A criminal gang has set up shop in the picturesque city of Cologne and it’s up to a knockoff Interpol to unmask the ring and bring them to justice. Murders, disguises, a fake bomb and a henchman who quite literally chews the scenery are some of the highlights.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The sights! The festivals! The violent international crime rings!
It’s pretty safe to say that if you have seen a few Weimar era German silents, they were probably of a more artistic persuasion. Now, I am very much in favor of enjoying the highbrow material but I also like to know how the other half watched. In other words, I really had a craving for some trash.
Titles like The Indian Tomb and Fritz Lang’s The Spiders have been available for years, of course, but the selection is generally a bit thin on the ground. And so, when I saw that The Beggar of Cologne Cathedral was available, I jumped on it.
Speaking of jumping in, the film jumps right to the point. A criminal gang in Cologne! Interpol agent Tom Wilkens (Henry Stuart of Joyless Street fame) is sent in to investigate and finds his predecessor stabbed on the steps of the cathedral! And now that we have your attention…
The International Criminal Police Commission or what we now call Interpol was just four years old when this film was made but, true to film tradition, its agents are superhuman and its budget infinite. Wilkens checks into a grand hotel overlooking the grand cathedral, which is where the Beggar (Carl de Vogt of The Spiders) stands every day. He is really the mastermind, of course, and acts as a kind of conduit with members of his gang passing messages along under the guise of buying matches and other small items.
The gang’s new mark is Mabel Strong (Elza Temary), the heiress to an American auto fortune who is touring Europe. She checks into the hotel where Wilkens is staying. Wilkens, meanwhile, has disguised himself as an Indian prince complete with a giant chest of priceless jewels. Can he draw out the gang with this tantalizing bait? Of course he can. And in the meantime, he falls for Mabel too.
Will Wilkens solve the case and save Mabel before the gang’s nefarious plan is launched? I think you can probably guess the answer but getting there is all the fun.
The Beggar of Cologne Cathedral is not long on plot, though I should note that any choppiness could possibly be due to the fact that 900 feet of film are missing from the current release. It’s not super noticeable but there are certain sequences that are abrupt and losing almost an entire reel is certainly one way for a film to seem terse.
That being said, the picture does have an unfinished aspect to it unrelated to the missing material. For example, at one point in the story, Wilkens disguises himself as the Beggar successfully and intercepts internal communication between members of the gang. I rather suspected that this intentional confusion would play out in the grand finale but nothing of the kind happened. Everyone had stopped disguising themselves and the final confrontation involves no dramatic wig removals or the flinging off of costumes, more’s the pity.
Another odd aspect of the film is how it will suddenly turn into a Cologne tour brochure. We get loving shots of the cathedral and the city itself, as well as scenes from the local carnival celebration. And we also have cops getting stabbed in the street, so the messages are what I would call mixed. “Come to beautiful Cologne and if someone doesn’t try to steal your identity and either stab or drown you, you’ll have a delightful time!”
However, the picture definitely has its pulpy pleasures. Once the gang makes off with the “prince’s” chest of jewels, they hesitate to open it because it is supposed to be booby trapped. So, they call for Emil (Harry Lamberts-Paulsen), a dipsomaniac with a penchant for tearing off and eating pieces of a wooden table. He screams and yells and smashes the case open but inside there is only a rubber clown with a sign that reads “ohne Fleiß kein Preis” or “no pain, no gain.”
Come on, that’s pretty wonderful, I don’t care who you are. And then there are things like a car with metal arms to hold passengers prisoner, special sleeping gas canisters hidden in the engine and an intense race to the rescue involving a runaway car with would-be saviors in both a motorboat and a motorcycle with sidecar. (Sidecars make everything a lot more fun.)
Carl de Vogt is probably the performer with the most name recognition here and I have to say, he really commits to his part. I spent much of the early part of the picture expecting him to get rid of his Doc Brown wig and reveal his movie star visage but, no, he sticks with the Beggar through thick and thin and you have to give him credit for that. In general, everyone in the cast seems to be fully aware of the type of film they are making and acts accordingly. Not to say this picture is meta or breaks the fourth wall or anything but there is a definite self-awareness.
I should mention, though, that Rolf Randolf’s direction, while it gets the job done, is not particularly distinctive. Cinematographer Willy Hameister, who had previously worked on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Plague of Florence, doesn’t engage in the unchained camera antics of, say, Karl Freund. In other words, the picture looks good but don’t come into it expecting it to be the next big thing in Weimar art. Again, I don’t consider this to be a mark against the picture because it never promised anything of the kind.
In fact, a review published when the film was first released praised its use of “impressive and proven cinematic effects.” Even the film’s unambitious story was remarked upon as it “goes its own way without any ambition to be unusual. But it certainly delivers everything it promises.” And that’s the point, isn’t it? We in the audience were promised pulpy crime thrills and we were delivered attractively packaged pulpy crime thrills. I call that a successful transaction.
Obviously, if you were in the mood for something a little more artistic, there are plenty of Weimar masterpieces to choose from. But if you wanted to see the films that the German public attended for pure fun and entertainment, this is definitely the movie for you and I have to say, the moviegoing public had pretty good taste.
The Beggar of Cologne Cathedral is a prime example of a period crowdpleaser. It’s all about the adventure, excitement and mystery with emphasis on the grotesque and bizarre. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of Weimar film I have been very interested in seeing more often.
Where can I see it?
Released on region 0 PAL DVD by Edition Filmmuseum with original German intertitles and optional English subtitles. This is a fully-loaded release with two excellent scores for the feature, a orchestral one by Pierre Oser and a piano score by Günter Buchwald. We also get an entire second disc of films shot in the Cologne area or showcasing it in some way. These films were released between 1896 and 1929. So, quite a little treasure trove. These shorts are accompanied by Stephen Horne and Joachim Bärenz.
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