Chris Petit’s The Butchers of Berlin, is a brutal and disquieting take on a city and a people inured by years of terror, violence and vicious anti-semitism, who find survival in indifference, and sustenance in betrayal.
Set in the death throes of the Third Reich during 1943, in an increasingly dangerous, demoralised and bombed-out Berlin. Here, food and basic necessities are in short supply and the cities infrastructure is run less and less by German men and more and more by slave labour brought in from conquered nations. Slaves who would like nothing more than to hurt their German hosts and who provide a potential mass of suspects to the grisly murders at the book’s core.
Centred on a detective and an SS judge assigned to investigate a series of extreme murders; the bodies had been frayed, butchered, and their skulls smashed to a pulp, the Butchers of Berlin soon expands its remit to take in the regime’s round-ups and deportations of Berlin’s remaining Jews and the desperate attempts by some to evade capture and stay hidden from the authorities. Alongside the skinless bodies and vanished Jews, a German warden is also murdered, a police informer is found castrated, there is corruption in the Gestapo, and a counterfeiting racket is threatening chaos.
It is though the inclusion of two young Jewish women, Sybil and Lore, in the story that truly evokes our sympathy after they find themselves at the mercy of the Gestapo and its local commander, the sadistic Gersten, who is happy to use torture and threats to cajole them into becoming ‘catchers’; Jews who seek out and betray other Jews that have become ‘U-boats’, that is Jews hiding as non-Jews. In particular, Petit brings in the real-life ‘catcher’, the beautiful blonde Stella Kübler as a character. In reality Kübler’s striking good looks and vivacious nature helped her ensnare and betray some 3000 of her fellow Jews to the Gestapo, who in turn nicknamed her ‘Blonde Poison’.
It is in this mashing of real characters like Kübler, along with Goebbels, Himmler, and the agricultural minister and man behind the Blood and Soil (Blut und Boden) movement, Walter Darré, who all feature walk-on parts, with actual events and evocative depictions of wartime Berlin that jar with the books over-the-top emphasis on gross-out descriptions of butchery and slaughter. These forays into Grand Guignol territory tend to move the book away from a world war two crime thriller into straight horror territory. A pairing that weakens and detracts from the book’s strengths.
Chris Petit is unusual in that he combines writing with directing, particularly TV movies and short documentaries, and the first two thirds of The Butchers of Berlin reads like a well-paced thriller script, its short, punchy chapters making for concise scenes that in turn make for an exciting, gripping, story. Real, edge-of-your-seat stuff, or in this case, a page-turner. Then, a bit like a film that runs out steam, Petit spends the final third part of the story laboriously tying up all the strands while totally over-egging the blood and gore to an almost cartoonish level in the buildup to the book’s, or perhaps that should be, film’s, climatic ending.
Petit is perhaps best known for the Northern Ireland based thriller, The Psalm Killer (1997), which, like The Butchers of Berlin, had at its core almost bestial descriptions of violence, though involving a biblically inspired killer operating during the Troubles rather than crazed Nazis. Yet the violence of the The Psalm Killer seemed, despite its graphic nature, to fit within the context of the story; yet in the Butchers of Berlin, where in reality the most appalling slaughter the world has ever seen was being carried out in the background, Petit’s horror seems not just crass but disrespectful of the real events and that is a shame because with a little, less is more, this could have been a great thriller instead of one that ran out of oomph!