Adorf, Mario: My Part in His Downfall

I just re-read my original piece on NACHTS, WENN DER TEUFEL KAMM (1957) (NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME; or THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT), directed by Robert Siodmak, and I’m pleased to discover it’s both extremely short and quite inaccurate, which gives me a good opportunity to write some more.

The film deals with the subject of a serial killer on the loose in Nazi Germany, and beautifully brings out the horror and the irony of that situation, contrasting — without overtly doing anything — the depredations of the individual with the much worse acts of the state. Adolfo Celi Mario Adorf turns in a convincing and detailed performance as the killer, concentrating on making it a compelling portrayal of a man with learning difficulties.

What I didn’t know last time was that Adorf’s real-life subject was, in all probability, innocent — a hapless soul tortured by the German police into confessing to a bunch of killings, thereby helping them to take scores of unsolved cases off the books. By this light, Siodmak’s well-meaning, liberal film turns into an unfortunate whitewash of the Reich’s police force, who were — OF COURSE — in it up to their ears.

So my feelings about the film — maybe Siodmak’s best post-Hollywood production — are complicated. It gets at some poetic truths, but defames an innocent, murdered man. It has its own cinematic truth, like Truffaut’s L’ENFANT SAUVAGE, and like that film, it can’t quite escape an obligation to history, which it chooses to ignore.

But here’s why I think it’s a brilliant piece of film-making:

Adorf, having been captured, is taken to visit one of his old crime scenes. He starts to re-enact what happened for the benefit of police. The camera follows his invisible victim — present only in his imagination, but unseen by us. At a certain point, we lose sight of the cops, who must be closely shadowing their man, surely.

We are inside Adorf’s mind. Not quite in the past — because we don’t see his “prey” — only the spaces she once walked in — but we don’t see the police he’s talking to. We’re trapped in a phantom zone somewhere between then and now.

And then, when Adorf begins scrabbling in the dirt to conceal the invisible body, a simple cut abruptly causes the police to appear — they’ve been all around him all along.

I can’t think of another film of the time that does this. We’re practically in MARIENBAD territory. A pan around the treetops during the recollection of the murder itself makes me think RASHOMON is in there somewhere. And the camera reconstructing the crime is taken from REBECCA, I think, but the strange, depopulated half-world is a wholly original conceit.

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6 Responses to “Adorf, Mario: My Part in His Downfall”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I adore Celli’s turn as the police inspector trying to figure out who killed Rex Harrison and why in Mankiewicz’s late period masterpiece “The Honey Pot”

  2. And rightly so — BUT — I had my Eurotrash icons mixed up, since this is not Adolfo Celli but Mario Adorf.

    I apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    No need for the type of embarrassment Celi must have felt playing a Borgia Pope in that 70s TV ceries THE BORGIAS where he mispronounced “The Pope” as “The Pop”.

  4. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Mario Adorf was a Fassbinder star

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    Before that he was in THE GIRL ROSEMARIE and MAJOR DUNDEE.

  6. Yeah, fascinating, varied career. Frankenheimer cast him a couple of times too.

    I presume Celi was dubbed or else heavily dialogue coached on all his pre-Borgias work, because suddenly his accent got REALLY strong…

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