Thursday, 6 March 2008

Das Ungeheuer von London City / The Monster of London City

Life imitates art imitates life in this 1964 krimi from Artur Brauner’s CCC.

A Jack the Ripper figure is stalking the streets of London, murdering prostitutes like his model. Meanwhile a Grand Guignol / Tod Slaughter style production based on the exploits of the original ripper is drawing sell-out crowds, prompting concerned politician Sir George (Fritz Tillmann) to raise the spectre of theatrical censorship.

All of this puts ripper actor Richard Sand (Hansjörg Felmy) under unwanted pressure. Already struggling to put his drug addicted past and period in a sanatorium behind him, being flagged as suspect and public enemy number one are the last things he needs.

Then again, it’s possible that his method like approach to the role may have led to madness...

As ever, however, he’s hardly the only suspect: Sir George himself has a strange habit of sneaking out at night attired similar to the ripper’s trademark get-up, while the play’s impresario and unacknowledged, pseudonymous author can hardly contain his glee as bloodthirsty punters turn each performance into a sell-out and would quite possibly do anything to keep this situation going...

Though Das Ungeheur von London City / The Monster of London City is purportedly based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace story, one strongly suspects he was credited by CCC for a combination of marketing and legal reasons. Despite this dubious provenance and the relative paucity of familiar names amongst the cast and crew – only female lead Marianne Koch, playing the obligatory ingénue / innocent in peril, and composer Martin Bottcher, whose crime-jazz scoring contributes nicely to the film’s downbeat mood – the results are surprisingly good.

Putting their money on the screen rather than in the pockets of a Fuchsberger or Kinski, the filmmakers, led by director Edwin Zbonek, manage to evoke both a more convincing London than many of their competitors and a more expressionistic one. The apparent paradox in this contradictory blend of styles is resolved insofar as, through such models as Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Lang’s M, the reality of the modern urban experience was defined as something approaching expressionistic nightmare.

The self-reflexive admixture of appeal to prurient interest, coupled with the evident caution about going too far, especially in the occupation of the ripper’s victims and the hereditary / syphilitic insanity that motivates him, works in similar terms. It is, that is, all about Victorian hypocrisy and its enduring legacy, that combination of private vice and public virtue which fostered the conditions for exploitative entertainments for a sensation-hungry audience and the exploitation of this selfsame audience by the entrepreneur and / or the concerned moralist or politician.

Neither of these are things one really gets from the traditional Wallace krimi, where the air of artifice is always that bit more pronounced and the world evoked that bit more distanced, for better or worse.

Indeed, it’s when the filmmakers take their lead from the more typical krimi that The Monster of London works less well. The narrative is too conventional, with that over-familiar combination of obvious red herrings and a killer who no-one – except the krimi viewer, that is – will suspect.

The inclusion of a hapless husband-and-wife team of would-be detectives who take it upon themselves to solve the case also results in some some awkward shifts in tone even as it introduces a touch of comic relief.

Still, a pleasant surprise overall.

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