Wallace on Screen: The Krimis Films

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Speak to Germans of a certain age and the chances are that they will remember a series of films opening with a voiceover proclaiming ‘hier spricht Edgar Wallace’ (‘this is Edgar Wallace speaking’). A total of 32 films were made as part of a series that has become known as “Krimis” films. Still shown on television and available on DVD and Blu-ray the films have preserved Wallace’s reputation in Germany while he is largely forgotten in his homeland.

Not the first German adaptations of Wallace’s novels. Five German-language adaptations are known to have been produced between 1927 – 34 (there may have been others).  Why did a Danish-German production company decide to embark on a fresh series of screen adaptations? For a country seeking to banish its past and create a new inclusive sense of nationhood what appeal was there in seeing recreations of 1920s England culled from the work of an imperialist?

During his lifetime Germany was a strong market for Wallace.  German publishers were late in discovering Wallace’s commercial potential. The first translated novel was issued in 1925. Discovering the existence of a massive back catalogue of titles publisher Wilhelm Goldmann traveled to London and met with Wallace to secure the rights to issue translated editions of all title that had been published in the UK.

Prior to 1925, Wallace expressed amusement upon receipt of translated editions of his novels. Success in Germany made him more conscious of the dividends earned from overseas sales. For a man whose profligacy had brought him close to ruin the steady injection of revenue from a new market was most welcome.

In common with most authors of his generation, Wallace had written scathing commentary about Germans during World War I. In peacetime he became more amenable and is reported to have had a deep affection for Berlin. In this new market, he was soon to become a major celebrity. Reports of visits to Germany suggest that hundreds of people would turn up to catch a glimpse of him at train stations.

In the post-war era, sales of Wallace’s books in the UK declined while Germany remained a steady market. With sales in freefall, at least in the UK, the estate sold rights to adapt Wallace’s novels for film and the stage to Anglo-Amalgamated for the UK and Commonwealth and Danish film producer Preben Phillipsen for German-speaking territories.

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Wallace’s novels had been a publishing sensation when first published in Germany. Would German audiences who had grown accustomed to American crime thrillers be willing to view domestically filmed adaptations of English thriller novels?

Produced, at least initially, in tandem with the UK’s Anglo-Amalgamated series, the German adaptations retained the novels period settings. Running until 1972, early films in the series were relatively faithful adaptations of the source material. Later films would be more liberal in what elements would be retained and/or discarded.

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Production commenced with the adaptation Der Frosch mit der Maske (The Frog with the Mask). Early entries in the series were filmed in Danish studios. Later films were shot in facilities based in Hamburg and Berlin.

With box office returns healthier than expected it was clear to the producers and distributors that German audiences would be willing to see further installments. Production was ramped up for further entries in a domestically produced franchised that would ultimately comprise of 32 films.

Dismissed by critics, today the films have a cult following. Posts by fans in forums and Facebook groups discuss production details and celebrate deficiencies. In 2004 nearly two million German people saw a parody film, Der WIxxer, during its theatrical run.

For modern viewers, the presence of unconvincing sets and repeated stock footage may enhance the sense of guilty pleasure when watching a ‘Krimi’ film. What appeal did the films have for the first wave of ticket buying cinemagoers? The films blending of genres and increased self-reflexivity in later productions makes it difficult to classify the series. Incorporating themes and elements from film noir, horror, Golden Age detective fiction, comedy, German Expressionism, and the musical the majority of Krimi films forms conform to a narrative template. Critics and academics have noted repeated elements present in most Krimi films; masked killers, an investigator, comic sidekick, castles and/or mansions, and excessive use of fog.

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The imagined version of 1920s England seen throughout the series has puzzled critics attempting to identify why the films were initially popular. Aside from stock footage, location scenes were filmed in redressed German streets. The England represented in the films never existed.

Commentators have suggested various reasons for the films’ appeal including socially conservative ideology, audience enjoying the appeal of identifying the villain before the investigator and seeing foreign generic forms absorbed into a distinctly German cultural product.

 

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DVD Review: Three Wishes for Cinderella

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Enchanting reinvention of a classic fairy tale

A yuletide TV tradition in several European countries, Václav Vorlíček’s adaptation of Božena Němcová’s fairy tale is a radical alternative to the better-known Brothers Grimm and Disney versions.

Aside from a solitary screening on BBC 2 in the 1980s, the film has been unavailable in the UK until now. Relatively unknown outside of mainland Europe, in several countries it is a firm fixture in the festive TV schedules. Since 1975 one million Norwegians gather round their TVs each year on Christmas Eve to watch the film.

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A Czechoslovakian-East German co-production, the film is one of the most significant examples of Czech fairy tale films. Credited with reviving the genre and ensuring its longevity Three Wishes for Cinderella is a classic for all ages.

Variants of the Cinderella fairy-tale have appeared in several countries. Folk historians have traced versions dating back to 7BC. Charles Perrault’s tale is the best-known version in Western Europe. Introducing the magic pumpkin, fairy godmother, and glass slippers, it has inspired countless screen adaptations and stage pantomimes. The Brothers Grimm tale is the most widely-known version in Germanic countries. In this version, instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella is aided by a gift-giving hazel tree. Božena Němcová’s tale is the best-known version in Czechoslovakia. A Czech equivalent of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christan Anderson, Němcová recorded fairy tales for future posterity. Read by Franz Kafka, her image has been used on Czechoslovakian stamps and currency. Němcová’s version of the Cinderella fairy tale also dispenses with the fairy godmother and has the heroine receive a gift from a farmhand of a magical twig with three hazelnuts.

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Made with a budget far exceeding the amount normally allotted to fairy tale films, Three Wishes for Cinderella was produced for two markets. The film features Czech and German actors. During shooting dialogue was recorded in the actors native tongues. The completed film was dubbed into German and Czech before releasing prints to specific territories.

Regarded by critics as a proto-feminist reinterpretation, the film is set in eighteenth-century Czechoslovakia. The realistic setting is a stark contrast to other films based on Cinderella that have accentuated the fairy tale’s magical elements. A last minute decision to shoot the film in winter instead of Spring proved to be a shrewd move, the shots of snow-covered forests adds to the film’s intrinsically captivating qualities.

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Stronger than most other screen Cinderellas, Libuše Šafránková’s title character is a defiant downtrodden stepdaughter who has been defrauded and is forced to endure routine abuse. Adored by the estate workers and her animals she is a sympathetic young adult with a strong appreciation of nature.

When news breaks that the king and his son are to visit the area, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother plots to ensure the bachelor prince picks her daughter as his bride.

Posing as a male hunter Cinderella wins a hunting contest and tames the prince’s horse. The prince and Cinderella are free spirits trapped by circumstance. In Three Wishes for Cinderella the title character does not see the prospect of marriage as an opportunity to escape from a life of humiliation and servitude. Subverting the traditional fairy-tale, it is the prince who must win over Cinderella’s heart and prove he is a worthy suitor.

Charming and delightful, the film has been extensively restored by the Czech National Film Archive in Prague and the National Library of Norway. The definitive Czech Christmas DVD.

Three Wishes For Cinderella is available to order from Amazon.


Blu-ray Review: The Voices

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A purr-fect black comedy

Ryan Reynolds plays a schizophrenic who takes orders from his cat and dog in a dark psychological comedic horror film from director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).

Satrapi’s off-kilter take on the serial killer genre plays against expectations and delivers a uniquely twisted view of midwest America that ventures into the realms of Lynchian weirdness via a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Paying homage to her influences, the director blends Hitchcock motifs with Amelie style visuals alongside nods to Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Soon to be seen playing the lead in Marvel’s X-Men spin-off Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds delivers a career-defining performance as a factory worker who believes his pets are talking to him. A socially inept employee in an industrial town. Too eager to please his colleagues Jerry works on the floor assembling bathroom fixtures and is effusive when offered the opportunity to help organise the company’s annual barbecue.

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An acute schizophrenic Jerry sees a court-appointed psychiatrist on a regular basis and is required to take medication. Living alone he neglects to follow his care plan and has relapsed. At the end of each shift, he returns to a low-rent apartment above a bowling alley and chats about the day’s events with his pets.

Without his daily medication, Jerry starts to hear voices and is convinced that his cat Mr. Whiskers and dog Bosco are talking to him. A morality play occurs each night in the front room as the two animals represent the fractured sides of his conscience. Scottish accented feline and a dim-witted canine appear to be influencing Jerry’s behaviour.

Attending a planning meeting for his workplace’s annual barbecue he meets Fiona (Gemma Arterton – Quantum of Solace) and is instantly smitten. Blissfully unaware that she is not interested Jerry invites her for a meal at his favourite Chinese restaurant.

A carefully planned evening turns sour when Fiona decides to join colleagues from the accounts department at a local karaoke bar. Jerry is left alone staring at congealing Oriental cuisine while Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators perform for disinterested diners.

The night takes a darker turn when Jerry spots a rain-soaked Fiona. Offering her a lift they decide to visit an out of town burger bar. A collision with a wild animal sets in motion a chain of events that tears down Jerry’s tenuous grip on reality.

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Filmed in Berlin, Director Marjane Satrapi’s first English language feature is a genre-defying movie destined for immediate cult status.  Absurd and provocative it delicately balances artifice with flashes of chilling realism. Occasionally taboo-breaking, the film acknowledges preconceptions and then pulls the rug out from beneath the viewer’s feet.

The Voices is an ingenious tragi-comedy. Disturbing and hilarious, it’s uniqueness is rammed home in a musical sequence featuring Jesus driving a fork-lift truck.

An impressive collection of extras has been assembled for this disc including interviews, featurettes, and a prank that has to be seen to be believed.

The Voices is available to order from Amazon.