The Lost One (Peter Lorre, 1951)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Lost One.

criterion logoIn Peter Lorre’s only directorial effort, German scientist Dr. Karl Rothe murders his fiancée for betraying him and disclosing his research to enemy nations.  Instead of being punished, Rothe’s crime is covered up by Nazi authorities, leaving the doctor gripped by a compulsion to kill.  With the end of World War II, Rothe finds work at a refugee camp under an assumed name, but his past catches up with him when a fellow scientist and former Nazi agent arrives looking for sanctuary of his own.  Co-written and starring Lorre as well, The Lost One was rejected by audiences upon its release but has since become a masterpiece of post-WWII German cinema, an intensely haunting and fatalistic film that interrogates the psychological cruelty that enabled the war and the individual and collective guilt that followed.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, undertaken by the German Film Institute, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary by Lorre biographer Stephen D. Youngkin
  • Peter Lorre – The Double Face, Harun Farocki’s 1984 documentary
  • Displaced Person: Peter Lorre, Robert Fischer’s 2007 documentary
  • Interview with German film historian Christoph Fuchs
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by Lorre scholar Sarah Thomas, excerpts of Lorre’s own work script, biographical character sketches, documents on the film’s rating, and Bertolt Brecht’s poem to Lorre, “To the Actor P.L. in Exile;” and a new paperback edition of Lorre’s original novel “The Lost One,” unreleased in Germany until 1996 and available in North America here for the first time

By the late 1940s, Peter Lorre’s star had begun to fall in Hollywood.  He found himself trapped in creepy and sinister roles, typecast into what Lorre would call “face-making.”  He was underpaid when compared to co-stars like Sydney Greenstreet and it was apparent that Warner Bros. had no intentions to honour its contractual obligation to let him direct one film a year.  His marriage to Kaaren Verne was nearing its calcifying end and his morphine addiction increasingly tightened its grip upon him.  Lorre’s friend and colleague, playwright Bertolt Brecht, appealed to the actor to escape his Tinseltown abusers and return to Germany, writing the poem “To the Actor P.L. in Exile.”

Listen, we are calling you back.  Driven out
You must now return.  The country
Out of which you were driven flowed once
With milk and honey.  You are being called back
To a country that has been destroyed.
And we have nothing more
To offer you than the fact that you are needed.
Poor or rich
Sick or healthy
Forget everything
And come.

Der Verlorene PosterIn fact, Lorre had already returned to Germany when Brecht penned his plea in 1950.  Brecht had tried to entice Lorre with roles in potential theatre productions, but the actor instead committed to a new film project he would co-write, star in, and direct, one based on a Guy de Maupassant motif of a man revenging his betrayal by his fiancée and a news report of a refugee camp doctor who threw himself in front of a train and whose assistant was found fatally wounded in the stomach, both of whom had worked at the camp under assumed names.  Lorre’s film, Der Verlorene or The Lost One, would be critically celebrated, publicly rejected, and eventually hailed as a masterwork of German cinema.

The Lost One commences in a refugee camp where Dr. Karl Rothe (Peter Lorre) practices under the alias of Dr. Karl Neumeister, however his life of serene resignation is threatened when Hösch (Karl John), a former Gestapo officer from Rothe’s past now posing as a doctor named Nowak, arrives at the camp looking for sanctuary of his own.  After a day’s work, Rothe invites Hösch to the camp’s canteen for late night reminiscences while carefully concealing a pistol in his coat.  As the two reconsider their past lives in Nazi Germany during the war, The Lost One winds back, depicting their travails in Hamburg as Allied forces gradually encroached upon the easy security they once enjoyed.

Rothe is revealed in flashback to have once been a successful scientist doing animal research for vaccine development.  He is advised by Colonel Winkler (Helmuth Rudolph) that Rothe’s fiancée, Inge Hermann (Renate Mannhardt), has been secreting his research to the Allies, a betrayal made worse by the fact that it was uncovered by Hösch, a Nazi agent posing as Rothe’s lab assistant and who discovered Hermann’s actions in the context of a sexual relationship he carried on with the woman.  Rothe confronts Hermann, eventually obtaining her admission, and strangles her with equal measures of pain and pleasure.  Rothe calls Winkler and Hösch and despite wishing to confess his actions, his murder is covered up and Rothe is sent back to his important research in the national interest.

Rothe CampRothe’s continued freedom becomes a source of traumatic guilt.  Without his deserving punishment, Rothe enters an existential crisis, one most disturbingly evidenced by an eerie compulsion to kill again.  Encounters with Inge’s mother-turned-housekeeper (Johanna Hofer), the new tenant to Inge’s room (Eva-Ingeborg Scholz), a savvy prostitute (Gisela Trowe), and a welcoming hausfrau (Lotte Rausch) end in unknowing escape, fearful accusations, and murder.  Rothe’s deteriorating mental state gradually leads him to believe that his psychic recovery necessitates the death of Hösch.  His search for the Gestapo agent while in a psychotic fugue leads the doctor to stumble into Winkler’s plot to kill the Führer, a plan that fails but eventually provides Rothe with the opportunity to fake his own death and dispel his mania, at least until faced once again with Hösch and the past madness he represents.

Rothe MirrorLorre’s Rothe relies heavily on the transtextual associations carried by his Triebtäter or Lustmörder role in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), specifically alluding to his child-killer character in a sequence where Rothe stares at himself in a mirror and inadvertently smudges animal blood across his face.  As Sarah Thomas notes in Peter Lorre: Face Maker, it is easy to reduce The Lost One to a series of superficial binaries – a once celebrated actor whose talents were both squandered and exploited in the name of American commercial movie-making, now returned to his homeland and the respectable domain of international art house cinema – however Lorre’s film consciously relies on the full account of the actor’s work and the array of charmingly vicious criminals he played in Hollywood.  Lorre acknowledged shortly before the film’s première that “it was just common sense to take the line I have become known for in the United States.”  While the camp sequences of Der Verlorene are shot in a social realist style befitting of Václav Vích, the equable Czech cinematographer whose background in Italian neorealism Lorre employed on The Lost One, the balance of the film is heavily influenced by American film noir (the genre itself having ties back to German expressionism), employing conventions like flashbacks, voice-over narration (by Rothe), canted angles, frequent close-ups, and a harrowing atmosphere revealing Rothe’s murderous past and the traumas that brought him to his false identity and his isolation in the refugee camp.  Der Verlorene makes reference to Lorre’s work in Mad Love (Karl Freund 1935), Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster, 1940), The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), The Mask of Dimitrios (Jean Negulesco, 1944), The Beast with Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946), and other horror/crime films that had established Lorre as a cinematic icon, making Lorre’s sole directorial effort something of a semi-tragic summation of his career before returning to America to half-heartedly wind down his days in AIP horror movies.

Peter Lorre, occupying the position of both insider and outsider to WWII Germany, sought to interrogate the national madness that afflicted his former country through the personage of a respectable citizen made irresistibly murderous when exposed to casual inhumanity and moral compromise.  A particularly uneasy sequence sees Inge’s mother electing to subjugate herself to Rothe’s goodwill, staying on as a kind of caretaker to the doctor despite seeming to have some awareness that Rothe holds some responsibility to her daughter’s death.  Lorre’s Hamburg makes few explicit references to the Third Reich despite the presence of Gestapo agents and carpet bombing, and that absence gives The Lost One an unreal, slightly delusional quality in keeping with its attention to the malignantly willful blindness that allowed his former homeland to descend into cruelty and indifference.  Critics at the time saw Lorre’s aims with the film and hailed it as a classic, but audiences stayed away, having had their fill of Rubble Films and being no longer interested in ruminating on their national defeat.  Der Verlorene ran for a scant 10 days before closing.  Lorre had failed to find his audience of “good Germans” 6 years after the end of the war.  Watched today, The Lost One is fatalistic even by noir standards, comparable to Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) in its hopelessness and defeatism.

The Lost OneDer Verlorene has often been proposed as a potential Criterion Collection title.  Lorre’s exhausted, affable, half-strung out lunacy is a thing to behold, as is his intense, unrelenting direction (those low-angled tracking shots of Lorre approaching the camera that recur through the film stand as its most indelible images), yet discussions have noted no actual plans for a wacky “C” to adorn Lorre’s first and last directorial effort.  With a new restoration compliments of the German Film Institute being reported, we hope that The Lost One can finally be found by North American audiences.  Poster art for the film typically emphasizes Lorre’s dispassionate, trance-like gaze and there is something oddly compelling about how these images of Lorre in The Lost One invert and age the actor’s image as it appears on Criterion’s cover for The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934).  We can see that dangling cigarette and those bulging eyes on a new Criterion Collection cover, darker and more dour, recalling a career full of sad-eyed wastrels just as The Lost One conjures up as well.

Rothe TracksCredits:  Stephen D. Youngkin was selected to provide a commentary given his excellent and exhaustively researched biography, The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre.  Youngkin canvasses all aspects of Lorre’s departure from Hollywood and his return to Germany, including Lorre’s unusual script development and production process, developing his story from a concept conceived by Lorre and first scripted by Benno Vigny (which Lorre was dissatisfied with and that concluded with health issues that had Vigny remove himself from the project), then seeking the assistance from Helmut Käutner, Hans Grimm, and Axel Eggebrecht, obtaining notes throughout the production from Walter Ulbricht, and effecting repeated script revisions through constant consultation with his performers.  Youngkin’s biography cannot be recommended enough, both for his survey of Lorre’s career generally and for his discussion of Der Verlorene, but those looking for a more modest discussion on The Lost One can read his interview with Cinema Retro.

Harun Farocki and Robert Fischer’s documentaries are found on the German Arthaus Premium Edition DVD package, as can the Christoph Fuchs interview, the theatrical trailer, the work script excerpts, the character sketches, and the rating documents.  Sarah Thomas was chosen as an essay contributor for her first-rate volume, Peter Lorre: Face Maker.  Finally, Lorre’s novel of Der Verlorene has not been released in English to our knowledge, and so we’ve rounded out this imagined edition with a translated version of his complete book.

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2 thoughts on “The Lost One (Peter Lorre, 1951)

  1. Silver Screenings October 21, 2015 / 2:23 pm

    Whoa! This sounds intense and compelling. I need to order this, and will return to your post when I watch it.

    Thank you for including the poem by Bertolt Brecht. It’s moving… I felt a little verklempt!

    • spinenumbered October 21, 2015 / 2:54 pm

      Thanks. When you come back, I recommend the link to the Robert Fisher documentary, as it is very informative and includes a lot of information I didn’t have room to canvass here.

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