While anti-Nazi propaganda from the Second World War is notorious, I have not seen much of it beyond one of the most famous examples, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which I barely remember, and Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, which is almost too sophisticated to qualify as propaganda. So I decided to check out Berlin Correspondent. Its chief villain, Martin Kosleck, was famous for his portrayal of Nazis, so his presence suggested mildly entertaining possibilities. (His performance bears a striking resemblance to Helmut Berger in Visconti’s The Damned.)
In the days before American involvement in the war, Kosleck plays Captain von Rau, a Junker Gestapo agent tasked with plugging a security leak that enables American correspondent Bill Roberts (Dana Andrews) to let the world know what the Germans are up to even before they release the news themselves. When other methods fail, von Rau baits a honey trap for Roberts with his own fiancé Karen Hauen (Virginia Gilmore) who, of course, falls for his breezy American nature.
The ensuing plot complications alternate between the unlikely and the preposterous, but they produce more involved conflicts than one might expect from propaganda. The Germans are not cardboard villains. Even von Rau, though a thorough-going Nazi, has feelings and desires. He subordinates them to his “duty,” of course, and he shows no compunction about lying to Karen, but he is a much more rounded character than Roberts, with whom we are expected to sympathize just because he is American. He practically says as much, when he attributes the luxury of his apartment to his nationality and Karen smilingly agrees.
The appeal of sex and consumerism is expressed as “love,” of course. That von Rau assumes Roberts can easily be turned by a woman’s allure, however, demonstrates a real, if perhaps unintentional understanding of how Americans rationalize their concupiscence with rather vacant idealism. Roberts is a political virgin whose regular-Joe drive is not sullied by anything as tiresome as insight or conviction. The film gets no closer to real Nazi horror than a bizarre, sadomasochistic scene in which SS thugs, stripped to the waist, stand menacingly to either side of Karen’s father while von Rau threatens violence. (The reason for the threat is too complicated to explain.) There is no hint, however perfunctory, of the politics behind the outrages. On the other hand, Roberts and Karen can fade out to a ludicrous happy ending only through the manipulations by von Rau’s jealous secretary, Carla (Mona Maris) who couldn’t care less about democracy or dictatorship. She just wants her man.
It is, of course, ridiculous to expect political perspicacity from a propaganda vehicle and, given ’40s censorship, only slightly less absurd to expect Berlin Correspondent to show Nazism’s true horrors. Thus, the most striking thing about the film is less what it says about Nazis than how it demonstrates that for Americans, there is no topic too weighty to be reduced to sex.