Albert Bassermann's investigation of a murder hits close to home
"Voruntersuchung" (1931) aka "Inquest" or "Preliminary Investigation" is a very good mystery film on its own merits but also one that is recognized by at least some writers as creatively breaking new ground in terms of film noir. There is a copy at present on Youtube with hard Spanish subs. English subs are available elsewhere.
The film's director, Robert Siodmak, subsequently did many quintessential noirs in the 1940s, so it is perhaps not surprising to find that in the early 1930s he did several films, including this one, that already showed at least in part and sometimes completely the artistic directions, styles, emphases and techniques that would later find full and polished expression in classic film noirs. In my reckoning, this film is already a full-fledged film noir both in story and in staging and lighting.
The story centers on the murder of a woman Erna Kabisch (actress Anni Markart) with whom a student, Fritz Bernt (actor Gustav Fröhlich), has been involved for 3 years. He is the accused. In the German system, there is an investigating judge, Bienert (Albert Bassermann). Bernt has been trying to break off relations with Kabisch. This and the available circumstantial evidence lead Bienert to think that this is an open and shut case, although witnesses repeatedly tell him that Bernt is not a murderer. Bienert does not know that Bernt and his own son Walter (Hans Brausewetter) are close friends and that Bernt is in love with his own daughter Gerda (Charlotte Ander). When he does find this out, his son Walter becomes a major suspect. The weight of what he learns is visibly reflected in Bienert's demeanor and carriage.
In one remarkable fully noir sequence (54 minutes in), he returns to the hall of justice at night to interrogate Bernt a second time. There is a long, semi-dark and deserted hallway. There is not a sound until a door opens and Bienert appears halfway down and moves toward us. He rings a bell to summon the attendant who has keys. This parallels keys that play a critical role in the murder case. He trudges forward next to a wall. We see both him and his darkly etched shadow. One can posit that this shadow is a symbol that has many meanings in the context of the story. It shows a separation of Bienert, a movement from certainty to doubt. It shows that he is wavering and is in conflict. It shows his own involvement in two worlds, that of justice and that of a shadowy region of sexual dalliances and crimes. It shows two sides of justice. There is the supposed certainty of justice within the imposing building with all of its judicial procedures, accompanied by its actual tenuous and uncertain nature. Bienert reaches the locked door to the interrogation chamber and tries the knob. Again, this parallels the circumstances of the murder. His body wavers. He's virtually in a trance, pondering the case and struck by its potential blows to him and his family. The guard opens the bars down the hallway, locks them (keys again) and briskly comes toward Bienert.
Will Bienert be able to unlock the truth after he passes through the opened door? What actually happens is a highly agitated and intense emotional confrontation between Bienert and Bernt. Bernt's rational faculty struggles to overcome the pressure to confess and protect his friend Walter. Bienert's rationality is used in the service of his deep-seated desire to extract a confession that leaves his son out of the matter. The rational and the passions of each man are locked together within each man.
During the subsequent lengthy interrogation sequence, Siodmak uses noir lighting again and again, starting with Bienert's decision to turn off the room light and turn on a single desk lamp. The staging and lighting underscore the passionate conflict between the two and their highly charged reactions.
Other than some occasional ambient music, this movie has no score or music.
Logic and evidence do not suffice in the face of basic uncertainties. The path to justice is dark and wavering. Appearances deceive.
This film is definitely recommended.
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