The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951) & The Rats (aka, Die Ratten) (Robert Siodmak, 1955)
“How the will to survive in a place like Belsen, I do not know. But I wanted to live.”
In “Telegraph Hill”, a woman (Valentina Cortese), newly freed from a concentration camp and with nowhere to go, in a moment of desperation, takes on a false identity to assume a new life, inheriting not only a young son but an opulent San Francisco manor. In The Rats, a destitute young Polish woman (Maria Shell), lost on the streets of poverty-stricken post-war Germany, reluctantly agrees to sell her unborn baby to the older and childless Anna (Heidemarie Hatheyer), who intends to keep it a secret from her hard working husband Karl (Gustav Knuth), currently on the road as a delivery driver.
The titular house
Pure coincidence that I happened to catch these two post-WW II melodramas (both of which either I hadn’t heard of before, or were off my radar so long I forgot they existed), directed by two filmmaking vets, on consecutive days while on my latest Big Apple sojourn (upon which I always manage to squeeze in some rep cinema screenings, with only the newly disquieting requirement of being forced to present your vaccine passport – otherwise known as, in previous German lingo, ‘your papers, please’ – or be denied entry, being a turnoff forever more, whether it ultimately goes away or not, but I’ve written about that before), but it certainly was fortuitous, as – while stylistically quite different (though both shot in gorgeous black and white) – it was interesting to notice how both used a literal storytelling device of identity-theft as a means to metaphorically reflect what I can only gather as one of the great struggles of a post-war society – namely the individual struggle for re-integration (or establishment of a ‘new’ identity) within an often traumatized post-war landscape.
The House on Telegraph Hill
The introductory scenes of “Telegraph Hill”, in the Belsen concentration camp, as our heroine tries desperately – and unsuccessfully – to lift the spirts of her doomed friend, remain properly harrowing and powerful, even within the context of the typical sanitizing of older Hollywood cinema. The film soon moves to its post-war setting (the freeing of the camp, her decision to steal the identity papers, the move to San Francisco to find a new life in her mansion home on Telegraph Hill) and the much more formulaic trappings of a Gothic suspense tale — with the heroine starting to suspect that not only the heroine’s new love (Richard Basehart) but the family housefrau may be trying to kill her out of jealousy and/or inheritance – all playing out in a decidedly Hitchcockian fashion (with shadings of 1940’s Rebecca but, most glaringly, 1946’s Notorious, with the final scenes revolving around a glass of nighttime juice that may or not be poisoned pretty much nailing the comparison), and while the execution may pale a bit in comparison to Hitch’s work (barely a criticism, as there was only one Hitch!), and its opulence in execution seems to want to invite a kind of surface Hollywood ‘entertainment’ feel, the surprisingly deep early death camp scenes, as well as the weight of the secret our heroine bears in her new life (as the deceased family matriarch stares down at her from the large portrait in the sitting room) add an underlying resonance to the film.
If “Telegraph Hill” speaks of a polished Hollywood production, from its harsh title (with the scurrying rodent imagery not just referring to how the inhabitants of the war-torn occupied Germany are treated, but condemning them for what the austere conditions revealed them to act like), lack of a guiding musical score, uncompromising and overall bleak worldview (of innocents crushed unless they learn to scheme and survive like everyone else), Siodmak’s The Rats literally screams European filmmaking.
In fact, if I hadn’t known who directed the film, I would have guessed that the unforgettable opening scene (which sets the stage, narratively and metaphorically, for the story to come, which is ultimately a flashback unfolding the tragic events that led up to this mysterious opening), following a dazed young girl (the beautiful Maria Schell, whose captivating face reminds me of Bergman-fave Ingrid Thulin in her younger years) approaching the barred gate to West Berlin, where the interrogating guards’ initial bemusement at her incoherent state turns more suspicious as they realize the doll she inexplicably clutches tightly to herself has blood on it (and it’s not hers) was one of those powerfully bleak visions conjured up by the greatest of all filmmakers, especially during his early German years, that being none other than Fritz Lang (I mean, the scene is that good – and the fact that the film is German language makes the connection that much more direct).
The rest of the film, following the post war-time struggles of the John family – and Anna’s roustabout brother (the ominous Curd Jürgens) who Karl has no liking for, yet Anna quietly uses to do any dirty work, which eventually will include murder – with the sudden opportunistic (for Anna) introduction of Schell’s pregnant penniless girl into their home, plays almost as a kind of somber (yet effective) chamber piece (no surprise, as I discovered after that it was based on a play).
Just two more impressive notches (surprise ones, as I didn’t even know about either of them before stumbling upon them in the film programs while trying to figure out what to see) on the belts of these extraordinary, if perhaps never quite fully celebrated (at least not as ‘cinematic auteurs’, a label that works for some filmmakers, but unfortunately downplays others who, I dare say, should be treated as equals), filmmaking vets, with one of them, Robert Wise, having risen up through the Hollywood ranks (I mean, he was an editor on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, for God’s sake!) into what I would argue was perhaps the greatest journeyman filmmaker of all time (making great ones across so many genres – including scifi, horror, noir, musical, you name it!), the other a German émigré who ended up making a dozen or so of the undisputed classics of the 40’s noir genre cycle, like Criss Cross and The Killers (and I would be remiss not to mention one of my all-time personal objects of desire, Son of Dracula, a Universal sequel with Lon Chaney Jr. that Siodmak boldly molded into a noir rather than a horror film… and, I don’t care what any pompous critic says, it’s really good!), only to return back to ze Fasserland to make Die Ratten (for Artur Brauner, no less, the ambitious figure and prolific post-war producer who is nearly forgotten today, but it has been argued once saved the German Film industry, raising it back up from the ashes by enticing back German greats like Siodmak… and, of course, Lang, to start up all those wild and whacky 60’s Mabuse films that I also have been chronologically viewing and writing about every now and then here in my little Offscreen column).