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Smooth Kriminal: An Introduction to the German Krimi Film

While there are a few subgenres adjacent to the horror film that have become beloved over the years—such as nunsploitation, poliziotteschi, or women in prison films—one of the few holdouts that still seems strangely neglected is the German krimi. The 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). While it might seem odd that a German film subgenre is based on the work of a British writer, Wallace—who is perhaps best remembered for creating King Kong but was insanely prolific—became popular in Germany between the World Wars. In terms of German cinema, horror specifically but cult film more generally has a complicated history. While German expressionist filmmakers shaped the emerging horror genre in the ‘10s and ‘20s, the rise of Nazism put an abrupt end to genre cinema in the ‘30s (with the exception of some propagandistic fantasy and adventure films). It took the country several decades to recover and they are arguably one of the slowest European countries to break into cult cinema in the post-WWII period.

In the late ‘50s, Danish company Rialto Film adapted a Wallace novel as Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959) aka The Fellowship of the Frog 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 the run in 1972—effectively 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 other Wallace adaptations, as well as the novels of Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, and the production of some non-Wallace krimi films, as well as similar series like Dr. Mabuse and Commissioner X.

I love these films, but admittedly they are not for everyone and can sometimes be a confusing mashup of genre elements: namely horror, crime, mystery, and police procedural, with moments of fantasy, science fiction, or surrealism. To me, if they resemble anything, it’s a live-action Scooby Doo with a harder edge, or like the ‘60s Batman television show but more lurid and violent: the krimi are certainly descendants of the silent crime serial, particularly Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913). Chances are if you love (or hate) one krimi film, this feeling will extend to the genre at large; as with many cult subgenres, these 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 an often masked or costumed criminal genius who commits a series of strange crimes. A policeman or private detective is almost always the protagonist of these films. He often works with or protects a female character, with whom he often falls in love.

Like film noir and police procedurals, and the giallo films to come after, 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 borrow more heavily from 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 by one, according to some fixed pattern, 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 Italian giallo films  of the ‘70s; some of the early giallo films are actually Italian-West German co-productions based on Wallace novels, like What Have You Done to Solange? (1971) or Argento’s Cat O’Nine Tails (1971). Unlike many giallo films, however, 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. Generally the films start with a standard announcement—”Hallo, hier spricht Edgar Wallace!” (“Hello, Edgar Wallace speaking”)—reminiscent of the macabre yet humorous and familiar tone of the introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

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 or 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—which stands out like a sore thumb, but which I think is incredibly charming.

Something else I find particularly endearing is the shared pool of  directors, writers, and actors. The actors 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 actors like Joachim Fuchsberger (The Dead Eyes of London), Heinz Drache (Circus of Fear), or Siegfried Lowitz (Fellowship of the Frog); cast opposite the detective was typically a beautiful (and of course young) female character, often Karin Dor (Bond Girl and then wife of krimi director Harald Reinl) and Karin Baal (Berlin Alexanderplatz), among others, who would double as an accomplice and a love interest.

A handful of actors were cast in comic side roles like the bumbling supervisor, inspector’s assistant, butler, reporter, and so on, such as Eddi Arent (The Dead Eyes of London), who was in more than 20 of the Wallace krimi, or Siegfried Schürenberg (The Sinister Monk). Genre fans should keep an eye out for Klaus Kinski, who effectively got his start in these krimi films as—no surprise here— villains, henchmen, or mentally unstable red-herring characters who wound up as victims. Typically, the villains in these films are the best part—they are generally flamboyantly costumed, larger-than-life arch-criminals (thus my earlier reference to Fantomas or the ‘60s Batman series). 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 (a Fritz Lang regular), Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger), Pinkas Braun (The Hunchback of Soho), and Ady Berber—the latter of whom appeared in a number of Wallace krimis as evil 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. To give you an idea of scale, Vohrer directed almost half the Rialto Studio Edgar Wallace krimi series. He worked closely with producer Horst Wendlandt, essentially head of krimi film production for the German branch of Rialto, who brought Vohrer on for Die Toten Augen von London (1961) aka The Dead Eyes of London. Its success resulted in a long term partnership between Vohrer, Wendlandt as producer, and Karl Löb as cinematographer. Their work together—though still little seen by non-German speaking audiences and sadly underrated—went on to influence European cult cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

While krimi are not strictly horror films, they can be seen as an important stepping stone between German Expressionism, American film 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 movies, and through out the early career of Italian horror directors like Dario Argento. Many of them are finally beginning to see the light of day for English-speaking audiences. UFA has begun releasing many of the films, particularly the Rialto canon, though these generally lack English dubbing tracks or subtitles and are formatted for PAL players. Fortunately in more recent years, British and American distribution companies have slowly begun following suit. Nothing would make me happier than to see some of the more prominent cult distribution companies begin to release these titles as box sets and finally introduce them to a wider audience of cult film fans who would no doubt fall instantly in love. This column will explore the subgenre, so stay tuned on recommendations for where to begin.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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