Spoiler alert: The 1937 German film The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes has nothing to do with Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Instead, the lead character in Karl Hartl’s film is named Morris Flint (Hans Albers), who together with his sidekick Macky McPherson (Heinz Rühmann) travels around the country committing various scams and confidence games. On the other hand, you could consider the film an example of Sherlockiana at one remove, since the story begins with Flint being mistaken for none other than Sherlock Holmes, thanks to his pipe, tartan overcoat, checked cap, and violin case. And if he’s Holmes, his companion must be Watson (never mind that McPherson looks like a refugee from a Zorro serial with his cape and flat-brimmed hat). Together they talk their way into all kinds of free stuff and bluff their way out of all kinds of questionable situations, because who wouldn’t want to assist Holmes and Watson in one of their famous adventures?
The film begins with Flint and McPherson faking their way onto a train, then gaining access to the passenger’s passports. Flint proceeds to ogle the pictures of several pretty girls (American heiresses, of course) while making some very Holmes-like deductions about them and also revealing detailed knowledge of American geography. The train crew are not the only true believers—two bigger time criminals jump off the train after they perceive Holmes and Watson to be on it, and Flint and McPherson proceed to occupy their compartment for the night. It’s certainly better than being outside in the pouring rain, which is where they started the film. They go on to have a series of adventures involving, among other things, orphan heiresses and stolen postage stamps, and actually do some good in the world, as if actually taking on the mantle of their fictional identities. They also perform a song-and-dance number that must be experienced to be believed (the opening bit would not be out of place in The Celluloid Closet).
The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes is a comedy, with light-hearted music by Hans Sommer counteracting the occasional Krimi (crime thriller) elements highlighted by cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. The screenplay by Robert A Stemmie and Karl Hartl both plays the game—assumes Holmes and Watson are real persons living in the real world, or at least sets the story in a world where the characters believe that—and acknowledges that they are fictional creations. There’s even a character identified only as “laughing man” (Paul Bildt) who pops up every now and then, enjoying the passing show (he reveals his identity near the end of the film). At one point one of the characters discovers the receipts for Flint’s Sherlock Holmes disguise (which isn’t all that great, at least not if you are a devotee of Sidney Paget’s version), and of course no one questions why Holmes and Watson not only speak perfect German, but are totally German in their manners, but that’s the way things go in films of this type. Or, perhaps, it’s a comment on how everyone reinvents popular characters to fit into their own mental universe. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. It’s a restored version a restoration by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftungand looks and sounds quite good. This film is in German with English subtitles.