Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Vier Schlüssel (West Germany, 1965)

Vier Schlüssel opens with a funeral, over which the voice of the dead man cynically intones about how nice the attention is. Then, reminiscent of Sunset Blvd. (1950 / trailer), the story is told in flashback of how he came to die.
The weekend has arrived and the bank director Rose (Walter Rilla) awaits the arrival of his daughter Sylvia (Monika Peitsch, also seen in Der Bücklige von Soho / The Hunchback of Soho [1968 / trailer]). As normal, the four keys needed to open the bank vault are handed out to four different faithful employees for the weekend. In no time flat, Rose is at the mercy of the suave, unscrupulous Alexander Ford (an excellent Günther Ungeheuer) and his henchmen. First recalcitrant about revealing who has the keys, Rose's tone changes once the bad guys get his daughter in their hands. One by one the various keys are procured, though none prove easy to get, with at least two people dying. (Two others are also left unconscious and possibly dead.) Time gets tighter and tighter, but finely the bad guys get to the bank, Rose and Sylvia in tow, and the vault is opened. But if things went bad before, now the shit really hits the fan...
Director Jürgen Roland, along with writer Wolfgang Menge, holds a place of honor in the history of modern German television for creating Germany's first criminal series, Stahlnetz, which ran a good ten years after debuting to great popularity in 1958. Primarily a television man, Roland, who died in 2007, also took on the occasional cinematic assignment, including the Edgar Wallace films Der rote Kreis / The Crimson Circle (1960 / trailer) and Der grüne Bogenschutz / The Green Archer (1961 / trailer) and a few tawdry "Hong Kong" films, Heisser Hafen Hong Kong / Hong Kong Hot Harbor (1962) and Das Mädchen von Hong Kong / From Hong Kong with Love (1967). (The Hong Kong movies, as well as the films of a similar series based in St. Pauli, are among the least-popular of the many forgotten low budget, campy and wonderfully entertaining franchises of the numerous German film series produced in the 1960s. Other franchises of the time also include such favorites as the Jerry Cotton movies, the Fu Manchu movies, the Winnetou movies, the Dr. Mabuse films and, of course, the legendary Edgar Wallace movies.)

In the middle of the busy 1960s, Roland also made this film, a surprisingly effective, serious and relatively well-made thriller narrating a well-planned bank robbery in Hamburg and how it (of course) goes wrong. Based on the novel by Max Pierre Schaeffer, tight and well paced, the film is also very much a product of its time, and time itself has also made the movie an interesting social studies of (West) German society in the mid-sixties. Throughout the movie, Roland interjects in passing the posters, speeches and election songs used by the various political parties actually running for office at the time, their glowing praise for the country's standing an ironic play against the criminal actions taking place. To paraphrase what Alexander Ford—the main bad guy of the movie—says at one point, "The Wirtschaftswunder has passed us by, so we want to take it. (The Wirtschaftswunder, or "economic miracle," is what the German's call the period in the 1950s and 60s when, still recovering from the war but working hard, the German economy took off to new, unheard of heights, helping to make the country the economic power it is today.)
Another aspect of German culture that comes to surface in Vier Schlüssel that probably strikes many people today as odd is how so many people are willing to risk their lives—indeed, a couple actually die doing so—to stop the thieves from stealing money that is not only not theirs but probably insured as well. (Ordnung Muss Sein!) As an added attraction, Roland even filmed the airport arrival of one character at the very moment The Rolling Stones flew into town, complete with a 3 second shot of Brian Jones in the limo—but no Mick Jagger, oddly enough.

For years a mostly forgotten film, seldom if ever seen or even shown on late night television, Vier Schlüssel is now available on DVD.

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