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Alfred Vohrer - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2006

Films directed by Alfred Vohrer on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Alfred Vohrer might not rank among Germany's most important directors, he was certainly not an auteur like Fritz Lang or Robert Siodmak, nor a mad (if sometimes overrated) genius like Werner Herzog or internationally acknowledged artfilm maker like Wim Wenders, and even in his best times, during the 1960's, he never proved to be as inventive a craftsman as fellow director Harald Reinl [Harald Reinl bio - click here], plus he more or less lacked any kind of personal style ... but that said, Vohrer's influence on the German Krimi-genre (= the specific German version of the murder mystery that had its heyday in the 1960's) cannot be overrated thanks to his long-lasting association with the Edgar Wallace series. Plus, within all the genres he worked in Vohrer proved to be a competent (if not always inventive) director, and fact is that he worked on some of the most successful films/filmseries of the 1960's. And thanks to his competence he could later effortlessly make the transition to television where he worked on some of the biggest German hitseries - and almost literally to his death, too ... he died in his bed only hours before he was supposeed to direct yet another TV-show ...

 

Initially, Alfred Vohrer, who was born in 1914 in Stuttgart, Germany, did not want to become a director though but tried to establish himself as an actor, and to this end, he took acting and singing lessons. In the 1930's, he managed to get an acting assignment at the Württembergisches Staatstheater in Stuttgart ... but then he got drafted into the army and was sent to Russia to go through with one of Hitler's many madcap plans of conquest - which cost Alfred Vohrer his right arm in 1941.

All aspirations to one day become a successful actor died with the loss of Vohrer's arm, so after he had returned to Germany and was nursed back to health, he entered the film industry and became assistant director to Harald Braun and Alfred Braun at the UFA.

With the end of the war, the German film industry as such temporarily came to a standstill, so Vohrer moved to the radio - Radio Stuttgart - just to keep working ...

 

It wasn't until 1949 that Vohrer returned to the film industry, but in rather an unexpected job: as dubbing director, first for MPEA, later for the Ultra-Film GmbH. During his time as dubbing director he would eventually be responsible for dubbing almost 1,000 films into German language.

 

In 1956, Ultra-Film wanted to produce their first film, Zum Leben Verdammt, for which Alfred Vohrer had written a script, but unfortunately the movie eventually did not get made. But Ultra-Film did not bive up on film producing altogether, and only two years later, they produced their first picture for real, Schmutziger Engel/Dirty Angel/Imperfect Agel (1958), which would also be the debut of Alfred Vohrer as a director. The film itself was a teenager/juvenile delinquency movie modelled closely after similar American films like Blackboard Jungle (1955, Richard Brooks) as well as their German counterparts like Die Halbstarken/Teenage Wolfpack (1956, Georg Tessler) and wasn't essentially a work of art or an extraordinary fillm ... but it was successful enough for Ultra-Film to let Vohrer direct 2 more films of the same ilk, Verbrechen nach Schulschluss/The Young Go Wild (1959) and Mit 17 weint man nicht/17 Year Olds don't Cry (1960), plus another teenflick, Meine 99 Bräute (1958) for Inter West Film, ironically the production house of Ultra-Film's rival dubbing entrepreneur Wenzel Lüdecke.

 

1960 marked the first collaboration between Alfred Vohrer and prolific German producer (and notorious bandwagon-jumper) Artur Brauner, for the Film Bis dass das Geld Euch scheidet .../Until Money Departs You (1960), a mediocre relationship drama that stars Gert Fröbe, one of the heavies of German cinema, as a cheating husband.

 

Vohrer's ultimate breakthrough though came a year later, when he was hired by Rialto Film to take over their series of Krimis based on the books of Edgar Wallace as director ...

The Edgar Wallace series was established in 1959 with the film Der Frosch mit der Maske/Frøen/Fellowship of the Frog (directed by Harald Reinl), which despite its many incongruencies - it's supposed to be set in England but was (obviously) filmed in Germany, German actors desperately try to appear British, the weird assumption that all Englishmen are eccentrics, ... - the film became a tremendous success and was the starting point for a series that lasted into the 1970's (and was revived in the 1990's) and consisted of 32 entries (only counting the films produced until 1972) ... plus a few Edgar Wallace adaptations done by other production houses. Furthermore it is often quoted as one of the main influences of the Italian giallo (and as a matter of fact, the last few films of the series were German-Italian co-productions). To this day, the series is considered one of the most successful German movie-series.

 


By 1961, the series was well-established on one hand, but the market wasn't yet oversaturated on the other, so if one kept all the ingredients that were established with Harald Reinl's Fellowship of the Frog right - (over-)convoluted whodunnit plots, eccentric Englishmen, foggy landscapes, outrageous caper-plots, secret passageways, sliding panels, masked murderers, and the occasional horror element -, there was little that could go wrong. And Vohrer was perfect in emulating this style - or in fact any given style.

 

Alfred Vohrer's first Edgar Wallace adaptation was Die Toten Augen von London/The Dead Eyes of London (1961), an adaptation of the novel The Dark Eyes of London (which, incidently, Vohrer made into another film in 1968, Der Gorilla von Soho/Ape Creature), starring series regulars Joachim Fuchsberger, Klaus Kinski and Eddi Arent. The film is a typically convoluted story about a gang of blind criminals and a home of the blind where the police believe the head of the gang to hide out. It might be silly as hell, but Vohrer manages to give the film an eerie atmosphere that makes up for its far-fetched plotline. Nowadays the film is considered by many as one of the best of the series, and since it was quite successful back in the days - actually it was the most successsful of the series so far -, Rialto Film made the wise decision to keep Alfred Vohrer on the series ... and before the decade was over, he made another 13 (!) Edgar Wallace-films, which made him the most proficient director of the series by a long shot.

 









 


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Vohrer's further films for the series were Die Tür mit sieben Schlössern/The Door with Seven Locks and Das Gasthaus an der Themse/The Inn on the River (both 1962), Der Zinker/The Squeaker and Das Indische Tuch/The Indian Scarf (both 1963), Der Hexer/The Ringer/The Mysterious Magician/The Wizard (1964), Neues vom Hexer (1965), Der Bucklige von Soho/The Hunchback of Soho (1966), Die Blaue Hand/Creature with the Blue Hand/The Bloody Death and Der Mönch mit der Peitsche/The Monk with the Whip/The College Girl Murders (both 1967), Der Hund von Blackwood Castle/The Horror of Blackwood Castle, Im Banne des Unheimlichen/Hand of Power/The Zombie Walks and aforementioned Der Gorilla von Soho/Ape Creature (all 1968), and Der Mann mit dem Glasauge/The Man with the Glass Eye/Terror on Half Moon Street (1969).

 


While the first films of the series that Vohrer directed had this wonderfully old-fashioned, almost Gothic look and were shot in glorious black and white, later films were done in colour and featured a more contemporary, down-to-earth look. But despite all these changes, by 1969 when Vohrer left the series, the market was oversaturated, and it hardly came as a surprise when the series was finally abandoned 3 years later - even if the collaborations with Italian talent infused new blood into the series.

 


But even during the 1960's, Alfred Vohrer's career wasn't limited to Edgar Wallace - though one wonders where he got the time to do anything else -, after the success of The Dead Eyes of London, Rialto Film, entrusted their new golden boy with directing their first ever feature in colour, Unser Haus in Kamerun (1961), a romance/drama partially set in Cameroon. 

In 1964, Vohrer made the crime drama Wartezimmer zum Jenseits/Waiting Room to the Beyond/Mark of the Tortoise (1964), a crime drama starring Hildegard Knef and Götz George that's based on the novel Pay Or Die by James Hadley Chase.

 

And also in 1964, Alfred Vohrer was slated to take over yet another successful Rialto-series, Winnetou.

The Winnetou-series was a series of Westerns centered around the Apache chieftain Winnetou (played by Pierre Brice throughout the series [Pierre Brice bio - click here]) adapted (more or less faithfully) from the novels of popular German writer Karl May. The Winnetou-series first hit cinemas in 1962 with Der Schatz im Silbersee/Treasure of Silver Lake, directed by Harald Reinl (who incidently also directed Fellowship of the Frog, the first of the Edgar Wallace series), who re-created the Old West as a romantic adventureland in Yugoslavia - and was enormously successful in doing so, both at the box office and concerning quality. Reinl's subsequent films of the series, Winnetou I/Apache Gold (1963), Winnetou II/Last of the Renegades (1964) and Winnetou III/Desperado Trail (1965) were almost equally successful and of equal high quality.

 

Unfortunately, unlike with the Edgar Wallace films, Vohrer missed to grasp the essence of the series this time around, which in part can be attributed to the lower budgets Vohrer was given compared to Reinl's extravaganzas, in part to the fact that he couldn't work with Lex Barker [Lex Barker bio - click here], who was perfect as the series' dead serious second lead Old Shatterhand, in part to the fact that the market once again has become oversaturated way too quickly, in part because contrary to Reinl's fairy tale approach to the genre Vohrer' directing style more closely resembled the traditional American B-Westerns, and in part to the fact that in the mere two years since Der Schatz im Silbersee was made, the genre had changed with the advent of the Spaghetti Western (remember, Per un Pugno di Dollari/A Fistful of Dollars [Sergio Leone], the archetypical Spaghetti Western was also made in 1964).

 

So even upon their initial release, Alfred Vohrer's Winnetou-films looked like desperate rehashs of a bygone era - despite the fact that when he released his first Winnetou-film in 1964, Winnetou III, the last great/classic film of the series, wasn't even made yet. And then there was of course the second lead: as mentioned above, Vohrer did not get the chance to work with Lex Barker, who played his role straight and dead serious and has thus become an icon of the series. Instead, Vohrer got Stewart Granger for his first two Winnetous, Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (1964) and Old Surehand/Flaming Frontier (1965). Now Granger was without a doubt a better, more versatile actor than Lex Barker, but his (self-)ironic approach to his role and the series as such sat ill at ease with the films' overall atmosphere.

For his last Winnetou-film, Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand/Thunder at the Border (1966) it got even worse when Vohrer got Rod Cameron as the second lead, a wooden American B-actor who proved way too old for his role of a tough Westerner. Plus Martin Böttcher's usually romantic score - one of the trademarks of the series as a whole - was susbstituted by a more hard-hitting Peter Thomas-score. True, Peter Thomas was the better composer than Böttcher, but his music sat ill at ease with the Winnetou-series. Furthermore, an unspectacular script did not help the film one bit either.

It should come as little surprise that Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand failed to succeed at the box office, and after it, Rialto Film gave up the Winnetou-series for good ...

 

Despite his schedule being incredibly full doing work for Rialto Film (series films mostly) during most of the 1960's, Alfred Vohrer still found time to work for other producers on two occasions: 

Ein Alibi zerbricht/An Alibi for Death (1963) is a murder mystery starring Peter Van Eyck produced by Austrian Sascha-Film, and  Artur Brauner's CCC-Filmkunst produced Lange Beine - Lange Finger/Long Legs, Long Fingers (1966), a crime comedy starring Joachim Fuchsberger and Senta Berger.

 

When Alfred Vohrer's long run on the Edgar Wallace series ended with Der Mann mit dem Glasauge in 1969, so did his association with Rialto Film ... which didn't mean he stayed out of work for too long, because he soon hooked up with Roxy-Film to continue to make film upon film well into the 1970's, again mostly series films, even if they were not as memorable as his Edgar Wallace films from the 1960's by far.

 

Sieben Tage Frist/School of Fear/Seven Days Grace (1969) was Alfred Vohrer's first film for Roxy-Film, a whodunnit starring Joachim Fuchsberger as investigator - a role that he also played in many of Vohrer's Edgar Wallace films - and Horst Tappert, who was also in some of Vohrer's Edgar Wallace films (Der gorilla von Soho and Der Hund von Blackwood Castle) but would grow much more important later in his career ...

His second film for Roxy-Film though was a complete change of pace: Herzblatt oder Wie sag ich's meiner Tochter/Heart Break (1969) was not a Krimi at all but an erotic comedy (a genre that was back then booming in Germany) about a father (popular German comedian Georg Thomalla) who desperately tries to get his daughter (Mascha Gonska) interested in the opposite sex.

Vohrer stayed true to erotic comedy with his next film, Das Gelbe Haus am Pinnasberg/The Sex Nest (1970), a film about a brothel for women that once again starred Mascha Gonska, along with Siegfried Schürenberg and Eddi Arent, two mainstays of - you guessed it - the Edgar Wallace series.

Inpsektor Perrak greift ein/Perrak (1970) is a trashy sex-and-crime film starring Horst Tappert as an investigator of the Hamburg vice squad. The film is significant not for its own sake but because the character of Perrak (and Tappert playing him) is seen by many as a blueprint for Tappert's later title role in incredibly successful crime TV-series Derrick which ran from 1974 to 1998 (!) and for which Alfred Vohrer would come to direct quite a number of episodes.

 





 

After Perrak, Vohrer turned his back on erotica and instead embarked on a series of adaptations of the successful German light fiction author Johannes Mario Simmel, and within the next few years Vohrer had directed 6 films based on books of the author: Und Jimmy ging zum Regenbogen/And Jimmy went to the Rainbow's Foot and Liebe ist nur ein Wort/Love is only a Word (both 1971), Der Stoff aus dem die Träume sind/The Stuff that Dreams are Made of (1972), Alle Menschen werden Brüder/All Men Will be Brothers and Gott schützt die Liebenden (both 1973) and Die Antwort kennt nur der Wind/Only the Wind Knows the Answer (1974). In all these films were mediocre thrillers that were selling more on the popularity of the author of the source novels than their inherent quality, but they were successes nevertheless.

 

Besides his Simmel-films, Alfred Vohrer also adapted one of Alexander Pushkin's novels, Snow Storm, and made it into Und der Regen verwischt jede Spur/Tears of Blood (1972), and he turned a novel of popular German author of the interwar years, Erich Kästner, into a film, Drei Männer im Schnee/Three Men in the Snow (1974).

 

In 1974, Alfred Vohrer's association with Roxy-Film came to an end, but that didn't slow down Vohrer one bit: The same year, he took a novel by another popular German light fiction author, H.G.Konsalik - who is actually very much comparable to Johannes Mario Simmel concerning his output -, and turned it into the movie Wer stirbt schon gerne unter Palmen (1974). The film, produced by TV 13, bears more than a few similarities to Vohrer's Simmel adaptations.

 

From 1975 onwards, Vohrer starts to work for television, first for the above-mentioned series Derrick - a series for which he would direct episodes every now and again until his death in 1986 - starring Horst Tappert as a seemingly omniscient police investigator, and from 1977 onwards, he would also direct episodes of the (somewhat similarly themed) crime series Der Alte/The Old Fox, though Vohrer would not explode onto the TV screen until the 1980's but more of that later ...

 

Despite his involvement with TV, Alfred Vohrer did not give up on feature film just yet, he tried himself on a few more films and even a new genre - the Heimatfilm. Heimatfilms are essentially melodramas, dramas or sometimes even comedies set in pittoresque rural regions, often the Alps, which work as reminders of a time when everything was pure and simple - though the films most often block out the hardships that these simpler times and rural life as such brought with them.

Vohrer's two Heimatfilms were Der Edelweisskönig (1975) and Das Schweigen im Walde (1976), both based on novels by Ludwig Ganghofer (one of the most popular Heimat-novelists) and both produced by CTV 72.

Besides these Heimatfilms, Vohrer also directed another handful of crime dramas, Verbrechen nach Schulschluss (1975), and Jeder stirbt für sich Allein/Everyone Dies in his own Company and Anita Drogemöller und die Ruhe an der Ruhr (both 1976) - the last one starring former Paul Verhoeven-regular Monique Van De Ven in the title role -, but eventually, Vohrer had to realize that the time for Krimis and for Heimatfilms was over ... at least on the big screen.

 


In the 1980's, Alfred Vohrer moved from cinema to TV for good, where he started out with Krimi series like Derrick and Der Alte (see above), but soon enough he became involved with almost every popular series of the early to mid-1980's, regardless of genre thanks to his incredible versatility:

Weissblaue Geschichten and Hessische Geschichten were comedic anthology series most closely related to the Heimatfim.

Traumschiff was an incredibly successful romance series set on a cruiseship that is most closely related to the American series Love Boat. Traumschiff specials are actually filmed to this day (2006).


Alfred Vohrer's most successful series of the 1980's though was probably Die Schwarzwaldklinik/The Black Forest Clinic, a series that ran on German television from 1985 to 1989 and that was basically a cheesy blend of hospital series, Heimatfilm and soap opera - and thanks to his versatility as a director, Vohrer was a perfect choice for directing the series (or at least several episodes). Critics ridiculed the series as kitsch from the very start, but nevertheless it received top ratings in all German speaking countries ...

 

During his whole career as a director, Alfred Vohrer was nothing short of a powerhouse, usually turning out two to three films a year, and he didn't cut down on productivity when he switched to television - so it should come as no big surprise that the very day he died from heart-failure in 1986, he was set to direct another TV-show.

 

Of course, life went on without Vohrer, and no TV-series was cancelled because of his death. And in retrospect, one can hardly call Alfred Vohrer an innovative filmmaker, actually most of his films and especially his TV-shows can nowadays be considered as either kitsch or trash - and many were even in their time.

On the other hand though, Vohrer was the man who carried the German Krimi genre on his own back during the 1960's when he was doing the Edgar Wallace films, and even if none of his films is a masterpiece, he gave hour upon hour of enjoyment to lovers of unintentionally weird movies the world over and continues to do so ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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