In advance of our double feature of The Mad Executioners & The Monster of London on June 14 – 16, Chris D. discusses the history & legacy of the German krimi.
1960s GERMAN KRIMI GENRE BLENDED NOIR, SUSPENSE AND HORROR
The crime film genre known as krimi originated in late 1950s Germany, then continued throughout the 1960s (its box office growth period in Europe) and into the next decade before finally, gradually evaporating in the early-1970s. The borrowing of various elements from other genres, particularly film noir imagery, conventional mystery whodunits, police procedurals and even horror was initially inspired by the works of two British writers, Edgar Wallace (1875 – 1932, and very popular in the 1920s) and his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace (1904 – 1971). For the most part, both Wallaces (especially the elder) specialized in conventional, often creepy whodunits, locked room mysteries, sometimes utilizing the soon-to-be-popular Agatha Christie gimmick of a number of people with questionable identities gathering at a mansion or castle and being picked off one-by-one as revenge for some real or imagined transgression against the killer. Many Edgar Wallace tales (and krimis) also featured secretive, flamboyant, super villains (sometimes masked), an archetype which would later become a staple of the explosion of spy movies in the mid-to-late 1960s.
Edgar Wallace-penned works made inroads into German movie houses in the early 1930s and achieved modest success. A number of Edgar Wallace stories found their way to American screens in the 1920s-1930s, produced by American or British companies (before the later German boom of the sixties). Surely Wallace’s most well-known credit is being the originator and co-screenwriter (under producer-director, Merian C. Cooper’s supervision) of King Kong. Tragically, Wallace was diagnosed with diabetes, experienced a swift deterioration and died at the relatively young age of 56 in February of 1932, before the last draft of the script could be completed.
Most memorable of the original Wallace crime pictures are the pre-code, The Menace (1932), adapted from Edgar Wallace’s novel, The Feathered Serpent, directed by Roy William Neill and co-starring Bette Davis, and the 1939 British production, The Dark Eyes of London (from Wallace’s crime novel of the same name), starring Bela Lugosi. Director Walter Summers emphasized the macabre elements and added material to make the picture more of a horror vehicle. It was reportedly the first film rated by the British Censors as “H” for Horrific. Here in America it was released by poverty row company Monogram Pictures in 1940, under the title The Human Monster, and it proved a late night staple on American television all through the 1960s. Rialto Films (who we’ll get to shortly) remade it in Germany in 1961 as The Dead Eyes of London, directed by the burgeoning, prolific krimi practioner, Alfred Vohrer, and it remains a gruesomely atmospheric mystery/horror saga, co-starring Joachim Fuchsberger as the intrepid Scotland Yard inspector (a role he was soon to play repeatedly in the krimi genre), Klaus Kinski and the hulking Ady Berber as scary brute killer, Blind Jack.
A Danish-based company, Rialto Films, decided to adapt an Edgar Wallace novel in 1959, co-producing with Germany’s Constantin Films, aimed at the German market. Harald Reinl directed the title, Face of the Frog (aka Fellowship of the Frog) – the Frog in question being the titular villain – which was a smash at the box office, and this spurred Rialto to buy up the rights to most of Edgar Wallace’s vast catalogue of novels and short stories. Krimi titles were cranked out by Rialto all during the sixties, with Alfred Vohrer (14 titles) and Harald Reinl (5 titles, though it may be many more) being the most prolific filmmakers. Actress Karin Dor, Reinl’s then spouse, co-starred in many krimis and achieved some wider international exposure in Alfred Hitchcok’s Topaz and Lewis Gilbert’s James Bond epic, You Only Live Twice. Reinl was also known for directing a number of German westerns from very popular German adventure author, Karl May. Perhaps Reinl’s most well-remembered film is not a krimi, but an atmospheric Gothic horror/fantasy known as The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, which borrowed heavily from a number of genres including witch-hunting films, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Pit and the Pendulum and Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Christopher Lee is Count Regula, a devil-worshipping nobleman drawn-and-quartered for practicing alchemy and black magic, then revived decades later by his undead servant when the descendants (played by Lex Barker and Karin Dor) of his persecutors are lured to his castle. Sadly, director Reinl’s life ended in rather macabre fashion in 1986 when he was stabbed to death by his third wife, Czech actress Daniella Delis.
Often accused of jumping on the krimi bandwagon after Railto’s success with Face of the Frog (1959), Rialto’s rivals, producer Artur Brauner’s CCC Films, had already done several pictures with what would become known as krimi genre elements (though not as formulaic) a bit earlier in the decade. Confess, Dr. Corda (1958), directed by Josef von Baky, with Hardy Kruger, It Happened in Broad Daylight (1958), directed by Ladislao Vajda, about a police detective on the trail of a serial child killer, and The Black Chapel (1959), directed by Ralph Habib, with Peter van Eyck, Dawn Addams and Werner Peters, either preceded or were concurrent with Face of the Frog’s release.
Brauner, who had already produced director Fritz Lang’s comparatively lavish adventure pictures, The Tiger of Eschnapur and its sequel, The Indian Tomb, in 1959, persuaded maestro Lang to revive his creation, the super villain Dr. Mabuse (who originated in Lang’s films, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922) and Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), helmed by Lang and starring Peter van Eyck, Dawn Addams, Gert Frobe and Wolfgang Preiss (as Mabuse), fit right into the mushrooming krimi craze and remains one of the genre’s most transcendental achievements. The Lang revival of Mabuse was popular enough to spawn five sequels in the early 1960s, though Harald Reinl, Paul May, Werner Klingler and Hugo Fregonese directed these others. All fit squarely into the krimi genre, albeit the initial entries, particularly Return of Dr. Mabuse and The Invisible Dr. Mabuse, both directed by Reinl, were a bit superior in writing and execution than the subsequent Mabuse efforts and many of the more generic krimi movies then in circulation. (see below filmographies for all the 1960s Mabuse titles).
The years,1963 and 1964, saw Brauner and his CCC Films branching out into more traditional krimi territory. Slightly hamstrung by Rialto Films owning the copyright to the majority of Edgar Wallace’s works, they hit upon the logical solution, tapping into the writing done by his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, hoping for the potential audience to be lured by the familial connection. This resulted in a few of the more outrageous krimis of the time, including The Mad Executioners (1963), The Monster of London City (1964) and The Phantom of Soho (1964), all produced by CCC Films, receiving theatrical releases in the United States (while most of Rialto and CCC’s krimi pictures went straight-to-syndicated-American-TV). Although not quite as prolific as his wunderkind father, Bryan Edgar Wallace continued to write and be associated with the genre, and reportedly worked (uncredited) with Dario Argento in developing the scenario of Argento’s second film, the giallo, Cat O’Nine Tails (1971).
Although krimis had initially been lensed in noirish black-and-white, after 1966 the majority of krimis were filmed in color. Krimis started to fall by the wayside as a viable movie genre in the early 1970s, but they were enormously influential on another type of Euro crime thriller, the Italian giallo, starting from as early as 1963. The Italian giallo incorporated more sex, violence, bizarre fashions, delirious murder setpieces and surreal color compositions as the genre progressed from the late 1960s through the end of the 1970s, and Italy co-produced a great number of them with Spanish, German and French movie companies (see below for a very short filmography of some of the Italian/West German co-productions).
It should be noted that Fred Olen Ray’s DVD label, Retromedia, released a number of dubbed-in-English krimis (including several of the 1960s Dr. Mabuse series) here in America.
Selected Filmography of Notable Krimis
Face of the Frog (aka Fellowship of the Frog) (1959)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Joachim Fuchsberger, Carl Lange
The Terrible People (1960)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Karin Dor, Fritz Rasp
The Avenger (1960)
Dir. Karl Anton, w/ Klaus Kinski, Heinz Drache, Ingrid van Bergen
Dead Eyes of London (1961)
Dir. Alfred Vohrer, w/ Karin Baal, Klaus Kinski
The Devil’s Daffodil (1961)
Dir. Akos Rathony, w/ Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski
The Carpet of Horror (1962)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, Werner Peters
The Inn on the River (1962)
Dir. Alfred Vohrer, w/ Joachim Fuchsberger, Klaus Kinski
The Squeaker (1963)
Dir. Alfred Vohrer, w/ Heinz Drache, Klaus Kinski, Barbara Rutling
The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (1963)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Hans Reiser, Karin Dor
The Mad Executioners (1963)
Dir. Edward Zbonek, w/ Wolfgang Preiss, Maria Perschy
The Curse of the Yellow Snake (1963)
Dir. Franz Josef Gottlieb, w/ Pinkas Braun, Joachim Fuchsberger, Werner Peters
The Indian Scarf (1963)
Dir. Alfred Vohrer, w/ Heinz Drache, Klaus Kinski
The Black Abbott (1963)
Dir. Franz Josef Gottlieb, w/ Joachim Fuchsberger, Klaus Kinski
The White Spider (1963)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, Horst Frank
The Monster of London City (1964)
Dir. Edward Zbonek, w/ Marianne Koch
The Phantom of Soho (1964)
Dir. Franz Josef Gottlieb, w/ Peter Vogel, Werner Peters
The Sinister Monk (1965)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Karin Dor
The Hunchback of Soho (1966)
Dir. Alfred Vohrer, w/ Pinkas Braun
Strangler of the Tower (1966)
Dir. Hans Mehringer, w/ Ady Berber
Creature with the Blue Hand (1967)
Dir. Alfred Vohrer, w/ Klaus Kinski, Carl Lange
The College Girl Murders (1967)
Dir. Alfred Vohrer, w/ Uschi Glas, Joachim Fuchsberger
The Dr. Mabuse Film Series (the 1960s krimi movie series only)
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)
Dir. Fritz Lang, w/ Peter van Eyck, Gert Frobe, Dawn Addams, Wolfgang Preiss (West German/Italian/French co-production)
The Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Gert Frobe, Lex Barker, Daliah Lavi, Wolfgang Preiss (West German/Italian/French co-production)
The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962)
Dir. Harald Reinl, w/ Lex Barker, Wolfgang Preiss, Karin Dor
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (aka The Terror of Dr. Mabuse) (1962)
Dir. Werner Klingler, w/ Gert Frobe, Senta Berger, Wolfgang Preiss (a remake of Fritz Lang’s 1933 film)
Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse (1963)
Dir. Paul May, w/ Peter van Eyck, Werner Peters, Klaus Kinski, Wolfgang Preiss, Walter Rilla
The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse (aka The Secret of Dr. Mabuse) (1964)
Dir. Hugo Fregonese, w/ Peter van Eyck, Yvonne Furneaux, Claudio Gora, Wolfgang Preiss (West German/Italian/French co-production)
Italian/West German Co-Productions (Giallo + Krimi = Hybrids)
Screams in the Night (aka The Unnaturals) (1969)
Dir. Antonio Margheriti, w/ Joachim Fuchsberger, Marianne Koch
Double Face (aka Liz and Helen) (1969)
Dir. Riccardo Freda, w/ Klaus Kinski, Christiane Kruger, Margaret Lee
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Dir. Dario Argento, w/ Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi
The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)
Dir. Dario Argento, w/ James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak
What Have You Done to Solange? (1971)
Dir. Massimo Dallamano, w/ Fabio Testi, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger, Cristina Galbo
The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971)
Dir. Duccio Tessari, w/ Helmut Berger, Evelyn Stewart
Seven Bloodstained Orchids (1971)
Dir. Umberto Lenzi, w/ Rossella Falk, Antonio Sabato, Uschi Glas, Marisa Mell
The Dead Are Alive (aka The Etruscan Kills Again) (1972)
Dir. Armando Crispino, w/ Alex Cord, Samantha Eggar, Nadja Tiller, John Marley
Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973)
Dir. Antonio Margheriti, w/ Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Anton Diffring
Chris D. is a former programmer (1999 – 2009) for the American Cinematheque in Hollywood and is the author of two non-fiction film books Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film (2005) and Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955 – 1980 (2013). He wrote chapters on filmmakers Joseph Losey and Otto Preminger for Alain Silver and James Ursini’s book, Film Noir – The Directors. He has also written 5 novels, a short story collection and a chapter for the just-released Under the Big Black Sun by John Doe & Tom DeSavia. In addition, Chris D. is singer/songwriter for the bands, The Flesh Eaters and Divine Horsemen.