in Europe. Lorre never released it in the United States and it still mains unavailable there. Kinowelt released a really nice special edition, German-language DVD, and hopefully Criterion will eventually release a quality region 1/A version. The film comes highly recommended and is a must-see, unusual effort from a talented man. Those interested in the film can find it online, though the subtitles are a bit shoddy. Also recommended is the sole English-language biography of Lorre, Stephen D. Youngkin’s extensively researched The Lost One, which borrowed its title from this sadly neglected film.