A Great Lie Told About the Devil
By Fabian Wolff
By way of a preface, a blessed memory: a few years ago I found myself at the house of Artur “Atze” Brauner, already deep into his 90s, in leafy Berlin-Grunewald. The legendary film producer and Holocaust survivor was to receive a medal for his work towards Jewish-Christian reconciliation in a small ceremony, which I was covering for a Jewish weekly. The owner’s initials were embossed into the opening gates of the estate, the mansion itself I remember as almost modest. At some point Brauner looked out of a window and, pondering his success in the ’50s, said, “In ’55 we did Die Ratten with Siodmak; a year later we had to chase them out of this garden.”
If the 1970s were the Years of Lead, the 1950s in West Germany were the years of pablum. The country was itching to move on, and to have fun. The Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”), substantially ushered in through American support, allowed West Germans to not just spend money but also to feel redeemed, to be able to dream of their own place in the sun once again. The local entertainment of the time spoke to the hunger for travel, exotic pleasures and temptations. A look at Brauner’s filmography in that decade, for example, reveals titles such as Dutch Girl (1953), The Star of Rio (1955), Liebe, Jazz und Übermut (1957), The Star of Santa Clara (1958), and Voyage to Italy, Complete with Love (1958).
And yet for all the square lightheartedness, the film industry during those years did anything but follow the instruction “don’t mention the war!” As West Germany entered NATO and formed the Bundeswehr (German Army) in ’55, the popular genre of the day became the Wehrmacht film: stories of German soldiers’ experiences in WWII, particularly on the Eastern Front. These depictions were at times heroic, at times acidic, but they almost always served the political project of delineating the good Wehrmacht from the evil SS and Gestapo, who were also the real culprits for that one crime people actually didn’t want to mention. There was, to be sure, the occasional mid-century film that grappled honestly with German murder, guilt, and shame—though by and large, these were either ignored and forgotten, like Peter Lorre’s The Lost One (1951); lauded above their artistic value, like Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (1959); or simply unseen, because they were produced in East Germany, where they found ways to address anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as long as the manner of address fit into the state’s official anti-fascist narrative.
Once a cottage industry, films which overtly regressed into militarism and revanchism, however, now surfaced rarely, nor was much screen time devoted to attacks on groups persecuted just a few years earlier (unless the films could be sold as anti-Communist). When the director Veit Harlan, of Jud Süß (1940) infamy, made his homophobic “exposé” Bewildered Youth (1957), he was roundly condemned, though the connections made between queerness, moral depravity, and abstract art were hardly Harlan’s private concoctions. (It’s easy to imagine the anti-gay film being a success had the director in a previous life not been quite so enthusiastic in realizing Goebbels’s pet projects.)
Set against this backdrop, what makes Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes At Night (1957) so frustrating and enthralling then, is that it seems to speak to these three trends at once. Filmed when Siodmak had returned to West Germany following his years in Hollywood, and after making the postwar drama Die Ratten, The Devil Strikes At Night purportedly portrays the numerous killings committed by Bruno Lüdke between 1925 to 1943; his eventual capture by the Reichskriminalpolizei, the national criminal police; and the cover-up that prevented him from being recognized as the deadliest German mass murderer in history—an oversight that Siodmak’s film sought to rectify, with ominous success.
The Devil Strikes At Night purportedly portrays the numerous killings committed by Bruno Lüdke between 1925 to 1943... and the cover-up that prevented him from being recognized as the deadliest German mass murderer in history—an oversight that Siodmak’s film sought to rectify, with ominous success.
In the director’s telling, Lüdke drifts about, doing odd jobs, like driving a coach and delivering potatoes and wood. Born and raised in the working-class Berlin neighborhood of Köpenick, he spends his spare time taking trips with truckers, during which he strangles and robs women whenever he can. He can’t read or write, but he knows Paragraph 51, the article of law that declares those who are deemed officially “moronic” by the state aren’t criminally liable for their actions.
He’s a burly kid devoid of any innocence—stupid and vindictive; thick-necked, barrel-chested and peroxide blonde—played by the Swiss-born actor Mario Adorf with great force in what would be his breakthrough performance, before going on to become the grand seigneur of German film and television, a rotund silver fox with more than a dash of late period Sean Connery.
When one of Ludke’s murders, of a Hamburg waitress during a nighttime air raid, leads to the arrest of her lover, a fat and corrupt Nazi (Werner Peters), something about the constellation seems off to Kriminalkommissar Axel Kersten (Claus Holm, earnestly quippy), who has just returned from a stint at the Eastern Front with a limp and the fresh resolution to stick his head out for nobody. Kersten identifies a pattern in a number of unsolved murders all over Germany, and is able to arrest Lüdke after he foolishly tries to woo a girl with money stolen from the purse of one of his victims.
Though Kersten is defiantly not a Nazi, constantly registering his dissatisfaction with official lies in double and single entendres, he gets Lüdke talking, and eventually to confess to over 80 murders. This attracts the attention of SS officer Rossdorf (Hannes Messemer, with all of the snideness and little of the stale soldierly honor of his later Kommandant, Oberst von Luger, in 1963’s The Great Escape), who sees Lüdke as a useful specimen to illustrate the importance of eugenics through sterilization, and worse. When it occurs to Rossdorf that the population’s already poor morale might be further damaged by the revelation the mighty Nazi apparatus was unable to stop a murderous lowlife, Rossdorf orders that the case disappear—which necessitates the execution of the aforementioned fat, corrupt Nazi for a murder he didn’t commit. Kersten is able to exonerate the wrongly accused man, and is summarily punished. Lüdke, the film informs us in a final title card, was executed in Vienna, his victims forgotten.
This, then, is the story that The Devil Strikes At Night tells. There’s just one thing wrong with it: it’s bullshit. Not simply because it again posits the good German cop against the bad Nazi, or because it displays the kind of “brave” anti-fascism that people were always eager to in 1957. It’s bullshit because it’s all a lie. The real-life Lüdke, as the East German crime writer Günther Prodohl suspected as early as 1965, and the media scholars Axel Doßmann and Susanne Regener definitively proved with their 2018 book Fabrication of a Felon, was innocent. Lüdke didn’t kill anybody; he was simply railroaded beyond belief and fed lines by Kersten’s real-life counterpart, Kommissar Heinrich Franz, and confessed under duress.
Lüdke was never tried in court because everybody understood this travesty wouldn’t pass muster, even in front of a Nazi judge. He was sent to the newly established Institute for Forensic Medicine, where he became the victim of medical experiments and died of asphyxiation when two medical students wanted to simulate oxygen intake in high altitude. One of the few accurate things in Werner Jörg Lüddecke’s script is the fact that his case was built up to show the need for a more aggressive murder campaign against people with disabilities and “Asoziale” (antisocial elements), and then dropped when it became clear that it might backfire.
But the story itself was too good to be wasted. When Bernhard Wehner, formerly head of the Criminal Police and member of the SS and Nazi Party, reinvented himself as a journalist after the war, he wrote about the case for the magazine Der Spiegel in 1950, describing Lüdke as “a Neanderthal more animal than human.” The young journalist Will Berthold then described the case in depth, quoting from Nazi files in a lurid 15-part series for a Munich-based print magazine, and then again in a book, both titled The Devil Strikes At Night, fabricating even more evidence and willfully ignoring the signs that Lüdke was a patsy.
These are the disreputable sources of Siodmak’s self-described “anti-Nazi” film—a film that’s worth watching and thinking about both despite and because of its origins, primarily because of Siodmak’s directorial prowess. Many people, from the British writer Philip Kerr with his hardboiled detective novels to Tom Tykwer, with his Netflix TV series Berlin Babylon, have tried to make a Nazi noir. The Devil Strikes At Night gets closer than most—not through its script, but its sense of space. Police headquarters close to collapsing after nightly raids, or living rooms with posters about murder victims used as make-do wallpaper: Every room is its own little prison, and its own little Reich.
While Holm tries to infuse Kersten with some Bogart-ian swagger, the true noir antihero here is Lüdke: driven by lust, fancying himself smart but always out of his depth, ultimately doomed when his luck runs out. It’s hard not to see him as an extension of the character of “the Swede” in Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), without an Ava Gardner in sight. His urge to kill is not even given the tragic depth of his cinematic and literary ancestors, like Lorre’s child killer in M (1931) or Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, but seemingly just a surface reaction, and as quickly forgotten. The film is all cold sweat and no fever: a haunted, nasty piece of work.
Siodmak was Jewish, which still doesn’t make it easy to discern whether one of the things the film is haunted by actually is the Holocaust, in which some of Siodmak’s own relatives were killed while he had found refuge in the States. The line spoken by one of Kersten’s superiors, “What’s one murder of a waitress measured against the thousands killed every day on the Eastern front?” can be taken as an indictment of the mindset that disregards human life and values German soldiers above all others, but only one scene in the film directly references the persecution and murder of the Jews of Europe.
On one of his errands, Lüdke brings a sack of potatoes to a woman (Margaret Jahnen) hidden by Germans inside their comfortable apartment. She’s desperately happy to have company and tells the utterly apathetic Lüdke that she’s Jewish, and that her husband was killed in Auschwitz, that camp’s name spoken with a knowing weight it hardly possessed, even in Jewish consciousness, in 1943. Lüdke is already scheming to kill her, but is interrupted by the return of the owner of the home. The oblivious woman asks him to visit her again.
The scene plays as stilted and implausible, and as a clear trade-off: Auschwitz and anti-Semitism can be mentioned as long as it’s pointed out that random and ordinary Germans did try and save Jews. It is no wonder the film was a financial and critical success, and received an official award for being “politically valuable” by Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden, the federal German agency responsible for rating films: it simply expressed current attitudes of denial and deferral, while slightly pushing the envelope in other ways.
As Adorf bemoans in one of his memoirs, the scene was supposed to have a follow-up: Lüdke does indeed show up again a few days later, dressed to kill, but discovers the Gestapo have already arrested and deported the woman. The actors only learned that it had been cut at a premiere screening. Adorf asked Siodmak for the reason; he said the distributor had insisted, and that he was too weak to fight for it. Adorf writes that he thought the scene was key: “It shows that the Black Guard was infinitely faster, more cruel, and more effective than our sick Bruno.”
Even those lines betray an uneasiness on Adorf’s part with the way Lüdke is positioned in the film. After the recent revelations, that uneasiness has, much to Adorf’s credit, since transformed into open regret and shame. He was instrumental in getting Lüdke’s name officially rehabilitated, petitioning the German President to lay a Stolperstein (small memorial plaque) in front of the house of Lüdke’s parents at Grüne Trift 32, which they did in August of last year. There is, to be sure, little in Adorf’s performance even hints at his possible innocence: he himself is cruelly effective at portraying Lüdke as fundamentally malicious.
These contradictions perhaps make The Devil Strikes At Night into a true film maudit, both subversive and corrupt. Precisely because it’s such a complicated work, it’s easy to wrestle with—easier perhaps than the mournful and righteously angry Holocaust dramas that Brauner, otherwise decried as “the king of schlock,” started producing in 1948 with Morituri, returning to the subject again and again throughout the next decades, with little attention paid to commerciality. The Devil Strikes At Night, meanwhile, may tell odious lies, while inadvertently revealing some larger, sharper truths about German myths and German murder.
Maybe. There is, of course, a different reading: perhaps the film isn’t textually incoherent but simply a piece of revisionist propaganda aimed at alleviating German collective guilt while speaking to their own darkest, private resentments—all of which is held together by Siodmak’s impeccable compositions and finely calculated dread—the work of a director whose own true intellectual and emotional engagement with the material may have simply come down to needing a gig.
Either way, one question remains: if the devil incarnate didn’t murder all those poor souls, who did? It’s a question ultimately more worthy of the talents of almost everybody involved, above all Siodmak. It’s also one that Germans have never been too keen to ask, or answer.
Fabian Wolff is a writer from Berlin. He’s written for Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Forward, Der Spiegel, Zeit Online and is working on his first novel.