Release Date(s)1957 (March 29, 2022)
Studio(s)Divina-Film (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (aka Nachts wenn der Teufel kam) is a searing portrayal of the corruption of justice under the Nazi regime in wartime Germany. Siodmak was quite familiar with the oppressive atmosphere of the era, as he had fled Germany in 1933 when Joseph Goebbels publicly denounced his film The Burning Secret (aka Brennendes Geheimnis). After a sojurn in Paris, Siodmak ended up in Hollywood, where he became indelibly assocatied with film noir thanks to his masterful work on films like The Killers and The Dark Mirror. His dissatisfaction with the strictures of studio filmmaking meant that he eventually left for Europe, and he finally returned to Germany (West Germany, in this case) in 1955. He made several films there before moving on yet again, and The Devil Strikes at Night remains one of his most indelible works from that period.
The Devil Strikes at Night is based loosely on the real-life account of accused serial killer Bruno Lüdke. Lüdke was a developmentally disabled man from the German town of Köpenick who was picked up by the police in 1943 on the suspicion that he may have been involved in a local murder. Despite a lack of physical evidence, and a confession that may have been coerced, the police ended up linking him to as many as 51 different killings. He was never given a trial, and was eventually tortured to death by the SS under the guise of medical experimentation.
The Devil Strikes at Night is less interested in Lüdke’s guilt or innocence than it is in the larger questions of the corruption of the justice system in Nazi Germany due to the obsession with racial and intellectual “purity.” The screenplay by Werner Jörg Lüddecke clearly shows Lüdke (Mario Adorf) committing the initial murder that drew police attention to him, but the investigation into his other alleged crimes is treated far more ambiguously, especially as staged and shot by Siodmak. Yet the real focus is on the growing sociopolitical awareness of Axel Kersten (Claus Holm), the police Kommissar who initially brought Lüdke into custody. Kersten may have been the one to put the pieces together to solve the initial crime, but he soon realizes that the Third Reich is far less interested in justice than it is in using Lüdke to prove that “undesirable” ethnic and intellectual groups pose a clear and present danger to the Fatherland. It’s a realization that will come at great personal cost to Kersten.
The Devil Strikes at Night fuses Siodmak’s noir sensibilities with that of pre-war German expressionism, especially as it developed under directors like Fritz Lang for his own serial killer drama M. As a result, the style of the film strays a bit from the standard noir template, but the systemic corruption that was endemic within that genre was a natural match for the Nazi setting. Only in this case, it’s not necessarily the police who are corrupt, but rather the entire political system that they serve. The Devil Strikes at Night clearly demonstrates the ways that entrenched power structures can use fear of reprisals to bludgeon people of otherwise good conscience into passive submission. Kersten is powerless to do anything to change Lüdke’s fate, and by even trying to do so, he finds himself face-to-face with his own destiny. Siodmak knew only too well how fear could lead to complicity with the forces of evil, and the costs of acting according to conscience. Unlike Lüdke and Kersten, at least he was able to escape before it was too late.
Cinematographer Georg Krause shot The Devil Strikes at Night on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. This version from Kino Classics uses a 2014 master produced by Omnimago in Germany, but there’s no indication of the source elements that they had available. Aside from some light speckling and the occasional scratch, the bulk of it looks relatively clean, but there were clearly issues with the optical work that was performed in 1957. There are a lot of dissolves in the film, and they weren’t cut into the middle of shots, either, so the generational loss affects the entire leading and trailing shots—some of which are quite lengthy. As a result, there’s a fair quantity of footage that looks softer and less resolved than the surrounding material. That’s understandable, but the real problem is that the optical work suffered from other issues, like warping, density fluctuations, and some large blemishes. There are also some issues with the work that Omnimago performed, with aliasing visible along the edges of objects, and some distracting moiré artifacts—the suit coat worn by Claus Holm is a shimmering mess in any medium shots (it’s less of a problem in closeups or long shots). Otherwise, the grayscale looks solid, with decent contrast and black levels. It’s a flawed transfer, but since it’s unlikely that The Devil Rides at Night is going to receive any further restoration work, it will have to do. It’s worth pointing out that the flaws may be far less visible on a flat panel than they are in projection, as some other reviews of this disc may indicate.
Audio is offered in German 2.0 mono LPCM, with removable English subtitles. While there’s a bit of distortion in the peaks of the musical score by Siegfried Franz, the dialogue is always clear, and there’s little noise, popping, or other artifacts.
The following extra is included:
- Audio Commentary by Imogen Sara Smith
Critic and film historian Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, and as she points out, The Devil Strikes at Night is very much a film noir by one of the masters of the form. It’s from a historically overlooked era in German film, due to the fact that the New German Cinema movement of the Sixties and Seventies tended to overshadow it, so that makes it ripe for rediscovery. She places the film into context in the post-war period, and gives an overview of Siodmak’s circuitous journey around the globe as a filmmaker. She calls it a departure from Siodmak’s Hollywood noir, since there’s little in the way of allegory or subtext, but rather a direct critique of Nazi ideology. It was the director’s way of looking back at the past to serve as a warning for the future—a warning that mankind hasn’t always heeded, as recent history has demonstrated. Smith has an unusually gentle, low-key manner of speaking that’s every bit as authoritative as any of the far more assertive speakers out there, so it’s a compelling track that’s a very rewarding experience.
Fans of Siodmak’s classic noirs may not be quite as familiar with his work overseas, so Kino Lorber’s release of The Devil Strikes at Night is a welcome one. It’s may be an imperfect transfer, but it’s still an improvement over standard definition versions out there, and the addition of a stellar commentary track makes it more than worthy to add to your collection.
- Stephen Bjork