Interview: Swiss Exploitation Producer Erwin C. Dietrich on Jess Franco, Klaus Kinksi and More

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Legendary producer Erwin C. Dietrich backed Franco, calmed Kinski and made many masterpieces in the process.

The European mirror of prolific cinematic plate-spinner Roger Corman has to be Swiss-born movie mogul Erwin C. Dietrich.

Initially training to be an actor in the 1950’s, Dietrich instead found his path as a writer, director and producer, steering dozens upon dozens of remarkable thriller, soft-porn and horror titles and distributing many of them all over the globe, to great financial and occasionally even critical success.

Dietrich’s productions were often – by low budget standards – lavish affairs and were helmed by such revered genre movie stalwarts as Fabrizio de Angelis, Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti and featured international name casts.

Among the over 100 films Dietrich stood behind were a slew of films made by iconoclast Spanish filmmaker Jess Franco, including the gritty and lurid 1976 masterpiece JACK THE RIPPER (aka DER DIRNENMORDER VON LONDON, EROTICO PROFONDO) starring the late Klaus Kinski, here playing the mad Dr. Orloff (a name employed by Franco for his villains since his first horror feature, 1962’s THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF), a seemingly kindly London MD who slithers around gas lit back alleys by night, murdering and eviscerating prostitutes with surgical precision and psychosexual bloodlust.

It’s just one of dozens upon dozens of films Dietrich would make that successfully blended sex and violence for international audiences looking to stimulate their Freudian ID.

In the following interview, Dietrich discusses his amazing career behind the lens…and riffs on Franco and Kinski.

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SHOCK: As a child, what sort of films did you gravitate towards?

DIETRICH: I was born in a small Swiss town in the year 1930. Back then the chocolate manufacturer Nestlé had a film club called “Fip-Fop-Club”, where you could pay your admission with a chocolate wrapping. The club had no age restriction, wherefore I watched my very first movie at the age of six or seven: TARZAN THE APE MAN starring Johnny Weissmüller. It did not have that much dialogue, although it was a talkie. But nevertheless it touched me and I knew for sure that I would dedicate my life to movies and to cinema.

SHOCK: What was the German film market like when you came of age?

DIETRICH: After the Second World War there were no film academies. After my studies of textile engineering in St. Gallen I went to Zurich, to join the newly opened drama school. Without permission I featured in small advertising films made by Central Film, which was noticed, and after two years I have been expelled from the school. The German film industry was not very busy after the war but Italy, on the other hand, had some extremely realistic productions. Like GERMANY YEAR ZERO Roberto Rossellini, with a young German actor called Franz-Otto Kruger. After the movie was made, he visited the drama school and we became friends.   

SHOCK: How did this lead to a professional life in cinema?

DIETRICH: Thanks to the small advertising films I was making at the drama school, I could differentiate between a coffee mill and a camera and I had knowledge of the film business, too. I knew how a script looked like and I took out a subscription of the first German film magazine, Der Neu Film, I thought about what could make the people in the four occupation zones happy and I knew the requirements. One, it had to be an Austrian movie. Two, the famous Vienna Boys Choir had to be in it. Three, the famous Lipizzan horses had to be in it and five, the blond actress and singer Waltraut Haas had to be in it.

Based on Azengrubers novel, I wrote the script for what would be my first film, DER PFARRER VON KIRCHFELD and then went to Germany. They even let me star in the movie. But after we did some test shootings with Haas, it just did not work out. So I was left with my role as a producer and I had to realize that this was one tough job, this moviemaking business.

SHOCK: Were your early thrillers successful outside of Germany?

DIETRICH: At first I continued making movies with a regional background and my next movie was DER KONIG VON BERNINA. It was the second adaption of  I. C. Heers’ novel, which already had been filmed in 1929 by Ernst Lubitsch, starring John Barrymore and Camila Horn as ETERNAL LOVE. In my version, Waltraut Haas took the leading part. My next projects were comedies for the local Swiss market with popular Swiss comedians like Walter Roderers – I made four films with Walter – and my crime thrillers DIE NYLONSCHLINGE, DER WURGER VOM TOWER and ST. PAULI: ZWISCHEN NACHT UND MORGEN. Later I even did a musical film called DIE HAZY OSTERWALD STORY and an adaption of James H. Chases’ novel A COFFIN FROM HONG KONG, both for Constantin Film. For Team Film, I produced SCHWARZER MARKT DER LIEBE, a thriller about girl trafficking. I kept gathering experience on producing and the enormous financial problems that came with it. I realized that literally every single film distribution company in Germany had financial troubles.

So, I bought Elite Film AG, founded in Switzerland 1927, which had the permit to import 10 movies per annum. In addition I founded Ascot-Avis Filmverleih GmbH in Germany, for which I produced as well. As the company was of Swiss origin, these productions were added to our Swiss contingent. The second movie I made for Ascot, DIE NICHTEM DER FRAU OBERST, was such a huge success and paid out so well, I could clear all my debts and never had to borrow external funds again. Now I was an independent producer in Germany…unsinkable like the Titanic! Only an iceberg could stop me! I kept producing and directing up to 10 movies a year…   

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SHOCK: When did you first realize that sexuality and eroticism in cinema was profitable?

DIETRICH: With the huge success of DIE NICHTEN DER FRAU OBERST I realized that erotic movies could be very successful and long-lasting for weeks, even in sophisticated movie theaters, which meant a lot of money. Many years later I did a remake of it, with different actors, shot at the same locations, with the same director of photography and with more eroticism. Fortunately I had no trouble getting a proper age rating for it. Since 2014, both versions are available on DVD and Blu-ray.

SHOCK: You adopted several pseudonyms for your work, depending in the type of film and your creative role. Why did you feel the need to use pseudonyms?

DIETRICH: I did the writing and the production, pretty much everything but camera work and composing. This is why I used pseudonyms but, I never hid that it was me behind them.

SHOCK: Did you prefer to direct or produce?

DIETRICH: It did not matter. I always loved working on a movie – on something everlasting and global – just like TARZAN. Of course it had to pay out too. That is why the English and French dubbing, which was done in Brussels, always was an important part of our production budget.

SHOCK: Let’s talk about Jess Franco. How did you become aware of him?

DIETRICH: To sell our movies in the Italian market, together with my director of photography and associate Peter Baumgarnter, I founded the distribution company Prestige Film SRL in Rome. Bruno Mattei was in charge of the dubbing. Jess Franco called our Italian CEO Grazia Frigerio and sold his his new movie PORNO POP, with Lina Romay. We brought it onto the big screen, entitled “Heiße Berührungen” and it was quite a success. Jess wanted Grazia to arrange a meeting with me in Zurich. So we met for the first time and our first mutual movie, BARBED WIRE DOLLS, was shot. I did not like it, but it was very successful. In any case, in three years Jess made 16 movies for me and he told me that these were the best years of his life.

In 2009, Jess was awarded the GOYA for his life´s work, mainly for JACK THE RIPPER  and LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN. Jess was my friend and our shared love for movies got us close. Jess knew every single movie on this planet and he knew many people in person. Like the French author Jean-Claude Carriere, who got an Oscar for his life´s work. He wrote the first script for Jess Franco’s JACK THE RIPPER and introduced Jess to director Luis Bunuel.

SHOCK: Did you spend much time socially with Jess and Lina Romay?

DIETRICH: Yes! I met with Jess and Lina many times. Wonderful people. And I even shot a very successful movie with Lina called ROLLS ROYCE BABY.

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SHOCK: JACK THE RIPPER is a masterpiece. Was it shot quickly?

DIETRICH: I truly believe that JACK THE RIPPER is a masterpiece. I perfectly remember when Jess came up to me with the idea of telling this story all new, starring Klaus Kinski. I was against it, because of the labor union I knew from British Hong-Kong and I did not want to shoot in London. But Jess already had all settings defined in the city of Zurich and we could shoot just around the corner.

SHOCK: Franco and Kinski had worked together several times previously. There are so many stories about Klaus’ temperament but did Jess and Klaus have a happy collaboration?

DIETRICH: I never had any problems with Klaus Kinski during the shootings. This leads me to the conclusion that all his documented outbursts were presumably justified. Maybe he has not been paid his fee in time. Fortunately I used a letter of credit from the largest bank of Switzerland to pay the actors fees. Therefore Klaus did not lose his temper during any of our mutual productions. We got on very, very well. Together with Kinski, Lee van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Lewis Collins and director Antonio Margheriti, we shot the mercenary movies CODENAME: WILDGEESE and COMMANDO LEOPARD.

SHOCK: Are you yourself a fan of violent horror films?

DIETRICH: Well, calling me a fan is pushing it a bit, but I do like them.

SHOCK: When you look back at your incredible career, are you proud of your body of work? Any regrets or films you would have liked to have make?

DIETRICH: My name stands for over 100 movies and I am very happy that those still have a vast and growing fan base. Today, being 85 years old, I can still work with a small team within the company, so I do not get the cabin fever. Right now, the Elite Film AG is the leading independent film distribution company in Switzerland. It is now run by my children, Karin and Ralph, who just produced and released the international blockbuster, NORTHMEN: A VIKING SAGA, into cinemas all over the world.

You can hang out with Dietrich at his official Facebook page here.

Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in DELIRIUM magazine.

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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