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Karin Dor, Female Face of German Crime Cinema - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2006

Films directed by Karin Dor on (re)Search my Trash

 

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If the German krimi genre (krimi = a German variation on the murder mystery) ever had a female face, it must have been Karin Dor's. Her naive, innocent looks, her subdued eroticism and her ability to deliver a trademark wide-eyed deer-in-the-headlight facial expression at the drop of a hat were all perfect for the somewhat weird, somewhat trashy but immensely successful and often very funny German krimis of the 1960's and brought her success throughout Europe and quite a few engagements in international productions ... 

 

But Karin Dor's career didn't start in krimis at all, it started in Heimatfilms, then the main product of the German film industry (Heimatfilm = cheesy rural dramas and/or comedies often set in pittoresque mountainous settings, which usually give an idealized version of the simple life they propagate).

Born Kätherose Derr 1938 (according to some sources 1936) in Wiesbaden, Germany, Dor's first ventures into the film industry were two films on which she worked as an extra, Der Letzte Walzer/The Last Waltz (1953, directed by Arthur Maria Rabenalt) and Rosen aus dem Süden (1954, Franz Antel) ... and somehow, Arthur Maria Rabenalt was so impressed by the young girl that he proposed her for a supporting role to Harald Reinl for his film Rosen Resli/Rose Girl Resli (1954) ... and Harald Reinl should soon become (for a time) the most important man in her private life and in her career [Harald Reinl bio - click here] ...

 

Harald Reinl would not only put her into the films Rosen Resli and Der schweigende Engel (also 1954), both essentially vehicles for child star Christine Kaufmann in which Dor would appear in small roles under the name Rose Dor, but also in 1954, Reinl, 30 years her elder, would marry her, a marriage that lasted until 1968 and saw the two collaborating on many occasions.

 

It was not long before Karin Dor's roles improved from supporting to lead or at least second lead status with films like the school comedy Ihre grosse Prüfung/The Big Test (1954, Rudolf Jugert), the drama Solange Du lebst/As Long as You Live (1955, Harald Reinl) or the musical comedy Santa Lucia (1956, Werner Jacobs), which was basically a vehicle for popular Schlager star Vico Torriani (Schlager = a specifically German version of pop music invariably sung in German, invariably from the cheesy end of pop and primarily appealing to older audiences).

In Kleiner Mann - ganz gross/Little Man on Top (1957, Hans Grimm), Dor was paired with Joachim Fuchsberger for the first time, her most frequent filmpartner, with whom she would soon become the perfect couple (onscreen that is) as they would co-star in no less than 10 films over the years, most of them krimis, but even in a Western  - but let's not get ahead of ourselves. 

In 1957 already, the two were re-paired in the Heimatfilm Zwillinge vom Zillertal (Harald Reinl).

 

In all, while Karin Dor's career was definitely going up, the Heimatfilms and mindless comedies she was in gave her little variety in roles though, and only films like the (slightly) erotic comedy Mit Eva fing die Sünde an/Sin Began with Eve (1958, Fritz Umgelter) - which was released in the USA as a sexfilm called The Bellboy and the Playgirls in 1962 with additional (sex-)scenes shot by Francis Ford Copolla - and the moral medical drama Worüber man nicht spricht/False Shame (1958, Wolfgang Glück) allowed her to break out of her usual clichéd roles ....

 


All that would change though with the arrival of the 1960's: It was actually back in 1959, when Dor's husband directed Der Frosch mit der Maske/Frøen/Fellowship of the Frog, a crime thriller (or krimi) based on a book by the popular British crime novelist Edgar Wallace filmed in Germany for the Danish production company Rialto - which would soon move to Germany by the way - and against all odds and all predictions, the film became a smashing success and prompted Rialto to start their successful Edgar Wallace series.

 



Karin Dor by the way did not appear in this film mainly because the film's distributor Constantin Film insisted upon Eva Anthes as the female lead (while Reinl no doubt wanted Dor).

However, for the third film in the series (and the second Reinl directed), Die Bande des Schreckens/The Terrible People (1960), Reinl got his will due to the previous movie's success and could cast Karin Dor opposite - guess who - Joachim Fuchsberger (who was also in Fellowship of the Frog). Reinl would also cast her in the three other Edgar Wallace films he made, Der Fälscher von London/The Forger of London (1961), Zimmer 13/Room 13 (1964) and Der Unheimliche Mönch/The Sinister Monk (1965), and his choice of leading lady was obviously appreciated by Rialto because Dor was also cast in Jürgen Roland's Edgar Wallace adaptation Der Grüne Bogenschütze/The Green Archer (1961).

 



Basically, all the films of the series were overconvoluted murder mysteries full of pulp-mainstays like masked killers, secret passageways, secret and evil societies, white slave rings, a fair share of torture and sadism - toned down for mass-appeal -, lots of creepy fog, a few horror/gothic elements and a cast full of eccentric characters. Add to this a bunch of German actors desperately trying to come across like spleeny Englishmen and German landscapes desperately made to look like England and what you get is a distinctively unrealistic version of crime drama that nowadays often looks unintentionally hilarious (in a good way) - but back in the days was immensely successful ...

 

Dor's roles in these films were most often the innocent victims who through no fault of her own gets sucked into the center of the on-screen goings-on and in the end she is saved by the hero - a bit like the fairy tale princess and the knight in shining armor in updated settings ... though today one would probably call Dor a scream queen. Only rarely did she break out of this cliché, a notable exeption is Zimmer 13/Room 13, where she in the end is revealed as a psychotic killer ...

 



Asides from the Edgar Wallace films, Dor still played in a few Heimatfilms/mindless comedies like the operetta Im Weissen Rössl/White Horse Inn (1960, Werner Jacobs) - basically a vehicle for popular Schlager star Peter Alexander - and the musical comedy Im Schwarzen Rössl (1961, Franz Antel) - which had her co-starring with Peter Kraus, a Schlager singer who was once billed the German Elvis.

 

By and large though, the Heimatfilm was in decline, but thanks to the success of the Edgar Wallace series - and her success in the series - Karin Dor was more and more hired to star in krimis and thrillers, to an extent that eventually earned her the nickname Miss Krimi:

  • Die Unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse/The Invisible Dr. Mabuse/The Invisible Claws of Dr. Mabuse (1962, Harald Reinl) was the third in the Dr. Mabuse series produced by Artur Brauner's CCC-Filmkunst to both cash in on the Edgar Wallace series and the popularity of Fritz Lang's character that first appeared in the 1920's and 30's. The film, while well-directed is pretty much on the hokey side storywise since it carelessly mixes common crime-thriller elements with science fiction elements like invisibility to rather hilarious results. But the film was at the same time Dor's first collaboration with American actor Lex Barker [Lex Barker bio - click here], with whom she would over the years co-star in four more movies (plus one in which they appear in different segments though and thus have no scenes together).




  • Both Der Teppich des Grauens/The Carpet of Horror (1962 Harald Reinl) and Die Weisse Spinne/The White Spider (1963, Harald Reinl) were krimis based on books by Louis Weinert-Wilton which stayed very much in tone with the Edgar Wallace series - and in both, Karin Dor's co-star was Joachim Fuchsberger.
  • Ohne Krimi geht die Mimi nie ins Bett (1962, Franz Antel) is a rather silly crime comedy that might try to make fun of Karin Dor's image as Miss Krimi - but doesn't succeed.
  • Der Würger von Schloss Blackmoor/The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (1963, Harald Reinl) was the first in another series that Artur Brauner's CCC-Filmkunst created to compete with Rialto's Edgar Wallace-series, the Bryan Edgar Wallace-series - a series of movies based on the works of Edgar Wallace's son Bryan Edgar Wallace.
  • Das Geheimnis der Schwarzen Witwe/The Secret of the Black Widow (1963, Franz Josef Gottlieb [Franz Josef Gottlieb bio - click here]) is a German-Spanish co-production with O.W.Fischer in the lead, but since Karin Dor is in the supporting cast along with Klaus Kinski and Eddie Arent, both Edgar Wallace regulars, there is no doubt this is another attempt to cash in on the Edgar Wallace series, plus even director Gottlieb did a few Edgar Wallace films in the mid-1960's.
  • The German-French-Spanish co-production Das Hotel der toten Gäste (1963, Eberhard Itzenplitz) is yet another krimi in which Karin Dor is paired with Joachim Fuchsberger. The cast also features Elke Sommer in a small role.
  • Then there was The Face of Fu Manchu (1965, Don Sharp), British producer Harry Alan Towers' first venture into the Fu Manchu series of films and Dor's first international film. Actually the film belonged to Christopher Lee as the oriental villain and Nigel Green as his perpetual nemesis Nayland Smith, but Karin Dor and Joachim Fuchsberger - who else - were there to play the more traditional roles of hero and damsel-in-distress (with Fuchsberger being the hero and Dor being the damsel, naturally). The film might have been nothing great, but it was an ok espionage yarn and probably the best of the series ...
  • And there was Der Mann mit den 1000 Masken/L'Uomo da Uccidere/The Man of a Thousand Masks/The Spy with 10 Faces (1966, Alberto De Martino), an Italian/German espionage flick obviously inspired by the James Bond series of films (even the hero - Paul Hubschmid - is called Upperseven), that like so many Italian/German espionage flicks fails to convince.


By the mid-1960's, the krimi-genre was slowly dieing down, and with it, Karin Dor's popularity as Miss Krimi vaned - but by now she had already found a second career ... of all genres in Westerns.

 

Back in 1962, production company Rialto, fresh from their success with the Edgar Wallace series, decided to once again try something new: Westerns made in Germany, based on the books of popular German writer Karl May (1842 - 1912) revolving around the noble Apache chieftain Winnetou. The concept sounds nothing short of ridiculous I confess, and the fact that the whole thing was filmed in Yugoslavian landscapes that - while being quite impressive - look nothing like the American prairie, and lead Pierre Brice [Pierre Brice bio - click here] - an attractive Frenchman - looks nothing like a Native Americanmake the whole series sound like dead on arrival (and that the only German character in this German film set in the USA was played by the only American actor in the cast, Lex Barker, just seems to be the icing on the cake) ... but Harald Reinl, director of the best films of the series, managed to give the series a fairytale-like tone that sets it apart from e.g. the American B-Westerns that more or less follow the same lines. 

And against all odds, Der Schatz im Silbersee/Treasure of Silver Lake (1962, Harald Reinl) became the most successful German film up until that point and outgrossed even the immensely successful Edgar Wallace films with ease.

 


In Treasure of Silver Lake, Karin Dor's role was comparatively unimportant, she played the romantic interest to secondary hero Götz George, but in her next appearance in the series Winnetou II/Last of the Renegades she had a much bigger role, that of Native American girl Ribanna whom Winnetou madly falls in love with - but ultimately she is given away to white army major Merrill (a pre-stardom Terence Hill appearing under his birth name Mario Girotti) to keep the peace between the white and the red man ... breaking the heart of Ribanna and Winnetou both.

(By the way, that Karin Dor didn't look in the least bit like a Native American does not matter in this film at all, somehow one has come to not expect authenticity from the Winnetou-films. In turn, they were much more sympathetic towards the plight of the Native Americans as a whole than many comparable American films.)

 


In 1968, Dor returned to the series for a film produced not by Rialto - who gave up the series two years earlier - but by Artur Brauner's CCC-Filmkunst - always a company; to jump any bandwagon and milk every cashcow to death.

For the film in question, Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten/In the Valley of the Death (1968, Harald Reinl), CCC-Filmkunst did not only borrow the lead actors Pierre Brice, Lex Barker and Ralf Wolter (whom they previously borrowed for Old Shatterhand [1964, Hugo Fregonese]) but also parts of the crew like director Reinl, cinematographer Ernst W.Kalinke and soundtrack composer Martin Böttcher, who were in large parts responsible for the look, sound and feel of Rialto's series - but both financially and on a quality level, the film failed to live up to the best films of the series ...

 


Besides her appearances in the Winnetou-films, Karin Dor also got a role in an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, a book that was actually one of the main influences for Karl May, and that was made into a movie in 1965 to cash in on the success of the Winnetou-series: Der letzte Mohikaner/Last of the Mohicans (1965, Harald Reinl), starring Anthony Steffen as Hawkeye and Dan Martin as Uncas, with (once more) Joachim Fuchsberger as secondary hero and Karin Dor as his love interest. But unlike the Winnetou-films, Last of the Mohicans was a moderate success at best.

 



In 1966, Karin Dor made two films with Stewart Granger that were very probably made to once more cash in on the Winnetou-series, even if they were modern-day thrillers: Gern hab' ich die Frauen gekillt/Le Carnaval des Barouzes/Killer's Carnival (1966, Sheldon Reynolds, Alberto Cardone, Robert Lynn) and Das Geheimnis der gelben Mönche/Il Segreto dei Frati Gialli/How to Kill a Lady/Wie tötet man eine Dame (1966, Manfred R.Köhler). You see, by 1966, Stewart Granger had just starred in three Winnetou-films replacing Lex Barker as Winnetou's white friend (though playing a different character than Barker) and thus found new success in Europe - so the producers must have thought it a good idea to have him co-star with Karin Dor, another familiar face from the Winnetou-series, to appeal to the fans of the series. Killer's Carnival even had both Pierre Brice and Lex Barker - the protagonists of the series - in the cast as well. For some reason though, they do not only not interact with either Dor and Granger nor with each other, they even play in totally isolated segments of this anthology film. And while How to Kill a Lady is at actually rather entertaining from a nostalgia point of view, Killer's Carnival is pretty bad, as if noone had really cared to make a good movie as long as enough actors from the Winnetou-series are in it.

 


With the krimi more or less a thing of the past in the late 1960's, Dor was allowed to take more interesting roles, like that of the scheming, demonic Brunhild in Harald Reinl's two-parter from 1966/67 Die Nibelungen (Die Nibelungen 1.Teil - Siegfried von Xanten [1966] and Die Nibelungen 2.Teil - Kriemhild's Rache [1967]), based on the famous German legend from the Dark Ages, which was previously (in 1924) filmed by Fritz Lang. Reinl's films are no masterpieces compared to Lang's films, naturally, but somewhat naive but enjoyable romps about the Middle Ages also starring Herbert Lom, Mario Girotti/Terence Hill and sports star Uwe Beyer as Siegfried.

 



Flix.com

In 1967, Dor also starred in one of the few German all-out horror films, the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel/Castle of the Walking Dead, which was probably director Harald Reinl's best, most atmospheric, but also most underappreciated and least successful film. In it, Dor plays the female lead opposite Lex Barker as the hero and Christopher Lee as the supernatural villain who wants to kill them both.

 


1967 also saw Karin Dor in her first truly international film, the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert), that pits her as seductive, double-crossing female spy Miss Brandt against Sean Connery's James Bond, whom she tries to kill - without success, naturally, ultimately she herself gets eaten up by piranhas. Blofeld, the main villain in the movie, is played by Donald Pleasence, by the way [Donald Pleasence bio - click here].

 



Two years after You Only Live Twice, it looked as if Karin Dor managed to top even being a Bond-girl when she landed a role in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Topaz (1969) - even if Hitchcock's espionage films of the late 1960's showed the master definitely past his prime, and his idea to cast Dor as a hot-blooded Cuban revolutionary (going by the name Juanita de Cordoba) seems a bit far-fetched.

 



Still, one would think that an attractive woman in her early thirties with a James Bond- and an Alfred Hitchcock-film under her belt and plenty of experience in film would be bound to have an international career ... but quite the opposite was the case.

In the USA, Dor only got engagements in a few TV-crime series like Ironside and It Takes a Thief, while back in Europe, her last films for a few years would be Los Monstruos del Terror/Dracula jagt Frankenstein/Assignment: Terror/Dracula vs Frankenstein (1970, Tulio Demicheli) - a piece of Euro-horror trash that has her starring opposite Michael Rennie and Paul Naschy [Paul Naschy-bio - click here] and that has Naschy's Hombre Lobo, Frankenstein, Dracula and the mummy all fighting each other - and Haie an Bord (1971, Arthur Maria Rabenalt) - an adventure film that was basically a vehicle for Schlager star Freddy Quinn, who is also allowed to perform a few songs. And while at least Assignment: Terror might nowadays be considered a cult classic by trashfans like myself, for Dor it was definitely a few steps down on the career ladder.

Problem was, the German (and European, and international) film-industry saw some major changes during the first part of the 1970's. Due to relaxation of censorship all across Europe, suddenly the main focus of Euro-cinema was on sex and violence, and many cheaply produced films like the German Schulmädchen Report series suddenly became regular blockbusters, while many of the established actors, directors and production houses suddenly saw themselves unable to keep up with the times. Karin Dor was just one of many examples ...

 


Dor did not return to the big screen until 1974, when she took a role in Die Antwort kennt nur der Wind/Only the Wind Knows the Answer, one of Alfred Vohrer's Johannes Marius Simmel-adaptations [Alfred Vohrer-bio - click here], after that it took 3 more  years until Dor returned to film work for another 3 films, Dark Echo/Dark Echoes (1977) - a forgotten horrorfilm that is interesting only inasmuch as it was the only directorial effort by Dor's future husband George Robotham, otherwise an acknowledged stunt coordinator -, the war film Warhead (1977, John O'Connor) that had her starring opposite David Janssen of The Fugitive-fame, and the hospital drama Frauenstation/Women in Hospital (1977, Rolf Thiele), in which her co-stars included Horst Buchholz and Stephen Boyd.

 


By the late 1970's, Karin Dor by and large turned her back on filmmaking, but not on acting as such, and soon enough she has become a big name in (dinner-)theatre, something she continues to this very day. Occasionally, she has even makes appearances in TV-series and TV-movies, mostly cheesy stuff like a few German adaptations of stories by British kitsch-author Rosamunde Pilcher.

In 2006, Karin Dor even made her big-screen comeback in Ich bin die Andere/I am the Other Woman (Margarethe von Trotta), playing the rather demanding role or the alcoholic mother of leading lady Katja Riemann.

 

If this film will revive Karin Dor's film career - or if she even wants it to - remains to be seen, but in the eyes of fans she will always be Miss Krimi, the female face of the German Edgar Wallace series (even though she did not play in all that many films of the series), the woman with the deer-in-the-headlight face, and one of the most successful and memorable actresses of popular German cinema of the 1960's.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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