In 2009, film historian Amanda Field wrote England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes, a book that explores the Sherlock Holmes films in their historical context. From the back cover:
“Though the first two films were set in the detective’s ‘true’ Victorian period, Holmes was then updated and recruited to fight the Nazis. He came to represent the acceptable face of England for the Americans — the one man who could be relied upon to ensure an Allied victory.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes films were not released in German theaters during the war years. Even those films that did not feature Nazis as Sherlock Holmes’s foe would have been deemed unacceptable in Germany because Sherlock Holmes was a British hero, symbolic of England.
By the mid 1950s, however, West Germany had a friendly relationship with Great Britain, and German attitudes towards Sherlock Holmes had changed. But, instead of simply releasing the Sherlock Holmes films, Argus Filmverleih put together four composite movies, each of which is made using footage from two of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films. The four films are:
- Sherlock Holmes sieht dem Tod ins Gesicht
- Sherlock Holmes jagt den Teufel von Soho
- Sherlock Holmes in geheimer Mission
- Sherlock Holmes gefährlichster Auftrag
In each of these films Sherlock Holmes solves two cases. Holmes begins on one case then is “called away” to deal with another. The resulting composite film is longer than either of the originals.
Sherlock Holmes sieht dem Tod ins Gesicht (released 14 February 1958) is a combination of The Scarlet Claw and The Spider Woman, and is 85 minutes long. The title Sherlock Holmes sieht dem Tod ins Gesicht is a bit confusing. It literally translates to “Sherlock Holmes Looks Death in the Face,” which makes one think of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. But the compilation film has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. To add to the confusion, the poster shows Patricia Morison in her fur stole, suggesting the film Dressed to Kill. Compare it to this actual Dressed to Kill poster:
Released 25 February 1958, Sherlock Holmes jagt den Teufel von Soho (“Sherlock Holmes Hunts the Devil of Soho”) is a composite of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and The Pearl of Death. It is 95 minutes long. The “Devil of Soho” undoubtedly refers to The Creeper (Der Kriecher) from The Pearl of Death.
The description in the program reads:
“Even before the murderer is behind bars and the happy marriage can take place, Sherlock Holmes in company with Dr. Watson and the Inspector Lestrade has to bring the famous ‘Pearl of Death’ back to the British Museum.”
Sherlock Holmes in geheimer Mission (“Sherlock Holmes on a Secret Mission”) is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes in Washington. It was released 6 March 1959 and is 98 minutes long.
This is a curious choice of films to use to make a composite film for German audiences. Both “Secret Weapon” and “Washington” addressed wartime issues and served as propaganda vehicles for the Allies. Remember the patriotic speeches Holmes makes at the end?
In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Holmes quotes from Shakespeare: “This fortress built by Nature for herself . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (Richard II, Act II, Scene 1).
In Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Holmes quotes Winston Churchill: “It is not given for us to peer into the mysteries of the future. But in the days to come, the British and American people for their own safety and the good of all will walk together in majesty and justice and in peace.”
Perhaps the films were edited in such a way to focus on something else. Certainly, those final patriotic speeches must have been cut. Still, it seems as though it would have been easier and more appealing to German audiences if Argus Filmverleih had selected a pair of films that had more of a “timeless” theme, such as House of Fear (which dealt with an insurance fraud scheme) and Dressed to Kill (the search for stolen Bank of England plates). These films deal with people who committed crimes out of greed; there is no patriotic appeal.
Sherlock Holmes gefährlichster Auftrag (“Sherlock Holmes’ Most Dangerous Job”) is a combination of The Woman in Green and Terror by Night. Released 20 March 1959, the film was 97 minutes long. The first case is about a series of murders that are obviously related to hypnosis. Then Holmes has to prove his talent for improvisation in a complicated transport of a jewel.
While the Sherlock Holmes films in their original format were never released in German movie theaters, they were broadcast on German television in the 1980s.
Hi, another German Basil Fan here!
Interesting article, I didn’t know there were composite versions of the Sherlock Holmes movies.
The German DVD titles are:
Der Hund von Baskerville (1939)
Die Abenteuer des Sherlock Holmes (1939)
Die Stimme des Terrors (1942)
Die Geheimwaffe (1942)
Verhängnisvolle Reise (1942)
Gespenster im Schloss (1943)
Das Spinnennest (1944)
Die Kralle (1944)
Die Perle der Borgia (1944)
Das Haus des Schreckens (1945)
Die Frau in Grün (1945)
Gefährliche Mission (1945)
Jagd auf Spieldosen (1946)
Personally I prefer the original versions with Basil’s voice and watch the German dub very very seldom. Not to say the German synchro was bad, but for me it’s hard to watch Basil and hear another voice coming out of his mouth. (It’s even worse with Vincent Price – synch is a no-no!) 😀 And Basil’s voice is so distinctive and sexy… One of his best features for sure.
Thank you, Marcia, and greetings to all Basil fans!
Very interesting! Of course Baz and Nigel and the others would have gotten no badly-needed royalties from these strange things, poor them. I was wondering if the movies were dubbed in German or in English; thanks to Sabine for the answer. For the heck of it I googled Abe Books, searched “Basil Rathbone Germany,” and found another 2009 book, BR on cover, “SH on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History,” by Alan Barnes, paperback, $12.50, which covers the release of Holmes films all over Europe including Germany, but its description doesn’t say whether the book includes BR’s German films. Speaking of Abe Books, also unearthed in the search were two early scripts and treatments going for about $2-4K!! This is a great place to browse and see what your own treasures may be worth. It was great to get this latest update and I am looking forward to checking out the above magazine articles.
Actually the name was Walter Niklaus. Sorry for the mistake!
I was very interested reading your article about the release of Basil’s Sherlock Holmes movies in german theatres. You also mentioned their showing on german television in the 1980ies. Interestingly they were dubbed by the television of the German Democratic Republic. Of course all the freedom speeches were omitted. The actor who gave Basil Rathbone his german voice was Walter Niklas. His voice was actually quite close to Basil’s voice.I didn’t realize this until I heard his original voice years later. Imagine the 80ties – no private TV, only 3 channels!, no internet, Videorecorders did cost a fortune…! I was quite happy that “the enemy in the east” gave me the chance to see him as Holmes! Just a few memories which came back while reading your article!
Many greetings from Gladbeck in Germany, Sabine Arbeiter
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