By Annika Breinig
“Hallo, hier spricht Edgar Wallace,” are probably the first words that come to German minds, when they hear the name of the British author. Those lines introduce each film in a series based on Wallace’s books that was produced from the 1950s until the 1970s and televised throughout Germany. Thanks to the enduring popularity of these films among German audiences, the author enjoys a more prominent place in the cultural memory of Germany than in that of his home country. Unfortunately, Edgar Wallace himself never experienced the huge impact and success the movie adaptations achieved, since he died in 1932.
The first movies based on his books were produced in the 1920s in Germany, before the circumstances of the Nazi era made further production impossible. Film adaptation of Wallace’s works resumed in 1959, when the Danish production company Rialto created a movie called Der Frosch mit der Maske (The frog with the mask). Surprisingly, even for the producers, the movie proved to be a success, and Rialto did not hesitate to buy almost all of the rights for Wallace’s novels. Over the next two decades they produced thirty-two movies more or less based on those books. This series became known as “The Edgar Wallace Krimis”. First made in black and white, from 1966 the movies were produced in colour.
Der Frosch mit der Maske (The Frog with the Mask), 1959
Set in greater London area the movies show investigators of Scotland Yard solving the most unusual crimes. The Wallace film series epitomizes many aspects of the mystery genre. Foggy landscapes and dark corners abound. The crimes are acts of ingenuity performed by virtuosic, masked villains. And each story features a multitude of plausible suspects. Thus, the films can easily be classified as typical Whodunits. Rife with clues and plot twists, they let the audience indulge in the speculative hermeneutics of detective work.
The characters displayed in the Wallace-inspired films are often based on stereotypes. The detectives are knights in shining armour. The women are young and beautiful ladies who need to be protected. The villains reflect the cliché of the ugly monster hidden behind an elegant mask. It may not be a coincidence, that some of the actors of the series went on to play parts in the James Bond movies afterwards. Though it recycles actors, the series does not follow a specific team of investigators. The only recurring character in the series is Sir John, the head of police, played by Siegfried Schuerenberg. This role was later undertaken by Hubert von Meyenrinck, because Schuerenberg died after his fourteenth movie.
Joachim Fuchsberger and Klaus Kinski in Die toten Augen von London (The dead eyed of London), 1961
The other returning actors impersonated characters who were similar but never identical. For example Eddi Arent, added a funny component to twenty-three movies by playing scatter-brained butlers, Joachim Fuchsberger acted as a heroic and clever detective in thirteen movies and, last but not least, Klaus Kinski impersonated dubious villains in sixteen movies. Like the pool of actors, the directing and producing teams were often the same from one film to the next. Alfred Vohrer was the director of fourteen Edgar Wallace movies, and Peter Thomas created the soundtracks for eighteen of the films. However, the recycled cast members were sometimes used to manipulate audience expectations in surprising ways. Klaus Kinski would play a policeman or Eddi Arent would turn out to be the villain in the end. Significantly, this element of surprise appears in the most famous movie of the series Der Hexer (The Ringer), in which the killer is only revealed during the film’s last minutes. Here, the surprise ending was considered so crucial to the film that the last pages of the script were locked in a safe to prevent their premature leaking.
Der Hexer (The Ringer), 1964
In addition to repeating actors, the other golden thread in the series is the setting. Old castles and mansions belonging to English families of impressive pedigree are a recurring backdrop for the series, as are sanatoriums, dark basements and late-night-pubs. And yet, despite this iconic British setting, little of the series was actually filmed in England. The streets of London, displayed in the movies are actually streets of Berlin or Hamburg. The only scenes really shot in Britain are extracted from archive material. To reduce the production costs most of the sets were located in Germany. For example, scenes were recorded in the Zitadelle Spandau or the “Pfaueninsel” close to Berlin. This low budget production had other impacts, including the fact that locations and requisites were used several times for different movies.
The impact of the films inspired by Wallace’s novels on crime fiction television in Germany has been enormous. Following the model of the Rialto productions other crime series were adapted for the big screen. For example, the Pater Brown series by Gilbert Keith Chesterton featuring Heinz Rühmann was so popular that it was remade in the 2000s. The Dr. Mabuse movies from the 1960s based on characters of the novels by Norbert Jacques, provide another example. After the success of the Edgar Wallace Krimis, the Berlin based CCC-Films produced six of them. However, since only the first one was directed by renowned Fritz Lang, who already made two Mabuse Films in the 1920s, they were not as well-respected.
Further, in the 2000s a group of German comedians produced a parody of the Wallace movies, called Der Wixxer, which was a huge commercial success. The film’s subtitle read, “Not based on a book by Edgar Wallace”. Interestingly, the Edgar Wallace Krimis did not enjoy a positive critical response. Reviews tend to be depreciating, claiming the movies are neither aesthetically nor otherwise appealing.
Scene from Edgar Wallace parody Der Wixxer: “Blackwhite Castle. Not in London – but in England”
This critical rejection comes not without good reason. Frankly speaking, the stories are pulp fiction, illogical, filled with clichés and cheaply produced. In a sense, what makes these movies interesting is the fact that they never were meant to be more than entertainment. While creating an atmosphere of mystery and excitement, they feature humorous elements to keep the spectator amused. The pleasure of puzzling over a mystery, asking how, why, where, when, and most of all by whom a crime was committed had and still has an irresistible appeal to many audiences. The spectators do not worry over the cheap production or the crude mise-en-scene of these movies. Onto the contrary, they enjoy the simple narrative structures and the moody atmosphere, both of which entice the viewer to lean back and enjoy the unfolding of a mystery.