- The Devil Strikes at Night (1957) movie review: Featuring a memorable performance by Mario Adorf, veteran Robert Siodmak’s well-crafted – even if at times disconcertingly tabloid-like – Nazi Germany-set drama asks viewers, What sets apart (unlawful) serial killers from socially sanctioned mass murderers?
The Devil Strikes at Night: Mass murderers vs. serial killer in Robert Siodmak’s intriguing but unsubtle Nazi era drama
An intriguing, well-crafted, and at times disappointingly unsubtle drama about the pursuit of a serial killer – and its political consequences – during the final months of the mass-murderous Nazi regime, Robert Siodmak’s 1957 drama The Devil Strikes at Night / Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam was the fourth film in the director’s latter-day European (mostly German) phase.
Siodmak had made a name for himself in the 1930s, when he co-directed the Berlin-set, slice-of-life classic People on Sunday, and, on his own, handled big names like Brigitte Horney in Abschied, Conchita Montenegro in La vie parisienne, and Maurice Chevalier in Personal Column.
After fleeing World War II, Siodmak ended up in Hollywood. Mostly at Universal, throughout the 1940s he guided top and/or fast-rising talent – Deanna Durbin, Olivia de Havilland, Burt Lancaster, Ella Raines, Dorothy McGuire, Charles Laughton, etc. – in a series of atmospheric crime dramas, quickly becoming known as a film noir master whose classics and cult favorites include Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Killers (which earned him an Oscar nomination), The Spiral Staircase (at RKO), Cry of the City (at Fox), and Criss Cross.
Following the troubled shooting of the 1952 adventure romp The Crimson Pirate, Robert Siodmak returned to Europe. Having received Best Director honors in Berlin, Karlovy Vary, and at the German Film Awards, in addition to a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod, The Devil Strikes at Night is probably the filmmaker’s most prestigious late-career effort.
Lawful vs. unlawful murderers
Inspired by actual events, The Devil Strikes at Night begins as World War II-battered Hamburg is shaken by the murder of a local 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 and many other previous crimes.
The serial killer has been caught, but dedicated Gestapo officer Rossdorf (Hannes Messemer) points out that there are a couple of pesky 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 over a decade.
Therefore, Lüdke can’t really exist and his arrest can’t be made public.
And that leads to the question: Who is more dangerously deranged, the serial killer or the society of which he is a part?
Rare glimpse into moribund Third Reich
Notwithstanding its central murder investigation and grimly ironic plot – in several key points reminiscent of Anatole Litvak’s The Night of the Generals and Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion – The Devil Strikes at Night has few stylistic similarities to Robert Siodmak’s expressionistic Hollywood crime dramas. The differences in style may be explained by the fact that the Nazi era movie is actually less a 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, more importantly, toward the ugly consequences of unearthing inconvenient sociopolitical truths.
Based on journalist Will Berthold’s – contested – articles for the magazine Münchner Illustrierte, Werner Jörg Lüddecke’s screenplay, apart from a couple of unexplained “coincidences” (which, admittedly, may have been caused by gaps in the English-language subtitles), weaves a gripping narrative 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 Kersten and Lüdke. Another directorial minus is the melodramatic tone of some of the film’s more emotionally charged sequences; a more sober approach would have been far more effective.
More positive elements in The Devil Strikes at Night include its solid production values, Claus Holm’s empathetic investigator, and, most noteworthy of all, the still-active Mario Adorf – perhaps best known internationally for Volker Schlöndorff’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner The Tin Drum (1979).
Instead of creating a caricature of a mentally ill villain, Adorf makes Bruno Lüdke alarming – more so than, for instance, Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter) or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) – because he is so pathetically “average.”
Lüdke, in fact, could be any slow-witted pub-, or soccer-match-, or church-/mosque-/temple-going guy found anywhere on the planet. How to spot him?
Average power wielders
But as explained earlier in this commentary, Bruno Lüdke’s importance to The Devil Strikes at Night is secondary, for Lüddecke’s and Siodmak’s focus is on the depiction of government officeholders and bureaucrats who will do whatever it takes to both perpetuate and extend their grip on power.
So, who is more dangerously deranged? Those who commit lawful, socially accepted atrocities – and the tens/hundreds of millions of individuals who accept such acts – or those whose atrocious deeds fall outside the law?
In all, The Devil Strikes at Night and the questions it raises remain as relevant today – whether in authoritarian states or in so-called democracies – as they were in Bruno Lüdke’s homeland in the mid-1940s.
The Devil Strikes at Night / Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (1957)
Director: Robert Siodmak.
Screenplay: Werner Jörg Lüddecke.
From a series of articles by journalist Will Berthold published in the magazine Münchner Illustrierte in 1956.
Cast: Claus Holm. Annemarie Düringer. Mario Adorf. Monika John. Hannes Messemer. Carl Lange. Werner Peters. Walter Janssen. Peter Carsten. Rose Schäfer. Wilmut Borell. Helmut Brasch. Georg Lehn. Ernst Fritz Fürbringer. Margaret Jahnen. Lukas Ammann.
Cinematography: Georg Krause. Film Editing: Walter Boos. Music: Siegfried Franz. Production Design: Rolf Zehetbauer. Producer: Robert Siodmak.
“The Devil Strikes at Night” notes
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Claus Holm, Hannes Messemer, and Mario Adorf The Devil Strikes at Night images: Divina-Film.
“The Devil Strikes at Night: Are Serial Killers Worse Than Mass Murderers?” last updated in February 2021.