There’s a reason why I haven’t watched Grand Hotel in a long time. It’s kind of a slog to get through, with its stories all over the place. But you know what would make that more exciting? Nazis!
Just add members of Hitler’s authoritarian regime to the basic outline of Grand Hotel, and you get Hotel Berlin. The 1945 film, just released on DVD for the first time by Warner Archive, is based on a novel by Vicki Baum. The book was intended as a sequel to Grand Hotel, but the film has none of the characters from that movie. After all, Hotel Berlin was made by Warner Bros. and Grand Hotel by MGM.
Keeping with the similarities to Grand Hotel, there is a revolving door of characters who keep running into each other, with their own private problems. Here, they are all overshadowed by the growing fear of Hitler losing the war. It’s clear that Warner Bros. was trying to show how even in defeat, Nazis are evil and plotting to take over the world.
The strength of the film is the lead roles it gives to character actors. While Grand Hotel was a glitzy A-list affair, Hotel Berlin borders on a B-movie. There’s the great Raymond Massey as a German officer who plotted to kill Hitler and is desperate to escape to Sweden. Peter Lorre gives one of his finest performances as a disillusioned scientist who is starting to think that there are no “Good Germans.” Citizen Kane‘s George Coulouris turns his hair blonde to play the one Nazi officer who refuses to believe the war is lost. Henry Daniell is a Nazi organizing escapes to South America to start a Nazi Underground.
The roles that should have gone to big Hollywood stars went to young actors Warner Bros. had high hopes for. Helmut Dantine, best known for his bit part as the German pilot who stumbles into Mrs. Miniver‘s house, struggles to be a convincing leader of the German resistance. Andrea King comes off as an annoying famous German actress, and does not even try a German accent. Faye Emerson, who only got top billing because she was the third wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son Elliott, gives an eye-rolling-inducing performance as a woman who loved a Jewish man, but now sleeps with the enemy… literally.
Director Peter Godfrey, best known for Christmas in Connecticut, does an admirable job of keeping the film moving, despite a confined space where he has to juggle so much going on. It’s a tricky challenge to make a movie like this feel as big as the story is, but in such a small space. There are only a few sets used throughout the hotel. To keep it from turning into a filmed stage play, Godfrey and cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (Caged, Christmas in Connecticut) do a good job of covering a scene from multiple angles.
As made clear by the film’s lack of a home video release, Hotel Berlin has never been treated well since 1945. One problem might be the film’s ending, which includes a statement signed by Winston Churchill, Roosevelt and the leader of the U.S.’ soon-to-be enemy, Josef Stalin. Warner Archive’s DVD shows that little to no restoration work was done here. At some points, it looks like this was sourced from a VHS tape. There is also heavy damage to the film, with lots of dust and even a big “crack” in one scene.
Warner Archive did include the fun trailer for Hotel Berlin. It includes a scene of Dantine reading a bulletin about the movie at the beginning. The rest of it is a riot, completely taking the movie out of context. At the end, it blares “MORE RELEVANT THAN CASABLANCA!”
However, that line from the trailer might really be why Hotel Berlin has fallen into obscurity. It’s a little bit too stuck in its own time – that is, the waning days of the war – to be relevant to today’s world, unlike the timeless Casablanca. The film does lack true star power, but the cast is mostly exceptional. Any Peter Lorre fan should be tripping over themselves to get a copy of this.
Thanks again to Warner Archive for a copy of this DVD to review!