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The Stranger

The Stranger on DVD

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The Stranger
cast: Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, and Loretta Young

director: Orson Welles

95 minutes (PG) 1946
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
It is common among the more celebrity-centric historians of cinema to see Orson Welles as a man who peaked too early. He's seen as a man who made one huge film (Citizen Kane, 1941) and then drifted further and further away from fame and fortune until he wound up a fat, bearded has-been cobbling together the funding to make experimental films in Europe in between adverts for frozen peas. However, the truth is that Welles continued to make brilliant and challenging films right up until the end and The Stranger is but one of the lesser examples of his cruelly overlooked back-catalogue. Nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice film festival back when that was a big deal, The Stranger is a darkly misanthropic story about the human capacity to live with evil. The film subjects small town America to the withering glare of Welles' admittedly extreme views on the Holocaust and finds it wanting.

The film opens with Mr Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) in a meeting of the Allied body devoted to investigating war crimes. While officials argue that the small-fry they have captured deserves to be tried, Wilson successfully convinces them that a better course might be to allow him to escape in the hope of catching a larger fish. Sure enough, the small-fry runs straight to Harper Connecticut where he meets up with his old boss Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Modelled on Martin Bormann, Kindler has reinvented himself as Professor Charles Rankin, fiancé to the daughter of one of America's more liberal supreme court justices. Fearing that his subordinate will bring the authorities down on them, Kindler murders him and buries him in the woods. Initially, Wilson sees Kindler as being above reproach until, over dinner, he lets slip his views on the German people. Kindler's views are extreme by modern standards in that they show contempt for the post-war social reforms instituted in Germany with the aim of snuffing out the flame of fascism. Welles' speech is astonishing and easily comparable to Welles' great 'Cuckoo Clock' speech from The Third Man (1949): "The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred, conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everywhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the fiery sword of Siegfried, and he knows subterranean meeting places that you don't believe in. The German's dream world comes alive, and he takes his place in shining armour beneath the banners of the Teutonic knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the 'prince of peace'. He's... another Barbarossa... another Hitler."

However, it is not these views that arouse Wilson's suspicion. It is the view that Karl Marx was a Jew, not a German. As Wilson investigates, he uncovers the body of Kindler's underling and this pushes Kindler into poisoning his new wife's dog and then planning to murder her. However, despite Wilson presenting his evidence to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), she refuses to accept that she might have married a Nazi and so believes every lie fed to her by Kindler as he tries in vain to wriggle his way out of the noose. When Kindler's attempt to kill Mary goes wrong, Mary finally comes to her senses and Kindler is cornered in a stylishly shot set piece involving angels, devils and a Nazi literally running out of time.

The film deals with two sets of interwoven ideas. The first is the idea that the German people cannot be reformed. To modern eyes, this seems powerfully reactionary, a sign of authoritarian tendencies that shriek hysterically while Kindler's remarks about Jews not being Germans is more of a sinister whisper. However, at the time, these views were quite common. Indeed, right up until the 1980s, right-leaning American political scientists supported the European Union purely on the grounds that it provided a solution to the 'German problem' whereby, every few decades, the German people get itchy feet and try to take over the world. While it is easy to see in Kindler's call for a 'Carthaginian peace', the same kind of genocidal certainty that once filled gas chambers, the issue of German people having some kind of generational guilt still has some currency today.

Indeed, one of 2009's Oscar nominees for best film, The Reader (2008), suggests that even Germans born after the Second World War still bear the taint of guilt by virtue of their association with institutions and individuals who did not devote themselves to preventing to Holocaust. The Nazis, the American political theorists, Welles, and Bernhard Schlink (author of the book The Reader is based upon), are all tied together by the same idea... the idea that certain trespasses are unforgivable and that the guilt for these actions stains not just the people who perpetuated them but the people of the same blood and from the same culture. Under extreme versions of this view there can be no rehabilitation for people touched by this kind of guilt; only punishment and extermination. Of them and the people who support them. This leads us to the film's second theme: tolerance of evil.

Harper Connecticut is a generic American small town of the kind recently lauded by Sarah Palin during her run at the American vice-presidency. It is full of eccentric, warm-hearted people who are kind, non-judgemental and willing to help you out regardless of who you are. Its streets are filled with hopeful young men engaging in innocent games and its women are attractive and welcoming. It also serves as a home to a fleeing war criminal. When Kindler kills his underling, the burghers of the town point out to Mr Wilson that he is their only suspect. Of course he is. He is an outsider. Meanwhile, the affluent middle-classes sit and discuss German social reforms with a Nazi sitting at the table denying that the flame that animates him can ever be snuffed out by anything less than genocide. There were no Nazi social programmes aimed at rehabilitating the Jews. When Mary takes to denying her husband's guilt, she is reflecting the fact that, in Welles' view, Harper Connecticut is a microcosm for American politics. It is a world full of smug, self-satisfied people who revel in the kind of moral blindness that comes from the belief that what happened in Germany 'could not happen here'. When Mary protests that she has "never even seen a Nazi," Mr Wilson swiftly responds that she might have without knowing it as Nazis can look and act like normal people.

These two political themes combine to make The Stranger an incredibly hard-line film about Nazism. Not only does Kindler's advocacy of retributive and instrumental genocide (on the grounds that Carthage has not caused anyone much trouble over the last 2,000 years) pass unremarked upon, but Welles' depiction of America as lazy and corrupt for its failure to root out fascist sympathisers seems like an eerie preamble to the anti-communist McCarthyist paranoia that would taint American politics only four years after this film was made. This is arguably because The Stranger comes from a unique time in history; soon enough after the end of WWII for the horrors of Nazism to be still fresh, but not long enough after the war for communism to seem like a more obvious enemy. The Stranger is a cultural wound opened up by the revelation of what depths humanity can sink to.

Despite being undeniably of its time, The Stranger still has enough about it beyond historical curiosity to make it seem fresh and interesting to modern audiences. Graced by a rather subdued but still powerful performance by Welles and starring a surprisingly energetic and subtle Edward G. Robinson, the film undeniably has an excellent cast who deliver some memorable lines (indeed, I have no idea why Welles' German speech is comparatively unknown). The pacing of the film is also excellent with more and more of Kindler's character emerging as the film goes on. The direction is more vanilla than some of Welles' other films and it seems obvious that this mainstream Hitchcockian spy thriller was an attempt by Welles to counteract his growing reputation for being impossible to work with. Fortunately for us, a house-trained Welles is still a force to be reckoned with and there are a number of stylistic flourishes here including a remarkable death scene at the end.

The Network DVD edition of this film has only two notable extras. The first is a largely worthless trailer and the second is a rather misleading copyright notice. Indeed, when the DVD warns you not to copy the contents of the disc, what it really means is that the menus are under copyright. The Stranger's copyright actually expired a number of years ago so, if you can find it online, you can download it for free and they cannot touch you as long as it is just the film. Whether you download it or buy the very reasonably priced Network DVD edition (thereby encouraging them to release interesting older films), The Stranger is absolutely worth tracking down. It's a beautifully made and occasionally disturbing gem.

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