‘The Devil Strikes at Night’ movie review: Serial killing vs. mass murder in unsubtle but intriguing World War II political drama
After more than a decade in Hollywood, German director Robert Siodmak (Academy Award nominated for the 1946 film noir The Killers) resumed his European career in the mid-1950s. In 1957, he directed The Devil Strikes at Night / Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam, an intriguing, well-crafted crime drama about the pursuit of a serial killer – and its political consequences – during the last months of the mass-murderous Nazi regime.
Inspired by real events, The Devil Strikes at Night begins as war-scarred Hamburg is deeply shaken by the horrific murder of a waitress. Through the Homicide Bureau, inspector Axel Kersten (Claus Holm) begins an investigation that leads him to a mentally disabled laborer, Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf), who confesses to having committed that crime and many others.
The serial killer has been caught, but Gestapo officer Rossdorf (Hannes Messemer) – ever faithful to the regime – points out that there are a couple of major problems with the case:
- Another man has already been convicted of the Hamburg murder – and the German Justice System never makes any mistakes.
- The Nazi Party would have to explain to the German people that they have left a serial killer on the loose for more than a decade.
In other words, Lüdke cannot really exist and his arrest cannot be made public.* And that leads to the question: Who are more demented, men like Lüdke or men like Rossdorf?
Serial killer Lüdke an inconvenient sociopolitical truth
Its grimly ironic plot notwithstanding, Robert Siodmak’s second German film of the ’50s has few stylistic similarities to his expressionistic Hollywood thrillers. Such difference in style may be explained by the fact that The Devil Strikes at Night is really less of a suspense thriller than a straightforward political drama.
Although the film begins with a harrowing murder sequence that takes place during an air raid, the story quickly veers toward the increasingly intimate relationship between investigator Kersten and a young clerk, Helga (Annemarie Düringer), and toward the dangerous consequences of unearthing inconvenient sociopolitical truths.
‘The Devil Strikes at Night’: Glimpse into moribund Third Reich
Despite a couple of unexplained “coincidences” (which, admittedly, may have been caused by gaps in the English-language subtitles), Werner Jörg Lüddecke’s screenplay weaves a generally gripping tale while providing a fascinating glimpse into the moribund Third Reich.
For the most part, Robert Siodmak handles the proceedings with a sure hand, only missing out on a poorly staged fight between Axel and Lüdke. Another minus is the film’s melodramatic tone during some of the more emotionally charged sequences; a more sober, detached approach would have been infinitely more effective.
Mario Adorf creates ‘horrifying’ serial killer
On the positive side, Claus Holm is a solid, empathetic hero, while Mario Adorf (perhaps best known internationally for Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum) is an outstanding sociopath. Instead of creating a caricature of a mentally ill murderer, Adorf makes Lüdke horrifying because he is so pathetically “average.”
Yet Lüdke’s importance to the plot is actually secondary, for the focus of The Devil Strikes at Night is its portrayal of governments and politicians who will do whatever it takes to both perpetuate and extend their grip on power. A theme as relevant today – no matter where – as it was in Lüdke’s homeland in the mid-1940s.
* The real-life Bruno Lüdke (1908-1944) confessed to having committed dozens of murders, though questions remain whether Lüdke was actually responsible for all those crimes.
The Devil Strikes at Night / Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (1957).
Director: Robert Siodmak.
Screenplay: Werner Jörg Lüddecke. From an article by Will Berthold.
Cast: Claus Holm. Annemarie Düringer. Mario Adorf. Hannes Messemer. Carl Lange. Werner Peters. Walter Janssen. Peter Carsten. Rose Schäfer.
Robert Siodmak Hollywood movies
Below is a list of some of the best-known American movies, most of them Universal releases, directed by the Dresden-born Robert Siodmak.
- Phantom Lady (1944).
Cast: Franchot Tone. Ella Raines.
- Cobra Woman (1944).
Cast: Maria Montez. Jon Hall. Sabu. Lon Chaney Jr.
- Christmas Holiday (1944).
Cast: Deanna Durbin. Gene Kelly. Richard Whorf. Gladys George. Gale Sondergaard.
- The Spiral Staircase (1946).
Cast: Dorothy McGuire. George Brent. Ethel Barrymore. Kent Smith. Rhonda Fleming. Elsa Lanchester.
- The Dark Mirror (1946).
Cast: Olivia de Havilland. Lew Ayres.
- The Killers (1946).
Cast: Burt Lancaster. Ava Gardner. Edmond O’Brien.
- Cry of the City (1948).
Cast: Victor Mature. Richard Conte. Fred Clark. Shelley Winters.
- The File on Thelma Jordon (1950).
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck. Wendell Corey. Paul Kelly. Joan Tetzel.
The Devil Strikes at Night movie cast information via the IMDb.
Mario Adorf The Devil Strikes at Night image via Kino.de.