Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rediscovering Voruntersuchung: Those Who Murdered

After the success of collective, Vertov-influenced street urban drama Menschen am Sonntag [People on Sunday] (Siodmaksulmerwilderzinnemann, 1929), which became the calling card for its legendary team, the main creative force behind the film, Robert Siodmak, was given the chance to direct his solo debut feature for UFA, Abschied [Farewell]. Made in 1930, this romantic comedy was an unlikely start for a filmmaker who is mostly known for his pessimistic takes on modern life in the metropolis jungles. Some scholars have argued that Siodmak’s interest in expressionist lighting and major themes of the Weimar cinema didn’t divulge until anther comedy of sorts, Der Mann, der seinen Mörder Sucht [Looking for His Murderer] (1931). It was Siodmak’s third feature which proved to be his first major work and fully explore the themes he later became associated with.
Voruntersuchung [Inquest] (1931) is the story of Fritz Bernt, a doomed young student (a central figure of expressionist films since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), played by Gustav Fröhlich, who after a bitter quarrel with his girlfriend finds her murdered. Consequently, Fritz, as the primary suspect, is arrested and interrogated by a judge who relentlessly trys to prove Fritz’s guilt. But the tension arises as judge’s son is Fritz’s best friend and his daughter in love with the accused.

The film was based on a successful play of the same name, written by Max Alsberg and Otto Ernst Hesse, which “underscored the mistakes of modern jurisprudence,” (Youngkin, 2005) and was premiered at the Berlin’s Renaissance Theater in October 1930. Among the attendants of the premiere, featuring a young Peter Lorre, were the crown prince and Albert Einstein.
The changes Siodmak and his writers have applied to the play are not quite clear. However, if the main weltanschauung (the life as an unfortunate chain of circumstances) is not entirely a Siodmak input, it perfectly matches his world. Like most expressionist films, every character in Voruntersuchung looks potentially malicious, nevertheless the film goes beyond a simple whodunit story and explores more essential themes such as the absurdity of the judicial system and the utter impossibility of passing judgment on human beings. Siodmak portrays the law not as a meticulously defined causal phenomenon based on concrete values, but rather an interchangeable set of subjective and personal experiences that are even tied to elements of destiny and fate. (No wonder Einstein, at the premiere of the play in 1930, “had a chance to think about the relativity of the legal process and research of law.” Youngkin, 2005) This ambiguity not only gives the narrative a very peculiar drive (is the judge’s son protecting Fritz? Is Fritz protecting an artist friend whom he met at the station? Is the judge protecting his son’s friend?), but also dictates the mise-en-scene.

Voruntersuchung which was made on the same year as M shares many virtues of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. It can be argued that both films establish elements of what is going to be known as film noir, both in their formal approach and subjects of interest. Both films represent a world in mirror shots, low-key lighting, complex shots of staircases,applying  different modes of facial lighting for different characters, expressionist use of sound, flashback or flash-forward (and even a dream sequence in Voruntersuchung when the judge dreams that his son is the real murderer and that he has confessed to his crime.)

First shots of the city in Voruntersuchung resemble those of People on Sunday, presenting a dynamic city of emotion and movement. Shots of moving trains, noisy streetcars, passengers and pedestrians create the first significant context for the film: a metropolis whose frantic pace allows to all kinds of excessive emotions.  While on location shots of the city streets in Der Mann, der seinen Mörder Sucht is alluding to the slap-stick nature of the life in metropolis, in Voruntersuchung the same visual trait conveys a sense of entrapment. When, in an investigation scene, the judge asks the witness if he has seen the man accused of murder in the station, the witness declares: “When I arrived at the station, he was studying the timetables.” The grinning judge impatiently comments: “You see! One who studies timetables wants to travel, or flee.”

The sound is also used in such way to double that sense of threat throughout the film which is perfectly demonstrated in an investigation scene: as the judge restlessly paces the room and bangs his hand on the heating pipes, the continuing sound of his feet against the floor and hand against the pipe creates a disturbing, torturous atmosphere that forces Fritz to confess to the crime he has not committed. It is the sound that pushes him to the edge of madness.

It also worth noting that the French version of Voruntersuchung, titled as Autour d’une enquête and starring Pierre Richard-Willm (playing Fritz Brent), Annabella and Gaston Modot, was shot simultaneously as the German version and René Clair’s brother, Henri Chomette, was its co-director and French dialogue supervisor.


Voruntersuchung is a miniature of Siodmak’s cinema with tiny little details of his technical innovations and the ideas later expanded in his career. The perpetual uncertainty of the film not only projects Germany on the verge of Nazism, but also, in different ways, helps to draw a powerful early draft for film noir.

In less than two years, the horrors and fears shown in the film turned into daily realities and one of its first victims was Siodmak himself whose cinema was called by Joseph Goebbels as “sick sultriness and airless muddle-headedness.”

Siodmak was forced into exile and exported his rich visual culture, first to France and then to Hollywood. Phantom Lady (1944), Siodmak’s first film noir in Hollywood, is, if not a remake of Voruntersuchung, at least a stunning sequel to its nightmarish world.

Hope someone restore the film and bring the nightmare back to life.

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