German TV producer Helmut Ringelmann has died at age 84. Ringelmann created several long running crime dramas such as Derrick, Der Alte and Der Kommissar in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ringelmann’s crime dramas were a fixture of Friday nights when I was growing up and for me as well as for many other Germans they were our first contact with the crime genre. In my case, it was an episode of Der Alte, when he was still played by Siegfried Lowitz. It was a grave disappointment, in the end Kommissar Köster did not even arrest the killer. Derrick was a little better, he was slightly younger for starters, occasionally got involved in an actual chase and even fell in love once in a memorable episode broadcast in December 1983. Okay, so it was mainly memorable for the Return of the Jedi preview broadcast after Derrick, but it was still a pretty good episode. With Der Alte, on the other hand, you were always worried that he would suffer a heart attack, if he ever actually had to chase down a criminal.
As it was, the days when being allowed to stay up on a Friday night to watch Derrick or Der Alte was a much welcomed treat faded as I hit puberty. Indeed, the staid pacing of Ringelmann’s crime dramas was already outdated in the 1970s, which became painfully apparent when Schimanski burst onto the scene in 1981 with his foul mouth, bad temper, working class background and more energy in a single scene than in five episodes of Derrick taken together. Indeed, it is pretty much impossible to understand the revolution that was Schimanski without having seen Derrick or Der Alte or any pre-Schimanski episode of Tatort first. Because this was what German crime drama looked like in the 1970s, 1980s and even continues to look like today, if you watch certain programs.
I still remember how Schimanski blew my mind – by running over a red light to the protests of his long suffering partner Tanner. A policeman – disregarding a red light! Derrick would never have done that – he didn’t even drive, his assistant Harry did. While Der Alte would have died from a heart attack on the spot. This was a moment that I understood that I was watching something new, something different, something quite unlike anything I’d ever seen on German TV before. I quickly lost interest in the bland dullness of Derrick and Der Alte afterwards. Shortly, thereafter I discovered the vastly bigger excitement offered by American crime drama and turned my back on Ringelmann’s Friday night crime shows for good.
However, it is precisely the staid pacing, the lack of overt violence (the early episodes of Derrick were quite violent for the time, but the violence was toned down after complaints in the early 1970s) and the almost robot-like investigators of Ringelmann’s crime dramas that proved popular with audiences abroad. Derrick remains the most broadcast German program in the world, popular in places as far as China, Iran and South Africa, and Der Alte is not far behind. And even at home, vintage episodes of Der Kommissar, Derrick and Der Alte have long turned from corny to cult. Of course, nowadays the main appeal lies in the vintage cars and clothes and interiors and what passed for socially conscious programming in the 1970s.
In the end Ringelmann’s formula for television crime drama turned out to be successful enough to work for 24 (Derrick) or respectively 34 (Der Alte) years. His programs have become such cultural touchstones, that it has become impossible to imagine a Friday evening without Der Alte, Derrick and other programs in a similar vein. He will be missed.