Tag Archives: Klaus Kinski

Frog Masks and Blind Killers: The Edgar Wallace Films

The Death Eyes of London
The Dead Eyes of London

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.

Author Jim Harper talks about Shadows and Fog: The Forgotten History of the German Edgar Wallace Krimi on 12 November 2015 at the Horse Hospital. Tickets are on sale now, book online.

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.

This article was first published in the Winter 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Jim Harper

A Special Klaus Kinski Film Jukebox by Raechel Leigh Carter

Raechel Leigh Carter

Raechel Leigh Carter fronted mid-90s pop band Baby Birkin, a band styled around the works of Serge Gainsbourg and his muse Jane Birkin (plus the occasional Françoise Hardy, France Gall and Brigitte Bardot song), who released a Russell Senior-produced album on Dishy as well as numerous singles. Raechel also contributed vocals to Mike Alway’s faux-psych band Sunshine Day and to cult band Piano Magic. A Klaus Kinski obsessive, she now runs the Du Dumme Sau blog that, even if you’re not a particular fan of Klaus, is very entertaining and will surely lead to a hunt for the featured films. Over to Raechel… Delia Sparrer

Most people remember Klaus Kinski solely for his five collaborations with Werner Herzog and there’s a tendency to write off the rest of his film work; considering that he acted in between 100 and 200 films (no one really knows the exact number), that’s a lot of work to write off. And while there’s a lot of trash among his filmography, if you look closely (and I do) there are quite a few gems there too. Here’s ten lesser known Klaus Kinski films I’d recommend:

1. Kinski Paganini (1989)
Klaus directed himself in this film, which was his final film before he died in 1991. Klaus had an affinity with the virtuoso ‘devil violinist’ Niccol&#242 Paganini and was driven to create this movie, which he wrote, directed and starred in. There’s genius, there’s sex, there’s hero-worship, there’s craziness. Klaus proved Werner Herzog wrong by filming a script that Herzog had deemed to be ‘unfilmable’ and making it into a stylish and very personal work of art.

2. The Great Silence (1968)
This is a fabulous Italian Western, which I can’t recommend enough. Klaus plays Loco, a bounty killer looking for outlaws in the Nevada mountains, who finds himself being pursued by a mute gunman (il grande silenzio) looking for revenge. The path is paved with corpses. See this film now!

3. Footprints on the Moon (1975)
Florinda Bolkan’s character Alice suffers from memory loss, nightmares about a film called Footprints on the Moon and feelings of paranoia and persecution. Klaus plays the bad Professor Blackmann, who, while although little seen, has a lot to do with Alice’s state of mind. There’s beautiful cinematography, a great soundtrack and the perfect cast in this incredibly stylish thriller.

4. Lifespan (1975)
Klaus, the mysterious ‘Swiss Man’, wants to live forever so he engages a young scientist to find a ‘cure for ageing’ – along the way there are a few dead OAPs left behind. Even though Tina Aumont’s clothes fall off at the drop of a hat (she engages in a bit of bondage with Hiram Keller and has a kinky sex scene with Klaus, who is wearing a mask that was used in 1937 when Faust was performed for the Nazis…), this film has substance and a lot of style and gives you plenty to think about.

5. Nosferatu in Venice (1988)
In this kind of unofficial sequel to Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979), Klaus reprises his role as a vampire bringing with him a sadness and world-weariness that makes his character’s wish to end his immortal life utterly believable. Beautiful to look at but heartbreaking to behold, this film is massively underrated. Klaus was so naughty on set that there were several directors involved and he even claimed that he had to direct himself in the end.

6. Crawlspace (1986)
Klaus plays a landlord who traps his young female tenants and slowly tortures them to death. When one of the tenants goes into the crawlspace to escape from him, Klaus follows her, wearing a hideous cardigan, black eyeliner and smeared lipstick, riding down the crawlspace on a trolley. It’s the stuff of nightmares! It’s so bad, it’s good. And Klaus created so much chaos on set that the director David Schmoeller later made a film about his experience called Please Kill Mr Kinski (1999).

7. Fruits of Passion (1989)
This is a sequel to The Story of O (1975). Klaus plays Sir Stephen, who makes his girlfriend O go and work in a bordello to ‘test their insane pact of violent love’, as you do. That’s right, it’s an erotic art-house film. But it’s full of far more visual pleasures than just female nudity; it’s stylish, it’s clever and it’s very theatrical. And there’s something for the girls: you get to see Klaus’s hot old man body in its full glory (it’s worth a good look!).

8. The Pleasure Girls (1965)
Klaus plays a slum landlord who pays for his menacing ways with a beating and a whipping in an underground car park. This film about Swinging London in the 60s takes in beatniks, compulsive gambling, pregnancy outside of wedlock, homosexuality and extramarital affairs. These days it may seem tame but back in the day one viewer complained that The Pleasure Girls would ‘incite juvenile violence at holiday weekends’!

9. Jack the Ripper (1976)
If you’re looking for a good Jess Franco film, here’s one I recommend. There’s great cinematography, and for once the story doesn’t involve women’s clothes falling off every five minutes for no apparent reason. Klaus plays a Jekyll and Hyde version of Jack the Ripper – Dr Dennis Orloff – who kills prostitutes as a way of getting revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child. Klaus plays his character in the only way he can, with ‘a kind of madness that could be transformed into brilliance’ and a sense of pain and torment.

10. That Most Important Thing: Love (1977)
When a photographer borrows money from the mafia to turn a soft-core porn actress (played by Romy Schneider) into a Shakespearean thespian, who does he turn to for help? Yes, Klaus Kinski! So you know it’s going to end in tears for someone (or everyone). Klaus gets dramatic, camps it up as a homosexual, has fist fights, takes his clothes off, sleeps with two women and then cries while looking out of a rain-spattered window. Andrzej Zulawski’s film is incredibly pretentious but also very, very stylish.

Jesus Christ Saviour: Interview with Peter Geyer

Klaus Kinski
Jesus Christ Saviour

Format: Cinema

Seen at Edinburgh Film Festival 2008

Director: Peter Geyer

Cast: Klaus Kinski

Original title: Jesus Christus Erlöser

Germany 2008

84 mins

At the height of his career, Klaus Kinski was Germany’s favourite fiend. On November 20, 1971, the iconic actor took to the stage of Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle to perform a very personal reinterpretation of the New Testament, a theatrical monologue about ‘a man who would rather be massacred than continue to live and fester’. Only moments after Kinski entered the spotlight to begin his recitation hecklers in the sold-out auditorium started hurling insults, deliberately provoking Kinski into a rage until he stormed off. However, he returned to the stage time and again and eventually what was meant as the prelude to a planned world tour turned into spectacular tumult and chaos.

Scenes from this evening were very briefly featured in Werner Herzog’s Kinski film My Best Fiend. But now his biographer and estate administrator Peter Geyer has made a full-length documentary out of the previously unseen 16mm footage. Jesus Christ Saviour offers a scrupulously precise reconstruction of Kinski’s legendary defiant stage performance, and the hostile audience’s reaction.

Pamela Jahn talked to director Peter Geyer at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival where the film had its UK premiere.

Pamela Jahn: Your film documents Kinski’s attempt to engage an audience of thousands with a recitation of over 30 typewritten pages reclaiming the story of Jesus. What made Kinski do that?

Peter Geyer: Back in 1961, Kinski announced in an interview in Der Spiegel (the largest German weekly magazine at that time), that he would put the New Testament on stage. Most people probably don’t know that Kinski started as an actor by doing recitations on stage in the late 1950s with verses and ballads by Villon, Rimbaud etc – So, basically, Kinski spoke himself to fame. During 1959-62 he performed and released 32 audio-books. The event was long planned, but soon after he had achieved the cover story in Der Spiegel he moved on to film where financial prospects were better.

But he obviously cherished the idea. Was he to a certain degree obsessed with Jesus?

I am not sure if the obsession increased with the years, but whatever he did, he was always totally passionate and fanatical about it. For example, if you watch Aguirre you get the feeling that he was exceptionally obsessed with that role, but the truth is that he actually didn’t want to shoot Aguirre in the first place. Initially, he came back to Germany to go on tour with Jesus Christ. But after what happened in Berlin, the tour got cancelled, and Kinski needed a new job. He was more obsessed with money than with anything else.

So, it was all about money…

Of course. Kinski sold his soul for money, which explains why his film career is so lousy. By the end of the 1960s, the Italian film industry was in deep financial crisis, and Kinski – who starred in a vast number of those low-budget Spaghetti Westerns – got in trouble because of that, too. His very clever strategy to receive incredibly high fees for only very few days of actual shooting wouldn’t work any longer. Plus, the producers had had enough of Kinski’s extravagances. Right then he got this very attractive offer from a famous German concert impresario: For the enormous fee of one million Deutschmarks, Kinski would perform in 100 venues all over the world, reciting his version of the New Testament live on stage. The initial plan was to start the tour in Germany and then take it to Europe and America. So, Berlin was meant to be only the beginning of a word tour that never happened.

Kinski didn’t even get a chance to start his monologue properly, almost immediately people start interrupting him, and it seems that the audience was out for blood from the beginning… Why would they pay for someone they didn’t want to see?

It’s true that the atmosphere was very tense from the beginning. Many people came to provoke Kinski, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that all of them were just thirsting for confrontation. I think it was only a small number of real hecklers, which makes it even worse, because the rest of the audience didn’t manage to kick out the few assholes and get to see the show. None of them dared raise their voice against the few Kinski opponents in the auditorium and after a while the aggressive tone took over the entire hall. Of course, Kinski misbehaved too, and so it all ended in great chaos.

Didn’t he enjoy provoking people?

If you look closely at his performance in the film, you see that Kinski never deliberately provoked an argument. He didn’t seek confrontation, but he also couldn’t take any form of criticism. He was too insecure for that. So in order to be able to cope with it and avoid getting hurt, he trained himself to be quick at repartee. But all the shouting and screaming on top of that just scared people, they didn’t know how to deal with him.

What sort of reputation preceded Kinski in Germany at that time?

It was something of an open secret that Kinski lived in luxury in his villa in Italy. He was a rich international film star. But I don’t think that his flamboyant life style or his eccentric, egomaniac persona was the problem. In many ways, Kinski often was ahead of his time, in his work but also because he was the first person who used tabloids for his own purposes. In 1971, however, he simply looked like a self-proclaimed believer, an epigone.

Your film is simply a raw and meticulous reconstruction of the infamous event. Why did you decide to offer no further comments or explanation?

My intention was to make his work accessible, and to be truthful about Kinski. The most interesting thing is to just see him performing life on stage, there’s no need for further explanation or attempted whitewashing. I am used to facing the aggression of Kinski fans because they hate me for clarifying lies that he made up in his book (All I Need Is Love). But it’s not my intention to turn Kinski into a super-human or create a new legend.

Did you ever search for any of the people who attended that evening?

No, never. Having said that, I actually never had to look for them, they came to me. I’ve met a lot of people who said that they were in the audience that night. But whenever it comes to Kinski, it seems that people’s memories become very vague. I call this the Werner Herzog syndrome, which is that, whenever it is about Kinski, you have to come up with a great story simply to make Kinski larger than life. People who say they encountered Kinksi but who were actually not really close to him, always try to turn his pretty boring private life into something bigger, more exciting. I’ve got the recorded material anyway, material that is not manipulated, so why should I ask someone else?

How do you think people look at the material today?

It depends on the generation. When I took over Kinski’s estate, Kinski was ‘dead’; the time for people like him is over. Today, the younger generation understands that he was actually the last non-conformist figure in the German entertainment industry. Someone who really said, ‘No – I am against your system’, but who didn’t hurt anyone. Which makes him an ideal badge to wear for people trying to be different – it’s the same with Kinski as it is with Che Guevara.

Did Kinski ever think about making a film out of the footage himself?

No. His third wife, Monhoi, told me that she had asked him once about the footage and why he didn’t want to edit it and show it again. Kinski answered, ‘They would only nail me to the cross again. You can do that when I am dead, but as long as I am alive, they would think that I am a bad loser.’

Interview by Pamela Jahn