How much surrealism is there in the TV series Derrick? Quite a lot, you just have to look carefully. When Frank Witzel saw an early episode of the ZDF crime series entitled “Nur Excitements for Rohn” from 1975 on YouTube, his gaze caught on the reproduction of an image hanging on the wall in the chaos of a so-called student shack.
The writer identifies it as a 1948 painting by Rudolf Hausner, a representative of Fantastic Realism from Vienna, with the ravishing title “Forum of Inward Optics”. You can see doll-like female figures and a boy in a sailor suit in a stage-like desert landscape.
Witzel uses his irritation caused by the appearance of a work of art that plays with techniques of psychoanalysis in a television episode that was considered irrelevant as the starting point for a sparkling essay that penetrates deep into German intellectual and social history. Rohn has murdered a money messenger in the room, and detectives Derrick and Klein harass the failed student until he convicts himself. Can the painting be an indication, for example, of the suspect’s lack of stability?
Frank Witzel works with daring associative leaps. They lead to the surveillance architecture of the Panoptikon prisons in the 19th century, to the protective function of Beatles posters in youth rooms and again and again to the contamination of the post-war period with the poison of the Nazi past, for which the writer coined the term “BRD Noir”.
Derrick author Herbert Reinecker made a career as an SS war correspondent and later, instead of admitting guilt – so Witzel – began to “escape into generalities”. The Derrick actor Horst Tappert was also in the SS and fought in the Panzergrenadier Division “Totenkopf” in the Soviet Union, although this only became public after his death.
Repressing and forgetting was part of the collective mentality of post-war Germans from the start, but the crimes of the Nazi past continued to rumble underground. A word that was often used in art and literature debates after 1945 was “middle”. Middle was a synonym for normality, but for Witzel middle means above all narrow-mindedness: “Since the middle is where I am, everything that isn’t where I am is not in the middle.” The middle, like that Witzel, stands for a normality “out of which everything else can be pathologized”.
A prime example of this is the art historian Hans Sedlmayr, who joined the Austrian NSDAP in 1930 and published the essay Loss of the Middle in 1948, which became an influential bestseller. In it he accuses modern art of having lost the right balance and attests that modern, “autonomous” people have a “disturbed relationship” because they no longer serve them in art. However, Witzel mainly refers to the 1955 book The Revolution of Modern Art, in which Sedlmayr ridicules surrealism as “sous-realism”.
There is also a scene from the summer of 1942 that Sedlmayr describes as an “unmistakable work of surrealism”. In a Russian public park there is an antiquated, cheaply produced sculpture with a broken arm “in front of a steel-blue sky”. A Red Army soldier has placed the wheel of a car on the base and wrapped his red scarf around it. Next to it is his “dinner, three captured eggs”. Sedlmayr sees in the random arrangement a “work no weaker in invention than dozens or even hundreds of those that one sees in exhibitions of surrealist painters”. A praise that is meant polemically.
Surrealistic revolver fantasies
Witzel wonders what became of the Soviet soldier who left his bandana in the park. Was he able to escape, was he shot? And what was Sedlmayr doing in a Russian public park in 1942? Was he a soldier, a participant in the German war of extermination? Compared to the apparently neutral description of the art historian, Witzel sums up, the provocative “gun fantasies” of the surrealists look “like childish things”.
Perhaps one reason why surrealism aroused contempt and anger among conservative critics like Sedlmayr was that their art drew on the experience of psychoanalysis. According to Witzel, surrealism and psychoanalysis pursue a goal that was at odds with the practice of the German post-war economic miracle: disclosure instead of repression.
Witzel finds an analogy to the “inward-looking optics” of Hausner’s tableau in Derrick’s “inverted” detective stories, in which the viewers – unlike the investigators – always knew the murderer, at least in the first few episodes. According to Derrick creator Herbert Reinecker, when he was working on the screenplays, he was primarily concerned with one question: “How does a person actually become a murderer?”.
distraction as camouflage
Inverted crime stories were already on television before “Derrick” and its predecessor series “Der Kommissar”, which was also written by Reinecker. As early as 1968, Peter Falk had embodied the lovable, crumpled inspector of the same name in the US series “Columbo”, who cornered the murderers with friendly penetrance and always seemed a bit distracted. Which, of course, was nothing but camouflage.
The Derrick episode “Just excitement for Rohn” still follows the Columbo model, in which the murderer is known from the beginning. Many viewers found that boring in the long run, so Reinecker had to change his concept. After about 40 episodes, from the middle of the second season of Derrick, the films followed, according to Witzel, “a kind of mixture of Whodunit and Howcatchem“.
In his essay, Frank Witzel works like an investigator himself. At the end of his occupation with Derrick and the spirit of the German post-war period, he asks himself the question: “Have I put something into the objects of my observation or read something out of them?”. Of course he has done both, and one follows him with unflagging interest.
However, Witzel is wrong on one point: he refers to the police officer, who Horst Tappert always overly correctly played, “as if peeled from the egg” (Witzel), as a commissioner. But from 1974 to 1998, Stephan Derrick never rose above the post of chief inspector in 281 television episodes.
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