Before the release of recent international hits like Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, 1998), Good Bye Lenin! (2003) and Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004), much of the attention post-war German cinema had received had been directed towards art-house favourites such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. However, from the mid-1950s to the late 70s, West Germany had a thriving and popular movie industry, producing a seemingly endless wave of pop-culture films, from so-called ‘Sauerkraut Westerns’ to an impressively large number of soft-core sex comedies and pseudo-documentaries, including the notorious Schoolgirl Report (Schulmädchen-Report, 1970-1980) series.
Perhaps the finest of all these German genres and sub-genres was the Krimi (short for Kriminalfilm), a lucrative, highly entertaining series of crime thrillers that dominated the domestic box-office from 1959 until 1972. In that 13-year span, more than 50 Krimis were produced, with 11 released in 1963 alone – almost one a month. The majority of them were produced by just one company, the Danish-German production house Rialto. From the start, Rialto relied upon a stock ensemble of German actors, some of whom would appear in dozens of these films and quickly become A-list German celebrities – among them, the young but ambitious Klaus Kinski, for whom the Krimis became the first step towards international stardom.
The crime thrillers produced during the 60s and early 70s were primarily inspired by the works of a single author, English mystery writer Edgar Wallace. As well as providing the script for the classic King Kong (1933), Wallace wrote hundreds of novels, short stories and plays – many of them adapted for the big screen – eventually becoming one of most successful authors of his day. Although his fame declined elsewhere after his death in 1932, he remained an exceptionally popular figure in Germany, his works kept alive in the 1950s by made-for-TV productions and stage performances. The success of these led Rialto boss Constantin Preben Philipsen to begin producing a series of big-screen Wallace adaptations, starting with The Fellowship of the Frog (Der Frosch mit der Maske) in 1959, based on the novel of the same title. When the film became a box-office smash, two more Krimis were rushed into production, The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis) and The Terrible People (Die Bande des Schreckens), both released in 1960. That year also saw the release of The Avenger (Der Rächer), an independently produced Wallace adaptation. Threats of legal action from Rialto put paid to any more of these, but CCC (Central Cinema Company, Rialto’s main competition in the genre) pressed ahead with their own Krimis, most of which were based on stories written by Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, or by lesser-known writers such as Francis Durbridge.
Watch the German trailer for Der Frosch mit der Maske:
These four films established the pattern for most of the subsequent Krimis, including cast, characters, locations and plotlines. Typically the films star either Joachim Fuchsberger or Heinz Drache as a dashing young detective – private or official – matching wits against a criminal mastermind responsible for a wave of murders, robberies or blackmail attempts. Known by a nickname such as ‘The Frog’, ‘The Shark’, ‘The Magician’ or ‘The Laughing Corpse’, the villains usually wear a costume or disguise that varies from the unlikely – in The Mysterious Magician (Der Hexer, 1964), the criminal puts on a facemask and becomes the spitting image of a cop, right down to the voice (!) – to the ludicrous – ‘The Frog’ wears a cape, elbow-length rubber gloves (all in green of course) and a fencing mask with what appears to be two ping-pong balls glued to the front. Naturally, the climax usually features a grand unveiling, in which the villain is revealed to be one of the film’s least threatening characters. In many respects, the villain is the polar opposite of the detective hunting him down. Unlike the exciting, youthful heroes, the villains are usually stuffy, older men, stuck in boring but respectable jobs, with solicitors, office managers or clergymen being the most common. On several occasions they harbour a secret romantic desire for the main female character, but are pushed aside quickly when the dashing young hero arrives on the scene. Such films typically end with the villain kidnapping the girl, allowing the hero to come to her rescue. There are exceptions: The Door with the Seven Locks (Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern, 1962) features a mad scientist trying to sew a man’s head on to a gorilla’s body in a bizarre parody of Nazi scientific experiments.
Equally as important are the supporting characters, who were just as popular as the leads; even more so in some cases, since the villain was generally played by a different actor each time, whereas the lesser characters were almost always played by the same handful of actors. One of the most famous supporting actors was undoubtedly Klaus Kinski, who made his first appearance in a Krimi playing an ill-fated small-time crook in the independent hit The Avenger. After the success of The Avenger, Rialto quickly put Kinski on their payroll, along with his co-stars Heinz Drache and Siegfried Schürenberg. He would go on to appear in a further 20 similar films, almost always as a minor criminal – often a safe-breaker, blackmailer or smuggler – destined to die long before the end credits roll, killed off by much more important villains. Arguably, his best Krimi performance was in 1962’s The Inn on the River (Das Gasthaus an der Themse), in which he plays a slimy black market trader, looking truly unpleasant in a dirty white suit, a panama hat and in desperate need of a shave. Ironically, it’s also the only time Kinski plays one of the good guys: he’s a brilliant undercover cop trying to crack a smuggling ring led by the mysterious ‘Shark’.
Watch the German trailer for Das Gasthaus an der Themse:
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Krimis was their location. With a handful of exceptions – including a lonely Scottish castle and a Spanish holiday resort – the majority of them were set in London. Few of the films were actually shot in England, however, with the streets of Hamburg and Munich filling in for Whitechapel and Soho, while Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein region doubled for the Home Counties. This somewhat shaky illusion was complemented by oft-repeated stock footage of double-decker buses in Piccadilly Square and bowler-hatted businessmen crossing Westminster Bridge, not to mention numerous portraits of the Queen on office walls. Needless to say, the London of the Edgar Wallace films bears little similarity to the real city, and occasionally sports hilariously surreal touches. The most bizarre of these can be found in the final scene of The Inn on the River, where two characters stand on the south bank of the Thames, with cargo ships going by and the Oxford-Cambridge boat race taking place in the foreground! Not quite so over the top are the omnipresent telephone boxes (even in forests and on wharfs), the striking Rhineland castles just a few miles from London and the decidedly continental strip-clubs and jazz bars.
Influenced by 1940s film noir, the majority of the Edgar Wallace films were shot in black and white, with Rialto only making the change to colour in 1966 with The Hunchback of Soho (Der Bucklige von Soho). Although the quality declined with the advent of colour, the best of the Krimis boast stylish, atmospheric black and white cinematography that rivals anything produced by Hollywood during the period. Much of this was due to the partnership of Alfred Vohrer, the most prolific of the Kriminalfilm directors, and his regular collaborator, Karl Löb, a veteran cinematographer who served his apprenticeship in the 1930s and had recently worked on Fritz Lang’s final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, 1960). Together, the pair created a distinctive double world for the Krimis, with the first a stereotypically English London: stately homes, blue-blooded aristocracy, double-decker buses and the Houses of Parliament. Beneath that is the other London, a dark underworld of sleazy bars and clubs, shady-looking characters and a wealth of vice, violence and crime. The first London is populated by pretty young girls and respectable men in suits; in the other, most of the men bear scars or some form of disfigurement, and the women are a little older and wear too much make-up. This contrast is reflected in Löb’s cinematography: scenes in the above-ground London are generally brightly lit and shot in sunshine, while in the underworld it always seems to be night, and even the interiors are dark and dimly lit.
Watch the German trailer for Die Toten Augen von London:
Vohrer and Löb made their auspicious debut in 1961 with The Dead Eyes of London (Die Toten Augen von London), a film widely considered to be the finest Edgar Wallace production ever made, and perhaps the closest the form ever came to genuine horror. Based on a Wallace story that had already been adapted as The Dark Eyes of London (1939) with Bela Lugosi, the German version stars Joachim Fuchsberger as a Scotland Yard detective trying to solve a wave of murders committed by a gang of blind criminals as part of a life insurance scam. The victims are all short-sighted, rich businessmen drawn into the fog-bound rabbit warren of the London back streets – where the blind killers have the advantage – and subsequently drowned. Vohrer and Löb exploit the horrific potential of the material to the hilt, painting a portrait of London as a city of perpetual fog and darkness, where the shadows are deep enough to hide a monster in – even a monster the size of ‘Blind Jack’, an enormous creature played by Ady Berber. In the 1940s and 50s Berber had been a professional wrestler, before retiring and moving into films, where his hulking frame and lopsided grin made him an ideal monster. Berber appeared in several Edgar Wallace films, and his roles are among the most morally complex in the entire genre. Although he sometimes behaves like a monster, he is always depicted as being mentally disabled, and is often abused or manipulated by the villains, which makes him a more sympathetic character than the majority of the criminals. In The Dead Eyes of London, Blind Jack is only a minion, being controlled by a man who poses as a priest running a home for the blind. His tenants are being bullied into carrying out his schemes under threat of death. Wallace Krimis often feature low-level crooks in similar positions, who frequently end up as victims before they can ‘do the right thing’ and inform the police. In contrast, the main villains are ruthless and greedy, without a shred of decency or compassion.
Still a criminally (no pun intended) overlooked strand of European cult cinema, the Edgar Wallace Krimis deserve to be rediscovered, and this may be helped by the handful of ground-breaking articles written on the subject, not to mention a series of recent, high-profile German DVD releases, some of them with English subtitles and audio tracks, which will allow international audiences to sample the considerable pleasures to be found in these exceptional films.