Early in The Stranger, perhaps the first mainstream American film about the Holocaust, Charles Rankin, a Connecticut prep school teacher played by Orson Welles, his fiancee Mary, her father, a Supreme Court Justice, her younger brother Noah, and Mr. Wilson, a federal government agent, are talking about the recent war with Germany. Rankin does not mince his words. He believes that the German people are by their very nature incapable of democracy. Unlike Americans, who believe that “all men are created equal,” or the French, who believe in “liberty, equality and fraternity,” there is no word for “freedom” in the German language. The solution, Rankin argues, isn’t the United Nations or the Marshall Plan. It’s genocide. Just destroy Germany as a nation.
At first nobody thinks much of it. After all, in 1946, nobody in the United States had a good opinion of the German people. Just the year before, the American and Soviet armies had discovered the Nazi extermination camps. Of course nobody agrees with him. Mary argues that a “Carthaginian Peace” never works. Noah suggests that when Karl Marx wrote “workers of the world unite” he was arguing that Germany needed a democratic revolution like France or the United States. Even Mr. Wilson, who’s an investigator for the Allied Commission on War Crimes, and presumably opposed in principle to the utter destruction of a major European nation state, gives Rankin a pass. But Rankin isn’t finished. “So a Carthaginian Peace never works,” he says to Mary. “How much trouble did Carthage make after Rome put them to the sword?” Then he turns to Noah. “Oh the Communist Manifesto proves nothing,” he says. “Karl Marx wasn’t a German. He was a Jew.”
Suddenly a light bulb goes off over Mr. Wilson’s head. Wilson, who has come to Harper, Connecticut in pursuit of a shadowy German War Criminal who managed to escape Germany after the fall of the Third Reich, has found his man. Charles Rankin, who to all appearances is a red white and blue American patriot, is no American. He’s Franz Kindler, one of the major architects of the Holocaust. “Who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was German?” he thinks. The only problem is that Kindler’s antisemitism is hardly proof that he’s a war criminal. Indeed, unlike Himmler or Goebbels, Franz Kindler was so guarded and so secretive that he not only managed to destroy all the evidence connecting him to the Nazi extermination camps, nobody even knows what he looks like. Months of investigation have yielded only one possible clue about Kindler’s identity. In Germany, Kindler was obsessed with horology, the study of time. Not only did he murder hundreds of thousands of Jews, he made sure it was all done according to a precise schedule. As far as Kindler was concerned, a Jew gassed 5 minutes minutes late was a Jew who was never gassed at all.
The Stranger is perhaps most accessible movie Orson Welles directed. For anybody bored by Citizen Kane, baffled by The Lady of Shanghai, or completely unaware of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger is an excellent introduction to Welles’s fundamental aesthetic, which is about as dark as it gets in American cinema. Now largely forgotten, but his only commercial success, The Stranger taps into the American urge to displace its own dark history onto Germany, to forget about slavery and native American genocide, and set Hitler and the Nazis up into a secular version of Satan. Wells is not only convincing as a Nazi war criminal. He’s convincing as a Nazi war criminal with an American accent, the history of two genocidal cultures, German and American, blending together in his intimidating body language and formidable persona.
Harper Connecticut, loosely based on one of those ruling class suburban towns that dot the coast along Long Island Sound, the Greenwiches, New Canaans, and Dariens that allow so many federal judges and Wall Street lawyers to go home to get on the Metro North and go home to their quaint, neocolonials and “good” all white school systems, also has a tall, beautiful Presbyterian Church with an ornate, 17th Century German clock tower that was brought to America by his upper-class wife’s ancestors, but which hasn’t worked for years. Kindler, the German horologist, spends most of his spare time in the church tower attempting to repair its complex machinery, the bells that used to chime every hour, the metal angels and demons that go through a complex dance hundreds of feet overhead. It’s impossible to express just how subtle and yet simultaneously brilliant the image is. A tall, whitewashed Presbyterian Church is a familiar sight to anybody who lives in the suburban northeast. Nobody in a wealthy Connecticut, Wall Street bedroom community would think twice about someone buying antiques from Europe and carting them back to the United States, but in one visual stroke, Welles has brought the gothic nightmare of old Europe back home.
Wilson has only one way to tie Rankin/Kindler to the death camps. At the opening of the film, he had released from prison one of Kinder’s henchmen, a certain Konrad Meinike, who has since converted to evangelical Christianity and repented of his crimes. Since Wilson knows that Meinike will attempt to contact Kindler so he can convince him to accept Jesus as his personal savior and save his soul, he has him discretely followed, first by a mysterious Latin woman, and then by himself. After Meinike arrives in Harper and briefly gives Wilson the slip, he attempts to contact Rankin at home, only to find Mary, who has come to redecorate the house for the coming marriage. Eventually Meinike finds Rankin/Kindler and attempts to preach the Gospels to his old partner in war crimes, but the hulking man strangles him and buries him in the woods. Orson Welles, who was 6’2″ and well built, exudes menace.
The only problem is that Mary, horrified by the idea that she’s married to a war criminal as bad as Richard Heydrich or Adolf Eichmann, immediately goes into denial. Even after Kindler confesses to having murdered Meinike — he cooks up a phony story that the little man had tried to blackmail him over the suspicious death of his fiancee in Europe — she is determined to protect him from Wilson’s investigation. Since Mary is now the only person who can tie the two men together, the question becomes whether or not she will turn him into Wilson and the police before he murders her the way he murdered Meinike and then her pet Irish Setter Red, who had discovered the body in the woods and tried to dig it up. Eventually Kindler decides his wife will inevitably crack, and plans the perfect crime, booby trapping the clock tower, which he knows she will visit, and showing himself around town to establish an alibi, timing the entire operation down to the minute.
Orson Welles had initially wanted to cast Agnes Morehead as the Nazi hunter — he wanted an old spinster on the tail of the hulking, menacing war criminal — but the studio demanded that he give the part to Edward G. Robinson, who was, at the time, a bankable star, instead. Nevertheless, Welles has a woman save the day anyway, Mary’s housekeeper Sara, who under instructions from Wilson not to let her employer out of her sight, feigns a heart attack and keeps her at home. When Noah and Wilson climb the booby trapped ladder to investigate, both are almost killed but Noah, being young, strong and athletic, manages to grab onto Wilson and get them both safely to the ground. Mary, now who believes she’s responsible for her brothers death, finally turns on her husband and agrees to testify that she knew Meinike had come to Harper to find his old commandant.
The final confrontation in the Church tower, where the bell finally tolls for Franz Kindler, who’s stabbed by one of the very mechanical demons he helped repair, is a gothic masterpiece.