Tuesday, 16 December 2008

HORST TAPPERT (1923-2008)

Special thanks to Nathalie ATTARD and David GENTIAL

German actor Horst Tappert died on December 13 in Munich. He was 85. He will remain, although he would probably not have wished it, the symbol of a longtime institution of the pre-Hermann Joha or pre-CSI German television: the Freitag-Krimi, the typical German cop show of Friday evenings, with one single tv series: Derrick (1974-1998).


Like most German actors seen on television, Horst Tappert has his formation years on stage. His first notable role is the character of the criminal mastermind in The Great Train Robbery (Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse, 1966), a three-part miniseries considered as a milestone in the History of German tv. The same year he appears in the fourth movie adapted from the popular Jerry Cotton crime novels (with US actor George Nader as G-Man Jerry Cotton), Tip not included (Die Rechnung - eiskalt serviert).

In 1968 he plays a guest part in the first Krimiserie ever, Das Kriminalmuseum (1963-1970), an anthology produced by a man who invents popular tv fiction of the 20th century in Germany: Helmut Ringelmann. Tappert will work for Ringelmann again in two episodes of one of the most popular shows of this producer: Der Kommissar (1969-1976), with Erik Ode as Kommissar Herbert Keller - conceived originally as a German Maigret.

Horst Tappert is also a familiar figure in the Edgar Wallace movie series, even playing twice the same inspector, in Gorilla Gang (Der Gorilla von Soho, 1968) and The Man with the glass eye (Der Man mit dem Glassauge, 1969). In 1972 he's back as the criminal mastermind of Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse in Hoopers letzte Jagd.


In 1974, Horst Tappert becomes Oberinspektor Stephan Derrick in Helmut Ringelmann's new Krimiserie, Derrick. To ensure a certain continuity with his hit Der Kommissar, Ringelmann wisely decides that Kriminalhauptmeister Harry Klein (Fritz Wepper), one of the characters, will leave Kommissar Keller to work with Derrick (and two men of the new team appear in the previous show). Derrick is the brainchild of Ringelmann and writer Herbert Reinecker, and is influenced naturally by Der Kommissar, but also by Maigret and in some respects by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

The premiere of the first season (three episodes), Waldweg, and Season 2's first, Mitternachtbus, are two of the best episodes of the show and set its ambiance, with dark and pessimistic stories. The scripts of Derrick, all written by only one man, Reinecker, are imprinted by his own vision of life and his experiences. The pattern of the show is simple: a sordid crime is commited in the small bourgeoisie or high society of Munich and Derrick investigates with his assistant, Harry Klein. Stephan Derrick acts in most episodes as a sort of misanthropic observer without a single oz of concession but with a solid sense of Justice, and occasional expression of his own feelings - when he's appalled by the situation in spite of the fact that this hardened cop has seen them all.

The formula of Derrick, a counterpoint to the US cop shows of the seventies as the series relies more on psychology than action, makes its success to the point that the series will last 25 seasons until 1998 (a longevity common to many German shows, especially those devised by Helmut Ringelmann) and will see the character naturally evolve.


There's a die hard cliché in France about the so-called "slowness" of the show and the fact that only senior citizens are meant to watch it (1). Derrick arrives in France in 1986 on Silvio Berlusconi owned La Cinq, in the middle of a train of illustrious US shows, and the Krimiserie suffers the comparison, not unlike the damages done by CSI and its clones on German fiction production today. Derrick is mocked as a "slow", quasi-grabataire cop show, whereas it's more a psychological (and often philosophical) study about the weakness of the Human soul through the prism of two notions: Guilt and Justification.

In fact, Derrick owes more to the first Claude Chabrol movies (particularly in its first seasons) than to Starsky & Hutch or other Aaron Spelling ventures. And the show is often filmed like a stage representation of Brecht or Tchekhov. Action is required only when necessary as Stephan Derrick is, after all, a Kripo (Kriminal Polizeï) cop: take for instance Episode 5 of Season 2, Zeichen der Gewalt, with the late Raimund Harstorf (in one of his appearances alongside erotic icon Sybil Danning), as a runaway killer chased (literally) by Derrick and killed by the Oberinspektor after several gunshots. This episode has the flavor of a "film noir" a la Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Deray or José Giovanni (who wrote and directed the third episode of Der Alte, Ringelmann's replacement of Der Kommissar).

More, Derrick explores wide narrative areas, from stories that seem borrowed from Der Kommissar to "chabrolian" portraits of the bourgeoisie, with sometimes detours to Nietszche or Kafka. The 75-minute long Ein Kongreß in Berlin (Season 6, Episode 9), is a cross between Mabuse and The Spy who came from the cold. Edgar Wallace is not far of some episodes and there's even a bank robbery narrated in voice-over by Derrick. Herbert Reinecker and Helmut Ringelmann manage to maintain high stories standards through the years: Das Lächeln des Dr. Bloch (Season 18, Episode 11), with a duel between two fantastic actors, Peter Sattmann and the great Hans-Michael Rehberg, and Isoldes tote Freunde (Season 18, Episode 12) - with a magnificent and delicate performance of Juliane Rautenberg (2) - are amongst classics of the series.


Derrick has two weaknesses, one retrospective, the other real. The retrospective is the choice, for the soundtrack, of songs that were hits at their times but are sometimes now more than dated (to put it nicely). The second weakness is the use by Ringelmann of an almost "Repertory company" of recurrent faces (but somehow excellent guest actors), such as Sky du Mont (http://tattard2.blogspot.com/2008/05/sky-du-mont.html), Evelyn Opela (Helmut Ringelmann's wife), Klausjürgen Wussow, Wolf Roth, Christian Kohlund, Jacques Breuer, Dirk Galuba and many others... But reruns in disorder (3) add to this "Mercury Theatre" or Scene of the Crime (4) effect, the impression that the same guests are regularly coming back.

Horst Tappert makes his exit from Derrick with class and dignity in Episode 281, Das Abschiedsgeschenk, where he leaves Munich for a promotion at Europol. The intrigue of this finale is rather weak but the actors of Der Alte make uncredited cameos (like Helmut Ringelmann) and Tappert's final scene with the song Hey, Mr Gentleman, performed by Helen Schneider, is a great and moving moment of Television.

The death of Horst Tappert marks the end of an era in the History of German television fiction. Although devised by Reinecker and Ringelmann, Siska (1998-2007) - the successor of Derrick, is well crafted and well played but not as subtle. Derrick was the unique combination of the clever psychological scripts of Herbert Reinecker, the producing skills of Helmut Ringelmann and, above all, the quality of the interpretation of both Fritz Wepper (a talented actor - remember Cabaret - but overshadowed by the star of the show) and Horst Tappert.

Farewell, Mr Gentleman... Derrick is not an average cop show. It's a novel for television in 281 chapters, a play in 281 acts, a journey in the darkest alleys of subconscience. It's Night Gallery in Munich.

(1) Which is of course false. And since several years there's even new Derrick fans amongst twenty or thirtysomethings.
(2) Juliane Rautenberg's Homepage (in German): http://home.arcor.de/juliane.rautenberg/ + Her blog (Idem): http://julianerautenberg.wordpress.com/
(3) A French speciality, for a series unfortunately terribly adapted and dubbed in French language.
(4) An excellent but short-lived anthology mystery tv series (1991) from Stephen J. Cannell, where a small group of actors played a different part each week.

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