Der Schwarze Abt

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Producer Preben Philipsen wasn’t the first filmmaker to realize the big screen potential of Edgar Wallace’s mystery novels but he was the only one to make that enterprise an industry unto itself. In Germany, Wallace’s novels proved as popular as those of Karl May and both genre authors had their works adapted extensively during West Germany’s economic miracle of the post-war period. Beginning in the late fifties Rialto Films began producing adaptations of Wallace’s books and would continue to do so until the early seventies. The Joachim Fuchsberger vehicle Der Schwarze Abt (1963), written and directed by Philipsen’s close collaborator Franz Josef Gottlieb, was one of those films.

Der Schwarze Abt, like many Wallace adaptations made in Germany, follows the classic Kriminalfilm (abbreviated by fans as “Krimis”) formula which is the equivalent to the British and American “whodunnit”. The labyrinthian plot of Der Schwarze Abt centers around a buried treasure, the aristocracy, and an age old legend of ghosts and Abbeys. Set in Britain, Der Schwarze Abt utilizes a plethora of Gothic tropes in its production design though primarily in those scenes set at the abandoned Abbey during the night.

The film opens with a murder and proceeds through a series of rapid plot twists and double crosses until only the most virtuous and diabolical characters remain for the final subterranean showdown. Der Schwarze Abt is written with its B-movie resources in mind and is quite economically paced for a large ensemble picture. Gottlieb’s script sketches characters with bold, archetypal flourishes that broadcast suspicions and innocence quite early on. As a mystery, the greatest strength of the screenplay is that it features so many plot twists that one can’t help but to be engaged.

While the production design and cinematography may be the most artful feature of Der Schwarze Abt, there are at least two excellent performances in the film. The highlight of Der Schwarze Abt in terms of the acting comes in the form of the sinister duo of Werner Peters (as the extortionist Mr. Gilder) and Klaus Kinski (as Gilder’s plant in the Lord’s manor). These two men play their maniacs with a campy relish that, when called upon, dovetails into legitimately threatening performances. It’s Peters and Kinski who give Der Schwarze Abt its energy and verve, adding to the mix a sense of the macabre that is only otherwise alluded to by Gottlieb.

But like so many B-movies that come off a de facto assembly line Der Schwarze Abt feels hastily put together. Der Schwarze Abt may boast some striking visuals and a pair of good performances but these elements aren’t enough to elevate a production that is, on the whole, mediocre. A film is often only as good as its comic relief which, in the form of Eddi Arent, leaves much to be desired. Der Schwarze Abt may make a decent double feature with Das Gesicht im Dunkeln (1968) but as a solo watch I wouldn’t recommend it to any but the most die hard fans of Edgar Wallace.