Sunday, February 7, 2010
The View from the Street 8
They go up and they go down, but they do not stop at the floor where we wait for them -- an elevator trait to which we are accustomed. They keep moving: up and down. And one enters a compartment and alights from it while the elevator is in motion. They have no doors. They are Paternoster elevators.
I first met a Paternoster elevator in the IG Farben Building in Frankfurt am Main in 1958. I was a soldier who took a trolley there from Gibbs Kaserne. (There is a bit of back story there, but that is a tale best told elsewhere.) I entered the building, walked to an elevator bank, saw what appeared to be moving walls, and entered a compartment while it was in motion. It rose to the floor where I was to attend a class. I alighted, of course, also while the compartment was in motion. I thought the elevator intriguing and I still do. But elevators that did not stop at the floor at which I waited were most unusual.
Enter Berlin Express, a good film by Jacques Tourneur. It was shot on location in Germany shortly after the war. Its title to the contrary notwithstanding, a part of the film takes place in Frankfurt. A group of mixed nationals on official business is investigating some postwar issue. Some of what happens occurs on a train but the group moves on to Frankfurt, to Allied headquarters at the IG Farben Building. They are guided to an elevator bank and a military policeman gestures them on to a Paternoster elevator. First Merle Oberon, then as she ascends in view, Robert Ryan and another. A cut shows them alight on some floor above.
A film directed by Jacques Tourneur is always worth watching. Robert Ryan invariably turns in a fine performance and the supporting cast is decent. The location shooting is on a par with Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair. But that film had Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur -- and all the Kordas in the kingdom, or all the Paternoster elevators in the land, could not raise the good Ms. Oberon to those heights. But the plot of Berlin Express is no more important to me than the plot of an Astaire/Rogers film. I watch it for the elevators and take the Berlin Express in a mood of reverie down to the Frankfurt of yesterday.
I have watched the film with some regularity over the years because it shows a Frankfurt that was close to that which I remember: the trolleys, the populace with missing limbs, the multiplicity of bicycles and especially -- the elevators that went up and down and did not stop at the floor at which I was waiting. Paternoster elevators. An endangered species in these times. But we will always have them in Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express.
Postscript: I would like to hear of other instances in which Paternoster elevators are shown in film. And a quick glimpse of the elevator scene in Berlin Express can be seen at: