It is easy to assume that all films made in Nazi Germany were overtly propagandistic. In fact, apart from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, even avid filmgoers outside Germany will be hard put to think of other films made under the regime, so effectively have they been airbrushed from world cinema (in marked contrast to those of the Weimer era). Yet propaganda films constituted a small proportion of production during the Third Reich. On the contrary, as Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel say in their 1971 book The German Cinema, in general ‘German films became escapist and politically harmless’, so a bit like most films made anywhere. Manvell and Fraenkel add that they were ‘technically impeccable,’ and ‘notable for the absence, rather than the presence, of a swastika.’ This was a policy that Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, was keen to pursue in order to fill cinemas; it was generally the newsreels and documentaries supporting the main features which carried overtly ideological messages.
The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes (also known as Zwei Lustige Abenteurer, Two Merry Adventurers), directed by Karl Hartl, was released in 1937, the year the studio that made it, Ufa, fell under state control. It completely conforms to Goebbels’ template of escapism and political harmlessness. What is more intriguing than the complete absence of Nazi references is the affectionate take on the British figure of Sherlock Holmes, a familiar presence in German culture, as Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler (1947) notes. The project was designed to show ‘that Germany can produce a detective comedy that can hold its own with the best American films of this kind,’ as a contemporary newspaper had it (quoted in The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945, by Klaus Kreimeier, 1999).
However, despite the title, this is not a Sherlock Holmes film. It is the story of two apparent chancers, Morris Flint (played by Hans Albers, whom Kracauer called ‘the embodiment of popular daydreams’) and Macky McPherson (Heinz Rühmann). The film opens with them flagging down a passenger train at night in the rain. Showing considerable authority, Flint immediately starts to interrogate the staff. Word goes round that Holmes is on board, a rumour the penniless newcomers do nothing to dispel, though as Flint later points out, they are careful never to refer to themselves as Holmes and Watson. Instead they call each other ‘Master’ and ‘Doctor.’ It is other people who make the assumption that they are the famous consulting detective and his assistant, an assumption aided by their clothing, manner and accessories, notably a violin case. By telling people not to say who they are, they reinforce the impression that they really are Holmes and Watson working under cover.
Having met two attractive sisters on the train, a commission to recover some rare stamps that have been stolen leads them to a nasty gang of forgers, and it transpires that the castle the sisters have just inherited from their uncle is significantly involved in the case. The fast-paced action is punctuated by an incredibly catchy song composed by Hans Sommer, Jawohl, meine Herr'n (Yes Indeed, Gentlemen), which Morris and Macky sing in the bath – not the same bath of course, but separate ones flanking the enormous suite they have occupied in a smart hotel.
At the end of the film Flint and McPherson find themselves on trial charged with impersonating Holmes and Watson. As the police had requested the pair to work on their behalf, assuming natürlich that they were asking Mr Holmes, this leads to some red faces. A large man in an extremely loud checked overcoat who was at the hotel and found the idea of Holmes and Watson staying there uproarious is also present, still laughing like a drain, and he reveals himself to be none other than … Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The reason for his amusement, he tells the court, is that Holmes and Watson are not real people at all, but are his creations! It is hard to see how you can illegally impersonate somebody who does not exist, so the case is dismissed. Things are brought to a satisfying conclusion as Flint wraps up the mystery of the stolen stamps and demonstrates that he and Macky are not actually confidence tricksters, but real detectives who had been trying to drum up business. Still amused at the duo’s audacity, ‘Conan Doyle’ offers to write their story with a 50:50 split, to be called The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the very film we have been watching.
Labelling a film as having been made during the Nazi period might not be considered a sound marketing strategy, and the packaging of the film for the 2012 Cornerstone Media DVD release nowhere alludes to its context; in fact the information on the back gives the release date as 1957, perhaps a clerical error, perhaps an attempt to distract attention from its background. True, one might feel guilty watching a film produced under such a barbarous regime, as if it is somehow a tacit endorsement of totalitarianism, while Manvell and Fraenkel were sniffy about German films made when the Nazis were in power, considering the results ‘empty’ of human values. Those made during the Thousand-Year Reich are not unique in that regard, and on its own terms The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes has a warmth and energy that belie its origins.