Peter Lorre is often cited as an example of a superior European actor who made his way to Hollywood, only to be wasted when Tinseltown didn’t know what to do with him. He had gained worldwide attention for his unnerving performance as the child-murderer in‘s German production, M (1931). Purportedly, even though Lorre was Jewish, Adolf Hitler loved the film and the actor, inviting Lorre to return to Germany. Lorre allegedly declined by responding that Germany already had one mass murderer too many. It may be an apocryphal story, but Lorre’s image was later used in Third Reich propaganda to depict the depravity of Jews, and his name was discovered to be on Hitler’s hit list.
In Hollywood, Lorre was mostly used as a character actor who could steal a scene from anyone. He only had a handful of starring roles that suited him; a superb Raskolnikov in‘s Crime and Punishment (1935) and as Robert Florey’s Face Behind the Mask (1941). To most Americans , he is known for appearing in 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor, arguably the first , and for his frequent teaming with co-star Sydney Greenstreet (most memorably in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon).
By the end of the 1940s, Lorre had come to despise the cartoonish roles offered him, along with the erroneous tag as a horror star (his only actual horror film was 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers). He had long wanted to direct, having learned much from working with Lang, von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, , and Bertolt Brecht. Lorre’s continued friendship with Brecht—a rabid anti-Fascist—led to both being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as a brief stint on the studio blacklist and to his eventually being sacked by Warner Brothers. In 1951, a bankrupt Lorre set his sights on Europe, where he went to direct Der Verlorene (The Lost One) for producer Arnold Pressburger. Lorre also co-scripted a screenplay based loosely on his own novel about the suicide of Dr. Karl Rothe, who headed a research institute within the Third Reich.
Germany, still ravaged by Hitler, hardly wanted to be reminded of the Fascist period. The resulting film was a commercial disaster, despite being acclaimed, by the few critics who saw it, as a masterpiece of German cinema. With America deep in its own brand of Fascism (dubbed McCarthyism), Der Verlorene didn’t play in the U.S. Lorre never directed another film and returned to America in defeat, to continue in the caricatured roles Hollywood craved from him. Yet, like the actor Charles Laughton, Lorre’s sole directorial effort was and remains an intensely personal film. It was finally widely recognized as such after being rediscovered (like the title, it was thought “lost” for a period) and restored. In Europe, Der Verlorene was extensively praised. However, unlike Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Der Verlorene is still largely unknown in America. It is, in part, an evolution of his first major role in Lang’s film, which was originally titled The Murderer Among Us and shortened to M when the Nazis feared audiences might think the title was a reference to their regime. Der Verlorene makes amends for any prior equivocation; it’s a harrowing, fatalistic stranglehold straight to the Fascist throat.
The film opens with the introverted Dr. Karl Neumeister (the postwar alias for Dr. Karl Rothe) diligently working in a refugee camp. Like Lorre himself, his Rothe is a chain-smoker, who also inhales cognac (although he avoids Lorre’s morphine addiction, which contributed to the actor’s early death at 59 in 1964). Rothe’s sense of security is interrupted when a former Gestapo officer named Hosch (Karl John), arrives under the alias of Dr. Nowak. Hosch, a prominent figure from Rothe’s past, is also seeking sanctuary. As the loaded revolver hidden in Rothe’s coat reveals, however, Hosch poses a threat, which becomes clear in the film’s extended flashback.
During the war, Rothe is engaged in antibiotic experiments when he is approached by Colonel Winkler (Helmut Rudolph), head of Counter-Intelligence Espionage. Winkler informs Rothe that his fiancee Inge (Renate Mannhardt) has been selling the results of his research to the Allies, a fact discovered by Hosch when he bedded Inge. Winkler implies that it is Rothe’s national duty to dispatch this female Judas.
Doubly betrayed, Rothe confronts Inge, who admits her betrayal. He strangles her. Her murder awakens a lust to kill within Rothe. When Hosch, Winkler, and the the Gestapo cover up for him by listing her death as a suicide, they gave the horrifically pragmatic excuse: “This is Nazi Germany. What’s one more death?”
Unlike most of the histrionic schlock he was saddled with throughout his career, Lorre, directing himself, gives a restrained performance, suiting the chamber-like quality of the film. It’s deceptively simple, and the bleakness here is worthy of. Rothe is a symbol of the German people placing authority figures and the State on a pedestal while descending into moral bankruptcy under the guise of idolatrous patriotism. Forever changed by his moral compromise, Rothe descends into existential crisis and madness, resulting in multiple murders and his eventual suicide after the war.
Lorre’s direction is as distinctive as his acting, with his decades working in German, Symbolism, and American merging to make a one-of-a-kind cinema. On the strength of this film alone, Lorre clearly could have been a director of considerable aesthetic power. That he wasn’t given that opportunity, while countless hacks were given careers and productions with vastly larger budgets, borders on artistic injustice. That his one film, an important and provocatively understated one, is still largely anonymous to American audiences and cinephiles borders on a condemnation of our artistic timidity.
A Criterion treatment was rumored in some quarters, but for reasons unknown, has yet to be released. However, it is available on DVD via Arthaus (in German with English subtitles).