Rediscovered: What’s Going On in Circus Beely? (1926)

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The film marks the continuation of the Goethe-Institut’s fruitful collaboration with Arte/Second German Television and Kirch/Media, which began one and a half years ago with a print of the silent film Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales). Richard Oswald’s 1919 film Unheimliche Geschichten was the first German horror film in episode format—five one-act stories about dubious husbands, lost hands and mysterious houses. In 2002 Michael Riessler composed a new musical accompaniment for the film.

The music for the newly restored version of What’s Going On in Circus Beely? was created by Pierre Oser, and the first screening will take place in 2004 in the scope of the Munich Film Festival, for whose cooperation we extend our deepest gratitude. After the premiere, the film will go on a world tour, which will begin in eastern Europe and Latin America.

Munich, 26 April 2004

Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen


Director of the Film Section

Rediscovered: What’s Going On in Circus Beely? (1926)

Notes on the restoration of the film

The basis for the restored film presented here is a nitrate print that was found while KirchMedia was doing research in the film archives in Bologna, Italy. The print had been stored there for Cineteca Milano. As it turned out, the print is evidently the only material of the film still remaining in the world. Although material with this title was found in the film archives in Moscow, this turned out to be a completely different film featuring Harry Piel. This was discovered after viewing a VHS copy of the film from the Moscow archives, or rather after the videotape was compared with the print from Milan.

The nitrate print from Bologna/Milan is tinted and has Italian titles (a total of 89). The film had evidently been shortened considerably for the Italian market. The length of the film as established by the censors in Germany was originally 3,384 metres (the evaluation date was 17 January 1927). According to trade publications at the time, the film was then shortened to 2,900 metres, but precise information on this cannot be found anywhere. After inserting the German titles, the version available here has a length of 1,938 metres, and when shown at the recommended projection speed of 20 frames per second, it now has a running time of 85 minutes.
The censorship card, which at the same time contains the wording of all the intertitles, is on file at the German Federal Archives. According to this, the film had a total of 156 titles, and of these 149 titles were inserted into the story of the print available here (some of the places where before titles had be glued on were in part still visible). Only 7 titles are now missing compared with what appears on the censors’ list, since the scenes they belong to are also missing. Nevertheless, no important parts of the story have been left out as a result of any cuts in the film. For showing in the Italian cinemas it is likely that some of the excessive story lines were shorten.
The work of copying the film was carried out at the film laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, which specialises in the difficult reconstruction of historical film material. The wording of the German titles, which were created by KirchMedia, is orientated towards the censorship card, and the graphic design towards the Italian titles.
A rough version of the restored film (without titles) was shown as a test at the Pordenone Film Festival in October 2001, together with music composed by Nicola Perricone. The final German version, which was completed in November 2001, has not been shown to date.

Matthias Knop

What’s Going On in Circus Beely?

Germany 1926

Tinted silent film, restored version
Director: Harry Piel

Script: May Bauer (adapted from motifs in the novels Das Geheimnis des Zirkus Barré [The Secret of the Barré Circus] and Der Reiter ohne Kopf [The Headless Rider])

Camera: Georg Muschner, Gotthart Wolf

Sets: Kurt Richter

Location managers: Walter Zeiske, E.D. Leonhard

Music: Hans May (repertoire)

Production: Nero-Film GmbH

Production time Sept.-Nov. 1926

Studio filming Filmwerke Staaken, Berlin

Circus filming Circus Renz, Vienna-Leopoldstadt

First showing 14 January 1927 Alhambra, Berlin-Kurfürstendamm

Running time 3,549 metres (according to a ruling by the censors of 10 December 1926). When the film was released, various trade journals reported, however, that the film had been shortened to about 2,900 metres.

Restoration KirchMedia

Print Cineteca Italiana

Transferring process L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna

Producer Paul Reichl

Idea Matthias Knop

Print length 1.938 metres (=85’ at 20 f/sec)

Music (2003) Pierre Oser

Programme director Nina Goslar

Produced by KirchMedia in collaboration with ARTE


Harry Piel Harry Peel

Ralph Ostermann Robert Jackson

Hanni Weiße Anita de Moran

Fritz Greiner Inspector Bull

Ilona Karolewna Rose Jackson

Charly Berger Allan Kean

Erich Kaiser-Tietz Dr. Oskar Waldow

Bambulla wrestler

Eugen Burg Steen


Harry Peel attends a party to celebrate the return of his friend Robert Jackson from South America. Jackson soon leaves his own party in a hurry, calls Peel shortly thereafter on the telephone and asks him if he could come help him as quickly as possible—then the line goes dead. With the operator’s help Peel finds out that the call came from the Beely Circus. After arriving there, he is observed by the dancer Anita, who informs the police. Before this, however, Peel manages to have a look around the empty circus. He first has to fend off an attack by a tiger, is then attacked again this time by a black wrestler and a masked man, until finally he finds Jackson murdered in the cellar. There is a message for Harry scratched on the wall asking him to search for a document hidden in the cellar located under the circus, and to take care of Rose, Jackson’s blind daughter. Finally, Inspector Bull arrives, finds Peel standing next to the body and arrests him. Harry, however, succeeds in escaping from police custody. He signs on to work at the Beely Circus in order to solve the death of his friend off his own bat. When Rose, who is full of anxiety about her missing father, carries out her own investigations with the help of her servant, Peel rescues her at the last minute from grave danger and puts her in the care of the renowned ophthalmologist Dr. Waldow. Peel learns from Steen, the notary who is the administrator of Jackson’s estate, that the ominous document in question is a letter of credit with which Jackson had transferred his entire fortune to a bank. Whoever gets possession of the letter will own the whole estate. While searching for the document in the circus, Peel encounters a number of perilous situations: he has to escape from a lion’s cage, has a skilfully elaborate fight with a wrestler and is pursued by a man wearing a mask. After Peel finally finds the document by chance, it comes to a showdown between him and the masked man. Peel chases him up to the top of the circus tent and tears the mask from his face. It is Kean, the circus director! Before, in South America, he had gained Jackson’s trust, and now he was planning to get hold of Jackson’s fortune. In the meantime, Dr. Waldow has succeeded in restoring Rose’s eyesight to her.

Short Biography of Harry Piel (by Thomas Staedeli)
Harry Piel’s life began more like an adventure. After finishing secondary school, he enlisted for seven years as a cadet on the sailing ship Grossherzogin Elisabeth, and at the age of 19 he went to Paris to become a stunt pilot.
In the French capital he met the film director Léonce Perret, who arranged for him to work at the film production company Gaumont. There he wrote his first script, and the idea of embarking on a future career in the new medium of film captivated him.
In 1912 he established the Kunst-Film-Verlags-Gesellschaft, and Schwarzes Blut (Black Blood) became the first film he made as a director. Although the movie was a success, a short while later his film company went bankrupt. Nevertheless, Piel had established himself as a filmmaker. In the following years he made movies for various film companies, and it soon turned out that the action thriller would become his true passion—Der Triumph des Todes (The Triumph of Death, 1912), Ein Millionenraub (The Big Robbery, 1914), Die grosse Wette (The Grand Bet, 1915), Die Abenteuer des Kapitän Hansen (The Adventures of Captain Hansen, 1917) and Die Krone von Palma (The Crown of Palma, 1918).
In 1919 Harry Piel appeared for the first time in front of the camera as a leading actor in the film Der grosse Unbekannte (The Mystery Man). Even as a director he had been given the nickname “dynamite director” because of the many exploding bridges and houses that appeared in his films. These explosions were often real, since he was friends with a demolition expert who informed him when buildings were about to be blown up, and Piel would then capture these scenes with his camera and insert them later into his films.

His appearances in front of the camera later marked the birth of Piel as a action hero, who liked having it made known that he performed all of his own stunts. The fact remains, however, that between 1919 and 1924 the most dangerous stunts were done by Hermann Stetza.

Piel managed the transition to sound films easily. Up to 1939 he continued to successfully direct films such as Schatten der Unterwelt (Shadows of the Underworld, 1931), Johnny stiehlt Europa (Johnny Steals Europe, 1932), Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt (The Invisible Man Goes Through the City, 1933), Der Dschungel ruft (The Call of the Jungle, 1935) and Sein bester Freund (His Best Friend, 1937).
But then Piel was caught up in the political turmoil of the time. After it was nationalised, the Harry Piel Film Co., the film production company he founded in 1921, was liquidated, and following World War II he was sentenced by the British to six months in prison and prohibited from working until 1949. His offence was being a sympathiser of the NSDAP, of which he had been a member since 1933.
However, Piel was probably affected less by this conviction than by the fact that 72 negatives of his films, among them nearly all of his silent movies, had been destroyed during an air raid.
In 1950 Piel managed once again to set up a production company, but he was not able to achieve the same success as in the past. At the beginning of 1960 he finally gave up his company and retired from the film business entirely.
His second marriage was to the actress Dary Holm.

Paimann’s Film Lists. Weekly publication of photo criticism

Harry Peel’s friend, who has just returned from abroad, has called him up to ask for his help; he is in a building located somewhere on the premises of a closed-down circus. After encountering a black wrestler there and a white man with a mask on, he is accused of having sneaked in and is arrested, which hinders him in his attempt to investigate what has happened. After his friend is found murdered, Peel gets himself hired at the reopened circus, observes some possible suspects and manages to have the criminals, whose plan was to get hold of the dead man’s letter of credit, put behind bars. What makes this film so remarkable are the many suspenseful situations, such as the tiger scene, and the performance of a number of circus attractions, among which a trapeze act stands out in particular. But the film also presents a subject that has great public appeal, which after an interesting exposition and the subsequent detailed development, becomes quite an exciting story. The repetition of the same scenes several times is the only thing that sometimes mars the film. The depiction is very good, and the photography excellent.


All sorts of things are happening in the Beely Circus. Max Bauer, the skilful author of the manuscript, who has already written a number of effective films for the sensation-accustomed Piel, has made certain of this. Piel ruefully finds his way home from his various minor trips to Bauer, who has gone all out and not held back with presenting all kinds of exciting and thrilling incidents. Harry, who here is again called Peel, has just returned from a trip. As usual everything was quiet as long as the master detective was away, but no sooner does he return when a case immediately occurs that he has to solve. His friend Jackson has disappeared and left behind his blind and helpless daughter. Jackson has been murdered in the cellar of the Beely Circus, and a letter of credit drawn up to transfer ownership of his entire estate is gone. Harry immediately begins searching for the murderer, but until he finds the culprit and can deliver the recovered fortune into the hands of Jackson’s daughter, whose sight has been restored through the skill of an ophthalmologist, until then Piel has a number of perils to overcome. The police take him for the murderer, and he has to fend off their efforts to apprehend him and at the same time fight against the scoundrels who murdered his friend. There are gloomy catacombs in which a sinister character, a relative of the Phantom of the Opera, is wandering about wearing a mask and dressed in a black coat; a gigantic black wrestler (Bambulla), who is always prepared to send brave Harry to kingdom come; exciting chase scenes over rooftops, through the top of the circus tent, past swaying apparatuses, trapdoors, pitfalls, a tiger on the loose and even a whole pack of lions. In short, Piel has a number of tests to pass before he succeeds.

In this film, his seventy-fifth, he is as fresh, brash and clever as ever and at all times has the audience on his side. Even if his taming of a tiger in just under one and a half minutes is something wonderful, dealing with a big cat is nevertheless not easy. If the scenes with the tiger had been kept shorter, the impression would certainly have been much more powerful. The episode in the lion’s cage appears to be toned down, especially since another sensational scene with a lion forms the exciting conclusion.

One should not ask about logic when discussing a thriller like this. But a more cleverly chosen title would have made up for a number of things that appear so improbable.

Film Week

A private detective like this one really doesn’t have an easy job! No sooner has he solved a case, avenged a murder, delivered a criminal into the “hands of justice” or rescued a beautiful woman when a new crime hounds him on his journey through life, a life paved with thorns—no with lions, tigers, black wrestlers big as trees, mysterious men with masks on and deceitful dancing girls. Harry Piel (in my youth he was called Percy Stuart!) shows up at the Exclusive Club (back then it was called Eccentric Club) for a festive meal and to greet his friend, but as usual the poor fellow doesn’t even have time to sit down: he is called to the telephone, and lo and behold, what sound meets his ear? “Help, Harry!” Then immediately there is silence on the other end. Harry has a strong sense of foreboding. He learns that the telephone call came from the Beely Circus and rushes there immediately—to rescue whatever can still be rescued, or to seek revenge!!! However, he arrives too late to rescue anyone: his friend has already been murdered and is lying in the cellar located under the circus, between lion and tiger traps. But there still remains plenty to do for our brave Harry Piel: he has to take care of his murdered friend’s blind daughter and also search for a letter of credit that the dead man hid somewhere in the cellar. And, as mentioned before, it’s not all that easy for him—the muscular black wrestler, the mysterious masked man and the scheming dancing girl! But of course we are used to Harry Piel easily coping with and overcoming everything that crosses his path: he finds the money, the culprits are given their just punishment and his friend’s beautiful blind daughter gets back her eyesight, that Harry Piel can marry her. As always you are simply fantastic, Harry Piel, but marriage, no, you shouldn’t have done that! Firstly, for a private detective this shows a lack of style, and secondly, what will you do with your wife when you shoot your 76th film? Or are you also slowly getting on in years?

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