Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Der Rächer (1960)

aka The Avenger

Murder-plagued London is disturbed by a killer who prefers to deposit the heads of his victims – most of whom are these proverbial criminals who escaped the law - in nice cardboard boxes for the police to find keeping the bodies all for himself. Publicly, he goes by the name of the Head Hunter, though he himself prefers to see himself as the Benefactor.

The Head Hunter’s latest victim was a traitorous member of the British security service, so this organization’s boss (Siegfried Schürenberg) puts agent Michael Brixan (Heinz Drache) on the case. Some quite vague hints quickly convince Brixan to home in on a film production in which Ruth Sanders (Ina Duscha), the niece of the murdered agent, is playing a bit part as the best place to concentrate his investigation on. Not only does he hit it off with Ruth very nicely, it is also difficult to assume he’d find a better group of potential killers anywhere else.

There are, after all, former explorer, current sleaze-bag and owner of a very large collection of swords Sir Gregory Penn (Benno Sterzenbach), frighteningly intense dramaturge Lorenz Voss (Klaus Kinski), cynical veteran actress Stella Mendozza (Ingrid van Bergen) and oh so nice and friendly director and producer Jack Jackson (Friedrich Schoenfelder) all there for the suspecting. And that’s before we come to Penn’s servant Bhag (Al Hoosman), a gentleman of colour who, in alas typical German post war manner, embodies the Big Black Man As An Animal trope with all the racial sensitivity you’d suspect; which is to say, none whatsoever.

I foresee shots in the darks, secret doors and punching in Brixan’s future.

Der Rächer is one of only two German post-war Edgar Wallace adaptations not made by Rialto Films. It was made by an outfit called Kurt-Ulrich-Film instead. After the success of the first two Wallace movies, Rialto bought up the rights to all Wallace novels, except for the two that were already sold, this one, and “The Yellow Snake” which was owned by the inevitable Artur “Atze” Brauner (who was also involved in the distribution of the Rialto films, because the German movie industry was small).

Tonally, Der Rächer is made pretty much from the same mould as Harald Reinl’s Frosch mit der Maske, which is to say, as close to classic pulp-style filmmaking as German post-war cinema got, and pretty darn entertaining with it, even though it keeps away from Rialto’s insertion of humour. The production design and the music aren’t quite as fine as that of the Rialto films, I think, but the film still doesn’t look at all like the quickly shot affair meant to cash-in on the Wallace boom nobody involved can have expected to last as long as it did that it was. There’s real style and real commitment on display, both things that make or break the sort of melodramatic pulp mystery the German krimi was at its heart.

Director Karl Anton had been active since 1921, so you can see more than just an echo of German expressionism in his efforts, if you want to. Particularly some of the later scenes with their mild chiaroscuro effects, their clever use of shadows, and their melodramatic mugging are remarkable in this regard, and give the film an intensity that – again – isn’t exactly typical of German filmmaking of the era, particularly outside the krimi world. Even though he isn’t quite on the level of Harald Reinl, Anton also has a nice sense of keeping things dynamic: events zip along, camera and actors move so as to keep everything else moving, and action scenes are actually staged with a degree of care and enthusiasm. It’s all pulp cinema 101, of course, and the film’s as old-fashioned as all get out (though not as old-fashioned as Wallace’s books) but then knowing this doesn’t make the film any less entertaining to me.

Der Rächer is also quite remarkable for introducing three future mainstays of Rialto’s Wallace movies to the Wallace style krimi, with the as always cool (and how often can I use that word when describing a German actor?) and intense Heinz Drache, eternal Sir John Siegfried Schürenberg (surprisingly enough not in a comical, or “comical”, role), and not in need of a description Klaus Kinski. It’s as influential a bit of casting as you can imagine, and even if you’re one of those people who dislike Der Rächer because it doesn’t offer itself for ironic appreciation (the coward’s way of appreciation, as I see it) too well, you’ll have to respect at least that aspect of the film.

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