The 1960s is a time in German film history that is not often given close attention. After World War Two there was an understandable lull in rate of production and quality, seeing as how the country was slowly recovering with the help of allied forces, and for the most part, output from the late 1940s to mid 60s is underwhelming. Sure, there are some exceptions like the 1946 post-nazi drama Murderers are Among Us, shot on location amongst the rubble left over from the war. There are also a few notable East German films such as Frank Beyer’s concentration camp ordeal Naked Among Wolves (1958). By 1962, however, twenty-six German filmmakers–including Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz–signed The Oberhausen Manifesto, criticizing the lackadaisical nature of the country’s industry at the time, stating that “Papas Kino ist tot” (Papa’s cinema is dead). This cinema of the father that these young filmmakers referred to included the wild and wacky krimis of that time.
My Diabolique colleague Samm Deighan recently wrote the first entry in Smooth Kriminals, our column dedicated to the krimi, masterfully explaining the quirks and details of the genre cycle. Feel free to refer back to that writing, and keep in mind the core elements of the krimi–these are almost always stories based on Edgar Wallace mysteries. We usually have a police detective or private investigator on the trail of murders occurring one by one. These films about Scotland Yard were mostly filmed in West Germany, stock footage of London conveniently cut in, inadvertently creating a fantasy nether-space that is neither English or German. Der Frosch mit der Maske (Fellowship of the Frog aka Face of the Frog, 1959) is generally known as the first in the krimi cycle, and was briefly covered in the first Smooth Kriminals entry–that being said, much of the story elements and imagery recur from film to film, so Frog will be referred back to here. Today, let’s take a look at Jurgen (John) Roland’s 1960 film Der Rote Kreis (The Red Circle aka The Crimson Circle).
The Crimson Circle starts off in a time and place not often seen in the krimi, namely France. A sign indicating Toulouse washes across the screen, followed by that most revolutionary of French activities–death by guillotine. As the executioner is about to do his duty, a well placed nail stops the blade and saves the condemned murderers life. While so many krimis begin with the jovial voice over stating ”Hallo, hier spricht Edgar Wallace!” (“Hello, Edgar Wallace speaking”), The Crimson Circle gives us a different kind of framing device, the significance of which will be revealed later in the picture.
Much can be said about the krimi as a precursor to the giallo, and as more titles are surveyed these similarities will come to light. Just within the first fifteen minutes of The Crimson Circle, we see a few vague similarities to one of the first gialli, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964). Lady Doringham (Edith Mill), a classy woman in a cheetah print coat leaves a building on a dark and windy night, only to be accosted by a masked man in her car. Of course in Blood and Black Lace, the beautiful young woman who goes through similar motions is quickly murdered, whereas in The Crimson Circle, she is merely blackmailed–at least, at first. Also, while the aggressor in dark trench coat, stockinged face, fedora, and black gloves looks a lot like the typical giallo killer, he also happens to be far too talkative to make a direct comparison. A few minutes later, our chief inspector Parr (Karl Georg Saebisch), on the case before the first informational phone call is finished, finds himself wandering through a space that is full of antiques, mannequins, etc, until eventually coming upon a body hung by the neck (with accompanying red-circle-signatured note stating “Wer redet–stirbt!” (“Who talks dies!”) This has ties to the scene early in Blood and Black Lace when one of the doomed fashion models creeps around a similar area before the clawed hand from a suit of armor meets her face.
The title of the film refers to the leading villain of the story, as well as his calling card–The Red Circle. He is a master blackmailer who is also responsible for many deaths. He is a cartoonish supervillain, larger than life and fitting with those evil, meddling bad guys so often found in krimis. The titular Frog mastermind in Fellowship of the Frog is highly similar to The Red Circle who inhabits this film. Of course, the former villain is often seen in a borderline-ridiculous frog-like mask–the latter villain, at least for a large part of the film, is mainly recognizable in the circular signature he leaves in his wake. Aside from that, his appearance is only about as notable as the typical giallo assassin.
If the aging inspector Parr isn’t enough for some viewers, The Crimson Circle provides a second one for our entertainment–the younger, dashing inspector Derrick Yale (Klausjürgen Wussow), who adds a bit more sex appeal to the whole operation. That being said, the sexiest and perhaps most important role of the film comes with actress Renate Ewert as nothing less than a femme fatale in the role of Thalia Drummond. Thalia is first seen practicing her archery skills on the grounds of her employer Froyant (played by Fritz Rasp, a regular going back to Fritz Lang’s early silent films), which leads to a brief sub-plot involving archery that is almost ludicrous. After an old man named Mr. Beardmore (Alfred Schlageter) is killed with an arrow, the investigators make sure to note that there couldn’t be fingerprints on the weapon because archers always wear gloves. Their insistence is so thorough as to inspire me to kill someone with a bow and arrow just to show that it can be done without gloves.
Afterwards, we see The Red Circle casually pick up Thalia from the sidewalk, as he cruises in his car, convincing her to gather information for him as a bank cashier. Apparently our woman has no problem associating with menacing villains. Soon enough, however, Inspector Yale hires her for secretarial help as well, although he readily admits it is to keep her under surveillance. In the world of the krimi these reversals can and do happen all the time–a woman can be hired by the villain and the hero, seemingly without the two sides realising it is happening. In addition to the reveal of the villain, The Crimson Circle also reveals some more interesting information about Thalia, and her odd relationship with Inspector Parr. At one point she sees him in a restaurant, stating to the man sitting next to her, “He loves to arrest me from time to time. I always feel as if we’re related.” At the time, I really had no idea what she means by this, but it is all explained in time.
Finding a good copy of many a krimi is a bit of hard work at the moment, at least outside of Germany. Domestically, Tobis Entertainment distributes a number of the Rialto titles such as Fellowship of the Frog and The Hound of Blackwood Castle (1968). However, quite a few of the films are put out in the US in low-to-medium quality dubbed versions via “Sinister Cinema.” The Crimson Circle can be found that way, even through Amazon Prime, for a fee. While some viewers might find the dubbed versions frustrating, if seeking out the most genuine German cinema experience possible, it is apparent that this kind of international distribution was intended from the start. The credits of The Crimson Circle even mention that the “english version” of the film is by Peter Reithof, presumably referring to the language recording. If you can only find this version of the film, it isn’t the end of the world, as theoretically these Scotland Yard-centric Edgar Wallace stories are supposed to be taking place in England, although an exhaustive search may turn up the definitive German version.