American Film Director Meets German TV. The Result: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street

March 13, 2015

In 1972, Sam Fuller directed an English-language episode of a German TV detective series called Tatort. Forty-three years later, the UCLA Festival of Preservation showed a rarely seen director's cut of the picture, which was released as a feature in the US. The event was historic for a number of reasons: the version played that evening came with an additional 30 minutes not aired on TV, the film's star (and director's wife) Christa Fuller was in attendance for a Q&A, and the screening also marked the Archive's first digital restoration. After the film wrapped, Shannon Kelley, Head of Public Programs at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, welcomed Christa to the stage. As a surprise guest, Christoph Ohrt, a friend of Fuller’s family and a German actor who has appeared in a handful of episodes of Tatort over the years, joined them.

 

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street kicks off in high gear when an American private investigator is gunned down while carrying an incriminating photograph of an American politician and an unknown blonde. His partner, Sandy (Glenn Corbett), arrives in Germany and works tirelessly to find out who was behind the murder, and, more importantly, who holds the negatives to that photo. During his investigation, Sandy runs in to the blonde, Christa (Christa Fuller, credited as Christa Lang), who works for a very large and very powerful extortion ring run by Mensur (Anton Diffring), headquartered in Cologne. By drugging and setting Christa up to recreate the stolen photograph from the beginning, Sandy convinces her to become his partner under the guise that he too is in the extortion business. His hope is that Christa will eventually lead him to her boss, but over the course of conning several political heads from around the world together, Sandy and Christa fall in love. Can they escape the blackmail gang alive? Spoiler alert: only one of them will…

It's not that violent (though the top weapon is definitely used).

From the moment the credits rolled, I could tell we were in for a unique treat - something out of the director's comfort zone and, as we were soon told, well outside of Tatort's established brand too. For starters, the cast and part of the crew are introduced clowning around in festival costumes, a carnival being the location for the opening and closing scenes of the movie. The action begins as the episode's title appears word by word across the screen, each word accompanied with a stop motion shot of a pigeon that's soon shot down, landing conveniently near a dead body on the equally conveniently named Beethoven Street.

 

Though the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film are rather action heavy – the man who stole the photograph from the dead PI in the beginning, Charlie Umlaut (Eric P. Caspar), attacks a hospital guard, breaks free, and almost shoots up a nursery on his way out – the film quickly settles into a routine after Sandy locates Christa and coerces her into helping him. The extra 30 minutes tacked on tipped the film over two hours, which ran a little too long for my taste. After a while, the blackmail scenes with Sandy and Christa felt repetitive; they dupe no fewer than four politicians, and each time, the action essentially remains the same, only the setting changes. I feel like I got the point after two of these set-ups, and the director could have easily deleted at least one of these sequences without losing any of the story. (It would be interesting to find out which scenes were extended by those additional 30 minutes debuted in this director's cut).

Sandy (Glenn Corbett) trying to capture Charlie Umlaut (Eric P. Caspar) after Charlie stole that incriminating photo and shot up that nursery. 

Another early observation of mine had to do with understanding the movie! Since the film was originally meant for German audiences, I figured there would be English subtitles. Well, that wasn't the case; a minute or two into Sandy’s exchange with Kressin (Sieghardt Rupp – the actual Inspector/Star of the Cologne Tatort series), we realize that the German spoken will not come with subtitles; luckily, this is really the only scene where German is prominently spoken, and though both characters speak in their native tongue, they seem to understand each other’s language. Sandy’s replies to Kressin are structured in such a clever way that we basically know what Kressin is saying, even if we can't decode it word for word, which was good, because my six years of German mostly failed me. Ironically, the film was not redubbed for the original German audience; no, they were the ones who got the subtitles, so, you know, they could understand an episode of their own TV series, shot and released for their home audience.  

 

Tatort, as Ohrt explained, is an extremely successful cop show that has been airing on German television continuously since 1970, making it the longest running detective show in the world. In an interesting twist, each town had/has their own inspector, so the show was different in Cologne, Frankfurt, etc. Screenings of the show were a city-wide event, at least in years past; back in the day, Tatort aired on Sunday evenings at 8:15 on one of the two German TV channels available, and as Ohrt said, it was must-see TV! 

The Tatort logo.

The story as to how Sam Fuller came to direct an episode of a German TV series actually owes itself to Jennifer Jones, weirdly. In the early 70s, Fuller was prepping for a movie with Jennifer Jones in Spain. The film was touted as her comeback, and Fuller tailored the part specifically for her. However, a week before filming was to begin, Jones tried to commit suicide in Malibu. Thankfully, she survived, but the picture was never made.  Around the same time, a young German film critic, Hans C. Blumenberg, who played Fritz Spindel in Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, was in Hollywood trying to produce a documentary about Howard Hawks and John Ford, but he didn’t know how to contact the famous directors. Christa felt sorry for him, and being from Germany herself, she wanted to help, so she asked Sam to phone in a few favors and arrange for the men to meet Hans. Hans was extremely grateful to the Fullers and asked what Sam was doing next. Sam had just turned down Patton for a second time, and Hans asked if he would like to make a crime film in Germany. Obviously, the answer was yes because the film exists!

 

So off to Germany the Fullers went. For Christa, who hadn’t lived in Germany since she was a teenager, it was fun to return to her home country for the shoot. For Sam, the experience was a bit different and very emotional. Sam had always wanted to direct a comedy; in fact, the Festival of Preservation program guide quoted him as saying, “I wanted Dead Pigeon to be full of high jinks and hilarity." However, Sam was routinely given film noir and war assignments because he was a WWII solider who had a ton of real life bleak combat experience; in fact, Sam fought in all the major battles and even liberated concentration camps in Czechoslovakia at the war’s conclusion. So, suffice it to say, he experienced a lot of heavy events in Germany, and upon his return to the country 25 years later, he wanted to use the opportunity to let loose, experiment and revisit some old haunts in a lighter style. For example, in his time in Germany during the war, he woke up one morning to realize that he was stationed in Beethoven’s home. When he shot Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, besides the street name, Sam was able to film a rather comedic  scene involving a case of mistaken identity in that same house (reconstructed after the war), which became one of the highlights of the shoot. 

Christa (Christa Fuller) in the scene in Beethoven's house (via cinema.ucla.ed)

Ironically, Christa had absolutely no desire to star in the movie.  At the time, she was attending college at UCLA (she would graduate with her Masters degree in 1977), and she didn’t want to play "the hot blonde." Everyone insisted on it, though, and Sam wanted to use her character, and the picture as a whole, as an homage to New Wave directors and their films; Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street was specifically intended to be filmed in that style, ala films like Godard's Breathless (1960). Though this movie came a few years after the initial New Wave took hold in Europe, Sam's intent to create like-minded films stretches all the way back to the mid-late 50s, when he got sick and tired of the studio system and strove to craft pictures with real locations, true camera movements, etc.

 

Sam definitely shook things up as an American director coming in to an established, branded German detective series. The series producers treated Sam well and gave him an astonishing amount of artistic freedom, which, Orht remarked, is something those involved with the present day Tatort don’t have. In fact, they let him stray very far from the series formula: after Sam watched a few episodes of the real Tatort, he realized that he couldn’t deliver what the viewers expected. He wanted to return to America, but the producers didn’t want him to go and instead asked him what type of story he wanted to tell. What about a film inspired by Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, two call girls who brought down an entire British government in the early 1960s? To Sam's surprise, the producers gave him the go ahead.

 

In addition to the story line, Sam’s edition of Tatort was bound to stick out because he didn’t speak German, nor did he have any sense of German reality, which is what Tatort was based on. So, instead of trying to fit into the Tatort mold, Sam simply had fun with the assignment, throwing out many of the series’ expectations in favor of something new and different. For starters, Sam got rid of Tatort’s main character, Kressin. Kressin was the star of the Cologne series, and the fact that he was shot within the first few minutes and only remains on screen for a few more is astonishing; viewers of the series would not expect to see their lead sidelined so early in the episode (and not reappear, for that matter!). Well, with an American director at the helm, the German audience got a new - one time - American lead…and adopted English as the story’s main language. 

Director and star: Sam and Christa Fuller.

The shoot in Germany wasn’t the easiest, according to Christa. It was quite cold in Cologne, Sam filmed very fast (and they shot the picture during the real carnival, so all the shots were ‘stolen’ from the proceedings), and the overall tone was extremely tongue-in-cheek. That comedic mindset is obvious in the characters and action; even though the story itself is quite serious, Sam injected the dark material with notes of satire and pure hilarity in the form of physical comedy. Right off the bat with the credits, it was clear that Sam wasn’t going to take the film too seriously - I mean, he didn’t even change Christa’s name, and one of the villains is drolly referred to as Charlie Umlaut!  Plus, the entire plot of the film, as Shannon noted, is rather flippant and ironic, as these world leaders who are supposed to keep it all together for the sake of their countries completely lose it when they’re around one beautiful blonde for a few hours. The dark humor and stark social satire that underlies the action continues all the way through to the final confrontation between Sandy and Mensur, in which Sandy desperately reaches for one weapon after another from Mensur’s wall. The scene reminds me of Red Skelton's comic showdown at the end of Whistling in Dixie (1942), with Sandy quickly running through all his violent options after he hilariously fails at using Mensur's fencing sword as his defense.  

 

In the end, another dead bird lands on Beethoven Street, but it's not Mensur. Want to know who it is? If so, be sure to catch any screening of Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street you can find, or, if you have a multi-region DVD player, it looks like there's a Spanish DVD available on Amazon. I'd just double check those tech specifications before ordering...

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