Sunday, August 5, 2012

Krimi: A Guide to West German crime films

Krimi, which refers to Kriminalfilm (or Kriminalroman, a type of novel), is a genre of West German crime thrillers typically based on the works of British mystery and crime novelist Edgar Wallace (1875 - 1932). Wallace is best remembered for creating King Kong in a short story he co-wrote, but he was an incredibly prolific writer. In addition to his novels and short fiction, he was also a journalist, screenwriter, and playwright. Wallace’s works became popular in Germany between the World Wars and though several early film adaptations were made, production ceased by 1935 due to Nazi censorship. In the late ‘50s, Danish company Rialto Film produced The Fellowship of the Frog (1959) with Constantin Film, a West German distributor. The film’s success led to Rialto buying the rights for Wallace’s novels and ultimately producing a series of 32 films over the next decade, ending in 1972, making it the longest running series in German cinema. Though krimi were generally disdained by critics, their wild popularity led to other production companies following suit with adaptations of the novels of Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, some non-Wallace krimi films, as well as similar series like Dr. Mabuse and Commissioner X.

These mid-budget films typically share a large number of themes and stock characters. Generally, a Scotland Yard detective wades through a cast of potential victims and possible killers to pursue the real, usually masked or costumed criminal genius who commits a series of strange crimes. A policeman or private detective is almost always the protagonist of the film and has to collaborate with and later protect the heroine. It is not unusual for them to eventually fall in love. Unlike earlier noir films, all krimi characters essentially have a distinctly black and white morality code, even if those are not apparent until the end of the film. 

Like noir and police procedurals, krimi have a set number of themes that act as motives for murder, such as sex, drugs and blackmail, as well as many financially-motivated murder and revenge plots. There were some genuinely gruesome moments in the films, which led other countries to promote them as outright horror films, though they also borrow heavily from earlier, established mystery tropes. For instance, the plot of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which characters in a fixed location begin to die off one at a time, is frequently used. There are also an abundance of red herrings, fake identities (in particular, fake nationalities), kind or disabled characters who wind up becoming the villain, and “locked room” mysteries, where the crime committed seems physically impossible. As the genre progressed, there was more of a pulpy, exploitative element that increased when the films switched to color in 1966. These elements led directly to the later Italian giallo films and some of the early gialli are Italian-West German co-productions based on Wallace novels. 

Unlike the later gialli, one of the primary characteristics of the genre was tongue-in-cheek humor, usually delivered by a side character like the butler or Inspector’s assistant. The series managed a trademark familiarity with audiences through the catch phrase, "Hallo, hier spricht Edgar Wallace!" Translated to “Hello, Edgar Wallace speaking,” this was usually announced from a telephone speaker before the opening credits. Despite the early black and white films, almost all the opening titles were written in vivid red letters, occasionally green. 

The krimi sets, many of which were shared between films, depicted a shadowy, fog drenched London, heavy with both noir and Gothic atmosphere. Though the plot are set in the city, many of the main events take place in spooky castles, decaying mansions and country homes rife with hidden passageways. There are almost always a few shots of Scotland Yard and many have more risque side locations like night clubs, basement torture chambers and insane asylums. Though all of the films were set in England, they were filmed in West Germany with added stock footage of famous London locations. 

Another thing that made the krimi so memorable was the shared pool of directors, writers, and actors. The actors, in particular, generally played the same type of stock character and there was a later emphasis on manipulating these types. The young, morally upright detective or private investigator was usually played by Joachim Fuchsberger, Heinz Drache, or Siegfried Lowitz. All three actors are most famous for their appearances in the Wallace krimi, though they would all go on to sustain film and television careers. Fuchsberger is an actor and TV host best known for his role as the heroic detective inspector. Forced to be a member of the Hitler Youth and later sent to the Eastern Front, Fuchsberger took a job as a coal miner after the war, climbing his way into the publishing business and radio, before making his acting debut in a series of Paul May war films. He became a star after he was cast in the first Wallace krimi, Fellowship of the Frog (1959). He went on to star in thirteen total Wallace films. 

Opposite Fuchberger’s detective inspector was a young, beautiful actress like Karin Dor, Karin Baal, Uschi Glass, or Margaret Lee, who would double as an accomplice and a love interest, eventually needing the stout-hearted detective’s protection. In many films this pair winds up romantically entangled and presumably living happily-ever-after. Dor became famous for playing Wallace heroines, as well as appearing in Karl May Westerns. She reached international fame for her roles in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). During the years of the Wallace films she was married to regular director Harald Reinl and appeared in a number of the krimi he directed. 

The actor with the most number of krimi appearances is Eddi Arent (1925- ). The Polish-born actor, comedian, and cabaret star was cast in 23 Wallace krimi, usually as the comic relief in roles like the inspector’s assistant, butler, reporter, etc. Arent appeared in almost 100 films, including the popular Karl May series. The second most popular actor and standby comic relief was Siegfried Schürenberg, who typically played the bumbling Scotland Yard supervisor. This prolific actor is also known to Germans as a voice over star, doing the dubbing work for classic American films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and later Disney films. 

Probably the most famous krimi actor was Klaus Kinski (1926 - 1991), who later went on to star in many of Werner Herzog’s art films in the New German Cinema during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Kinski reached international fame both through his acting ability and intense, controversial persona. The Polish-born Kinski moved to Berlin with his family and was later forced to join the Wehrmacht, where he was captured by the British and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp. In camp and after the war, Kinski taught himself to act and eventually moved from the theater into cinema with difficulties brought on by mental illness and his wildly unpredictable personality. The krimi films are where he really got his start, though he would soon move onto European exploitation films and spaghetti westerns. He usually played villains, henchmen or mentally unstable red-herring characters who wound up as victims. 

The villains in these films are generally flamboyantly costumed, larger-than-life arch-criminals who would feel at place in the ‘60s Batman television show or on an episode of Scooby Doo. Many villains, including the Frog in the first krimi, Fellowship of  the Frog, resemble characters from superhero comics. Other actors regularly cast as villains or henchmen were Fritz Rasp, Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger), Pinkas Braun, Dieter Borsche, and Ady Berber. Berber was a Vienna-based Austrian actor, wrestler and restaurant owner. He appeared in almost 40 films, including Ben Hur (1959) a number of Edgar Wallace krimi films, including The Dead Eyes of London (1961), The Door with Seven Locks (1962), and The Indian Scarf (1963), as well as Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse (1963). Due to his large physique, Berber was frequently cast as henchmen.

Rialto also consistently used the same directors throughout the series. Two directors in particular dominated the genre -- Alfred Vohrer, Rialto’s primary director, and Harald Reinl -- though Adrien Hoven, Franz Joseph Gottlieb, Paul May, Helmut Ashley, and a handful of others also made an impact. Alfred Vohrer directed almost 50 feature films, including half the Rialto Studio Edgar Wallace krimi series. With 14 krimi under his belt, Vohrer is the foremost director of this subgenre. His unique style and imaginative camera work influenced the later Italian giallo subgenre and other Eurohorror films in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Initially, Vohrer planned to become an actor, but when he lost an arm during World War II he volunteered with UFA, which turned into a position as assistant director and later as dubbing director. When his good friend Horst Wendlandt became head of film production for the German branch of Rialto, Vohrer made his first Edgar Wallace film for the studio, The Dead Eyes of London (1961). It’s success insured subsequent krimi films and he soon became the studio’s most prolific director. His collaborations with Wendlandt as producer and Karl Löb as cinematographer resulted in 20 films for Rialto, including some of the widely popular films based on Karl May’s Western-inspired action adventure novels. At the end of his career he was involved in a variety of genres, including erotic comedies, crime films and television. 

Harald Reinl was an Austrian director, known mainly for the 5 Wallace krimi he directed for Rialto and a handful of Karl May action-Westerns. He also explored a variety of traditional German film genres like war and mountain films, and a handful of krimi-related works. Reinl directed the first Rialto krimi, The Fellowship of the Frog, two Mabuse films, The Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961) and The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962), the Christopher Lee vehicle The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), and the last three Jerry Cotton spy films. Tragically, his career was cut short when he was stabbed to death by his last wife, Czech actress Daniela Maria Delis.

Adrian Hoven was an Austrian actor, producer, director and screenwriter who appeared in 100 films during his career, which began in 1947. Hoven was injured during World War II as a paratrooper in North Africa. After the war he worked as a theater actor until director Helmut Weiss discovered him. His acting career covers a broad range of genres, including krimi, Eurohorror, and more conventional dramas and comedies. He appeared in the Wallace krimi The Secret of the Red Orchid (1962) and in the Ákos Ráthonyi film Cave of the Living Dead (1964). In the late ‘60s he was in a series of Jess Franco Eurohorror films — Succubus (1968), Sadist Erotica (1969), and Kiss Me, Monster (1969). He also directed a few films, including The Castle of Bloody Lust (1968), un-credited work on the Inquisition horror classic Mark of the Devil (1970), action-fantasy epic The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried (1971), and Mark of the Devil 2 (1973), among others. Hoven was also in a number of crime dramas and caper films like The Black Cobra (1963) and Inside Out (1975), starring Telly Savalas. Later in his career, he regularly appeared in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, including World on Wire (1973), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), and Lili Marleen (1981). 

The main producer of the series was Horst Wendlandt, a Russian-German who joined the Luftwaffe during the war to avoid imprisonment for his Russian heritage. He was captured by Americans and spent the rest of the war in a labor camp. When Wendlandt eventually returned to Berlin, he began working for different film companies and was hired by Artur Brauner to work for his CCC Film production company. Brauner founded CCC Film -- or Central Cinema Company Film -- and helped lure a lot of German filmmakers back into the country after the war, reinvigorating the national cinema. Brauner and CCC Film later became Wendlandt’s biggest competitors with the Wallace series, but due to copyright issues, CCC Film was forced to adapt the novels of Edgar Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace. Wendlandt joined Rialto as a producer in 1961 and took over the krimi series, turning it into one of the most successful film series in Germany at the time and certainly the longest running. 

Composers were another small pool of contributors reused in multiple films. These distinct, jazzy soundtracks were usually scored by Martin Böttcher or Peter Thomas and helped modernize the dated material being adapted. Peter Thomas composed the majority of krimi soundtracks and these innovative scores were aped by later Eurotrash films, particularly those of Jess Franco. There were also scores composed by Willy Mattes, Heinz Funk, and three of the later West German-Italian co-productions were written by the great Ennio Morricone. 

While krimi are not strictly horror films, they are an important stepping stone between German Expressionism, American noir, Italian giallo films, and the Eurohorror of the ‘70s. Their influence can be felt in the films of Jess Franco, many European exploitation-crime films, and through out the early career of Dario Argento. These later works are more sexual and more violent, due to the lax standards of censorship in the European film market in the ‘70s. Though krimi are still well known in Germany today, many of them are finally beginning to see the light of day for English-speaking audiences. During the ‘60s, dubbed theatrical versions were available for American audiences for film or television, many of which were censored. Fortunately the German company UFA has begun releasing many of the films, particularly the Rialto canon. They generally lack English dubbing tracks or subtitles and are formatted for PAL players, but lately American distribution companies have slowly begun following suit with NTSC DVD releases. 

Edgar Wallace, Bryan Edgar Wallace and non-Wallace Krimi Filmography:
*Adapted from the works of Edgar Wallace and produced by Rialto film unless otherwise noted
Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959) aka The Fellowship of the Frog aka Face of the Frog 
Die Bande des Schreckens (1960) aka The Terrible People aka The Hand of the Gallows
Der Racher (1960) aka The Avenger (non-Rialto Wallace film)
Der Ratsel Der Grünen Spinnen (1960) aka The Mystery of the Green Spider (non-Wallace, non-Rialto krimi) 
Der Rote Kreis (1960) aka The Red Circle aka The Crimson Circle
Das Geheimnis der Gelben Marzissen (1961) aka The Devil’s Daffodil aka The Daffodil Killer 
Der Geheimnis der schwarzen Koffer (1961) aka The Secret of the Black Suitcase (a Bryan Edgar Wallace film produced by CCC Film)
Der Grüne Bogenschutze (1961) aka The Green Archer 
Der Falscher von London (1961) aka The Forger of London 
Die Toten Augen von London (1961) aka The Dark Eyes of London aka The Dead Eyes of London 
Das Gasthaus an der Themse (1962) aka The Inn on the River 
Ipsnosi (1962) aka Hypnosis (non-Wallace, an Italian-Spanish-West German co-production)
Das Ratsel der roten Orchidee (1962) aka The Secret of the Red Orchid 
Der Rote Rausch (1962) aka The Red Rage (non-Wallace, non-Rialto krimi)
Die Seltsame Grafin (1962) aka The Strange Countess
Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (1962) aka Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (non-Wallace French-Italian-West German co-production helmed by CCC Film)
Der Teppich des Graulens (1962) aka The Carpet of Terror (West German-Spanish-Italian co-production based on the work on Louis Weinert-Wilton
Die Tür mit den Sieben Schlossern (1962) aka The Door with Seven Locks 
Der Fluch der Gelben Schlange (1963) aka The Curse of the Yellow Snake (This is based on an Edgar Wallace novel, but it was produced by CCC Film)
Das Geheimnis der Schwarzen (1963) aka The Secret of the Black Widow (non-Wallace, non-Rialto West German-Spanish co-production)
Der Henker von London (1963) aka The Hangman of London aka The Mad Executioners (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Das Indische Tuch (1963) aka The Indian Scarf 
Die Nylonschlinge (1963) aka The Nylon Noose 1963 (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Der Phantom von Soho (1963) aka The Phantom of Soho (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Der Schwarze Abt (1963) aka The Black Abbot 
Scotland Yard jagt Dr. Mabuse (1963) aka Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Die Weiss Spinne (1963) aka The White Spider (based on a Louis Weinert-Wilton novel)
Der Wurger von Schloss Blackmoor (1963) aka The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Der Zinker (1963) aka The Squeaker 
Das Geheimnis der chinesischen Nelke (1964) aka The Secret of the Chinese Carnation (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss (1964) aka Curse of the Hidden Vault
Der Hexer (1964) aka The Ringer aka The Mysterious Magician 
Nebelmörder (1964) aka The Foggy Night Murderer (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Piccadilly, Null Uhr Zwolf (1964) aka Piccadilly, Zero Hour (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Ein Sarg aus Hong Kong (1964) aka Coffin from Hong Kong (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Das siebente Opfer (1964) aka The Seventh Victim aka The Racetrack Murders (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Das Ungeheur von London City (1964) aka The Monster of London City (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Das Verrätertor (1964) aka Traitor’s Gate 
Das Wirtshaus von Dartmoor (1964) aka The Inn at Dartmoor (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Wartezimmer zum Jenseits (1964) aka Mark of the Tortoise (non-Wallace, but produced by Rialto)
Hotel der toten Gäste (1965) (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Mädchenjagd in St. Pauli (1965) aka Girl on the Chase in St. Paul’s (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Der Mörder mit dem Seidenschal (1965) aka The Murderer with the Silk Scarf (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Neues vom Hexer (1965) aka Again the Ringer 
Der unheimliche Mönch (1965) aka The Sinister Monk
Der Bucklige von Soho (1966) aka The Hunchback of Soho
Das Geheimnis der weissen Nonne (1966) aka The Trygon Factor
Das Rätsel des silbernen Drejeck (1966) aka Circus of Fear (based on a Wallace novel, but co-produced by the UK and West Germany)
Der Tod eines Doppelgängers (1966) aka The Death of a Double (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Der Würger vom Tower (1966) aka Strangler of the Tower (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Die Blaue Hand (1967) aka The Creature with the Blue Hand 
Der Hund von Blackwood Castle (1967) aka The Horror of Blackwood Castle
Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967) aka The Monk with the Whip aka College Girl Murders 
Die Pagode zum fünften Schrecken (1967) aka Five Golden Dragons (based on a Wallace story, but non-Rialto)
Das Rasthaus der Grausaman Puppen (1967) aka Inn of the Gruesome Dolls (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Im Banne des Unheimlichen (1968) aka Hand of Power aka The Zombie Walks 
Der Gorilla von Soho (1968) aka The Gorilla of Soho aka The Gorilla Gang
Der Mann mit dem Glasauge (1968) aka The Man with the Glass Eye 
Das Gesicht im Dunkeln (1969) aka Double Face
Schreie in der Nacht (1969) aka Screams in the Night (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Sieben Tage Frist (1969) aka School of Fear (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Das Geheimnis der schwarzen Handschuhe (1970) aka L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo aka The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian-West German co-production advertised as a Bryan Edgar Wallace film)
Der Teufel kam aus Akasava (1970) aka The Devil came from Akasava (based on an Edgar Wallace novel, but produced by CCC Film and co-produced by Spain)
Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (1971) aka What Have You Done to Solange?
Il gatto a nove code (1971) aka The Cat O’Nine Tails (Italian-French-West German co-production based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel)
Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso (1971) aka The Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (Italian-West German co-production based on a Wallace novel) 
Die Tote aus der Themse (1971) aka The Dead Woman from the Thames aka Angels of Terror 
Das Geheimnis des gelben Grabes (1972) aka The Secret of the Yellow Grave aka The Etruscan Kills Again aka The Dead are Alive (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Der Todesrächer von Soho (1967) aka The Corpse Packs His Bags (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
La morte negli occhi del gatto (1973) aka Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye (non-Wallace Italian-French-West German co-production)

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