A Genre Between Genres: The Shadow World Of German Krimi Films

Explore a bizarre era of moviemaking that sat between crime, horror and mystery.

We're incredibly excited to partner with Fandor, a streaming service with the biggest handpicked collection of the most-talked-about indie films from around the world. With a catalogue this diverse and provocative, it was both easy and very, very hard to choose a handful of titles to discuss here on BMD.

While preparing for this sponsored content project last month, I was excited to see Fandor had its own section for Poliziotteschi, a very particular brand of Italian crime thrillers from the 70s. Seriously, how cool is that: while other streaming sites display frequently confounding categories like “Heartfelt Movies”, “Exciting Crime Movies”, and “Because You Watched Love Actually”, Fandor is catering to the hardcore film nerds and giving something as niche as Poliziotteschi its own category. You have to love that.

But, just under the Poliziotteschi category, this extra mile by Fandor goes beyond “secret handshake” territory and turned into, for me, straight-up film school, as I found a category - with only one film under it - called “krimi.” What the hell is “krimi”? A jaunt around the internet brought me up to speed: krimi is a particular style of crime thriller from Germany, frequently based on, or riffing on, or ripping off, the novels of Edgar Wallace. (The prolific genre also adapted many of the crime novels of Wallace’s son Bryan.) The films began around 1959, with The Fellowship Of The Frog (not on Fandor - yet):

Combining the hoary old mystery plots of Wallace’s 1920s novels with surprising flashes of sexuality and violence, the 32 primary krimi films sit in a kind of purgatory between hardboiled detective story and Saturday morning serial, between chaste Agatha Christie-type murder mystery and sexy giallo.The common elements running through many, if not all, krimi:

  • A plot involving a group of individuals harboring a secret, being targeted one-by-one for blackmail and/or murder;
  • A masked killer whose identity will be revealed by the end of the film;
  • A devil-may-care protagonist investigating the killer and its victims;
  • A plot that takes us from London to some type of manor or castle in the English countryside;
  • A protagonist’s sidekick who exists only for broad comic relief;
  • Klaus Kinski.

Over and over these elements were remixed and recycled into new stories, first as moody black-and-white pieces like Nylon Noose and The Dead Eyes Of London, and after a 1966 shift to color, more lurid and graphic affairs like The Monk With The Whip, before sort of melding with/giving way to the Italian giallo. (What Have You Done To Solange? and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids are commonly accepted as giallo, but are in fact German co-productions based on Edgar Wallace stories.)

For such a specific cinematic moment in time, what fascinates about krimi is all the ways they defy categorization. Krimi aren’t horror movies, though many were retitled and marketed as such in the U.S., as American distributors struggled with how to sell their unique brand of masked menace in the States. They aren’t old fashioned murder mysteries, injected as they are with burlesque-style skin, ugly violence, and then-modern, jazzy scores. And though they are exclusively German, they are equally - and curiously - Anglophilic. The producers’ refusal to transplant Wallace’s action results in the films taking great pains to remind viewers over and over that we're in London: stock establishing shots are trotted out, Big Ben chimes significantly, Scotland Yard is inevitably name-dropped as often as possible. But then the plot will occasionally stop in its tracks as cast members explain why they just listened to a sultry German torch singer belt out a number. In German.

In The Secret Of The Black Widow, a group of businessmen are being killed one by one by a mysterious assassin who shoots victims with rubber spiders dipped in poison. (You heard me.) A snarky reporter (O.W. Fischer), aided by a cowardly assistant (Eddi Arent), tries to uncover the connection between the killings while a mysterious figure (Klaus Kinski) trails his every move. The English dubbing leans into the inherent silly side of the film; all krimi seem to have large swaths of comic relief, and it often feels as if the American distributors who dubbed the films couldn’t or didn’t care to reconcile the tonal shifts. I'd be curious to watch the German language cut, as it probably better balances the laughs with the mysterioso goings-on. Alas, unless you speak German, Fandor’s cut is the only one you’re likely to understand.

The only color krimi I found on Fandor so far is The Creature With The Blue Hand. (Its original title is Die Blaue Hand; the factually inaccurate “creature” comes from Sam Sherman, the film’s American distributor.) We’re back in a castle, with another masked murderer. But Kinski’s got a lot more to do here - he’s playing twin brothers, one of whom has just escaped an insane asylum. Insisting on his innocence, he’s nonetheless got a lot of explaining to do when his escape precedes a series of brutal murders. Based on a 1925 Edgar Wallace novel (with a plot predating/predicting the bonkers '80s slasher Blood Rage), this one goes full spookhouse, with the inclusion of an insane asylum,  a skeleton-filled dungeon, and a torture chamber full of rats and snakes. It’s also worth checking out for the amazing climactic drawing room whodunit reveal, in which just about every main character has a spotlight moment to appear guilty. Again, an English dub, but the German cut (glimpsed below) is not available with subtitles.

Though Fandor only lists one film under its krimi section, I found a few elsewhere on the channel, and there’s a good chance there are some more in there. (As mentioned, krimi films were often mismarketed, and therefore might be sitting under mystery or horror.) These are not lost masterpieces, but fans of exploitation films (and film history in general) should be rightly excited to explore this world. It sits at a very particular cinematic intersection, connecting one era with another, and discovering the krimi film is like finding a missing puzzle piece under the table, with all the satisfaction that comes from finally clicking that piece into place.

Fandor makes it easy for you to find the right film to watch. With the biggest handpicked collection of the most-talked-about indie films from around the world, there’s always something great to watch, whatever your mood, on almost any device.