a.k.a. The Black Abbot
directed by Franz Josef Gottlieb
1963 / Rialto Film / 85′
written by Johannes Kai and Franz Josef Gottlieb
cinematography by Richard Angst and Rudolf Sandtner
music by Martin Böttcher
starring Joachim Fuchsberger, Grit Boettcher, Dieter Borsche, Charles Regnier, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Eva Ingeborg Scholz, Werner Peters
The new owner of the hunting cabin (whose inside looks more like that of a bungalow to me, but what do I know about hunting cabins) on the estate of Lord Chelford (Dieter Borsche) is knifed in the back by a man dressed up as the legendary Black Abbot. Said Abbot is supposed to protect a mythical gold treasure hidden in the ruins of an abbey on Chelford’s estate.
Scotland Yard sends Detective Puddler (Charles Regnier) and his comic relief assistant Horatio (Eddi Arent, of course) to deal with the problem by living in Chelford’s estate for a time, which seems eminently reasonable once you’ve gotten to know Chelford’s surroundings.
The Lord himself is clearly on the verge of some sort of breakdown, obsessing over finding the legendary treasure and charming his fiancée Leslie Gine (Grit Boettcher) with talk about “owning her”. Leslie, you see, is the sister of Chelford’s lawyer Arthur (Harry Wüstenhagen), who – as we will learn – is in the habit of selling his sister, a woman so pliable it’s difficult to imagine a better argument for feminism, off to the highest bidder to help with his betting debts. Early in the movie, the bookmakers Arthur is indebted to will all turn out to be one single person, Arthur’s office manager Fabian Gilder (Werner Peters). That villain will then proceed to blackmail the lawyer into selling his precious sister to him instead of Chelford. Gilder also would very much like to get his hands on the gold treasure and has planted a crook going under the delightful and totally believable nom de plum of Thomas Fortuna (Klaus “KINSKI!” Kinski) as a Butler with Chelford. Gilder also cooperates with Chelford’s former secretary Mary Wenner (Eva Ingeborg Schulz). Wenner promises to lead Gilder to the treasure if he only somehow manages to stop the engagement between Chelford and Leslie so that she can have the Lord – and especially his title – for herself.
Having a headache already? Then you won’t be pleased to hear of the existence of Dick Alford (Joachim Fuchsberger), Chelford’s cousin and financial administrator. Dick is doing his best to protect Chelford from any suspicion the police may have against him, but his loyalties are torn between Chelford and the fact that he is also romantically interested in Leslie – and his interest, Leslie actually reciprocates. But Dick has other secrets too, secrets that may not be quite as innocent; or are they?
Clearly, this volatile mix of interests and shady people can only lead to violence, madness, and KINSKI! skulking through abbey ruins.
Der Schwarze Abt is another one of the half dozen krimis (all adaptations of either Edgar – like this one – or Bryan Edgar Wallace) director Franz Josef Gottlieb made in 1963 and 1964 which suggest a talent that doesn’t show in anything the man directed before or after. If you told me these six films were made by Gottlieb’s secret twin, or a mysterious masked director using his name for equally mysterious reasons, I’d believe you at once. It’s a more satisfying, and obviously less boring, explanation than “he had a talent for this sort of film he never used before or after”.
In the film at hand, Gottlieb’s visual imagination doesn’t get quite as bizarre as in the later Das Phantom von Soho, but that’s mostly because he seems to have made the surprising choice of mirroring the slow increase of the plot’s derangement and complexity (or is it mere complicatedness?) in his visuals. So the film starts off slowly, with a lot of scenes of nasty people being nasty to each other that are shot flatly, staged simply, and are lit too brightly for my tastes in black and white films. But the more the plot increases in bizarrery and density, the stranger Gottlieb’s approach to the framing and staging of scenes becomes; the brightness is becoming less and less bright, the fog more artificial and the ruins ever more gothic and picturesque. Dialogue scenes that would have been filmed in a very standard manner in the film’s early parts are now filmed from behind the swinging pendulum of a clock, and Richard Angst’s camera becomes increasingly mobile. Despite their general visual superiority over other German post-war films (seeing as most German post-war films were absolutely allergic to anything that smelled of visual interest or elegance), this sort of ambitious set-up is uncommon even for the Wallace films, rather pointing towards the giallo, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear it were explicitly Gottlieb’s films rather than those of Reinl or Vohrer that influenced that genre visually.
Der Schwarze Abt is very proto-gialloesque in other aspects too, with its concentration on nasty people being nasty to each other, a plot that’s even more complicated than usual for the krimi, and its relegating of the titular masked evil-doer to more of a normal murderer than the masked pulp super-villain of many of the other Wallace krimis. Often, the less pulpy Wallace adaptations are the less interesting to me too, but that’s only because many of the lesser films of the cycle seem to relegate the villains to the side lines only because they seem ashamed of those villains’ lurid pulpiness, exactly the part I find most enjoyable about them. Der Schwarze Abt just knows other places where it can also find that pulp feeling, namely in headache-inducing plot convolutions and some very well done melodramatics, and so decides to provide all the luridness and excitement its audience could ever wish for through them.