I was planning to blog about the slyly subversive content of Independence Day today, in response to an article about the movie I vehemently disagreed with. However, then I saw on Twitter that German actor Götz George had died aged 77, which completely derailed my plans. Here is an obituary from the Süddeutche Zeitung and here is one from the Deutsche Welle.
If you lived in Germany in the past sixty years, you will have seen Götz George in a movie or on TV at some point. He was the son of Heinrich George and Bertha Drews, two of the biggest stars of Weimar Republic and Third Reich era Germany, and his career spanned a stunning 63 years, longer than either of his parents.
Götz George debuted at age 15 alongside a teenaged Romy Scheider in the romantic melodrama Wenn der weiße Flieder wieder blüht (When the white lilac blooms again), which hides an interesting look at single motherhood in postwar Germany behind its sappy exterior and silly songs. In the 1960s, he fought Fu-Manchu and appeared alongside Lex Barker and the late Pierre Brice in several Winnetou movies and even wound up getting the girl over Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (I’m sure they found consolation in each other).
But Götz George’s big breakthrough came in 1981, when he took the role with which he would be identified for the rest of his life: Horst Schimanski, the unapologetically working class cop from Duisburg in the Ruhrgebiet, whom George played for 32 years, first in the long-running crime drama series Tatort und later in his own eponymous series.
If you haven’t grown up with the staid and dull West German television of the 1970s and much of the 1980s, it’s hard to imagine what a revolution Schimanski was. Because until 1981 (and throughout the 1980s at least) German TV cops were distinguished elderly gentlemen in tweed jackets who solved genteel crimes in genteel upper middle class suburbs and whose antics had nothing whatsoever to do with anybody’s real life. Here is an example from 1980 featuring Schimanski’s immediate Tatort predecessor Kommissar Haferkamp (played by Hansjörg Felmy, a fine actor who deserved better than this).
And now take a look at Götz George’s debut as Horst Schimanski in the Tatort episode Duisburg Ruhrort.
The first three and a half minutes are a tiny masterpiece of characterisation, opening with a lingering shot of Horst Schimanski’s back (showing off Götz George’s impressive muscles in a non-male-gazey way that was rare before the 2000s) and the industrial Ruhrgebit landscape behind him. The camera then follows a clearly hung-over Schimanski through his kitchen, as he makes himself an anti-hangover cure, gathers up the beer bottles left over from last night and leaves, all to the stains of “Leader of the Pack” by The Shangri-Las (edited out of the YouTube video because of stupid copyright issues). Within the space of a few minutes you immediately know who this guy is and he hasn’t even said a single word yet.
And when Schimanski finally speaks at the 3 minute mark and yells, “Klappe, du Idiot, und hör auf mit dem Scheiß” (Shut up, you idiot, and stop that shit!) to the elderly man who is throwing his furniture out of the window, even the last viewer realised that Kommissar Haferkamp and his genteel fellow inspectors had left the building and that the future had arrived. And many viewers weren’t happy at all.
Contrary to popular belief, Götz George wasn’t the first person to utter the word “Scheiße” on German TV, that honour belongs to Dietmar Schönherr who said it back in 1966 in the science fiction TV classic Raumpatrouille Orion. Nonetheless, the foul-mouthed utterances of Horst Schimanski caused a massive firestorm among more conservative viewers, because won’t someone think of the children, who will now learn such horrible words from TV (which struck me as ridiculous even at the age of eight, because everybody I knew already knew those words). And of course it’s only appropriate that Götz George, who was reportedly named after the most famous curser in German literature, would be the one to normalise swearing on German TV. Coincidentally, no one in 1981 complained about the racial epithet used in the dialogue shortly after the “Scheiße” bit, which is very telling.
Horst Schimanski continued to be unconventional and controversial (more controversy was caused by Götz George appearing nearly naked in the 1984 episode Zweierlei Blut – even my parents were horrified, while I quietly hoped he would drop the towel). Gone were the genteel upper middle class suburbs, instead Schimanski investigated crimes in working class neighbourhoods and dealt with thefts of union funds, football hooligans, sexual child abuse and racist attacks on Turkish-Germans (coincidentally, Schimanski even had a Turkish German lover in the 1985 episode Zahn um Zahn). The huge success of the Schimanski Tatorte and the social realism of the crimes and settings ushered in an era of socially conscious Tatorte that still continues today.
Now, thirty-five years later, part of what makes the old Schimanski Tatorte so fascinating is that they offer a glimpse into a postwar working class world of grimy towns and rusty industrial estates, of corner pubs and allotment sheds, that was already rapidly vanishing by the time those episodes were shot (see this clip from Das Mädchen auf der Treppe for an example, complete with music by Tangerine Dream). And indeed, the dying pangs of the old industry occasionally became the subject of Schimanski episodes.
Revolutionary as the Schimanski Tatorte were, they might have been even more revolutionary, if Götz George had had his way and had been allowed to play Schimanski as a gay man. But if a working class cop saying “Scheiße” and ending up naked on a football field caused controversy, that would have been nothing against the firestorm caused by a gay man working as a cop in a mainstream TV show. And so Schimanski was resolutely heterosexual with a succession of lovers.
However, in the very early episodes, George still plays Schimanski as a closeted gay man who is infatuated with his straightlaced partner Tanner, played by Eberhard Falk who preceded Götz George into that great Ruhrpott in the sky in 1994. It’s never made explicit, but the signs are there, if you know where to look, perhaps never clearer than in what would be Schimanski’s finest hour and probably the best Tatort of all time, the 1982 episode Kuscheltiere (Plush toys). Trigger warning for harm to children:
In this Tatort episode, Schimanski tackles the illegal adoption industry where Vietnamese kids are sold to childless German couples (there’s a drug smuggling plot, too). When one of the kids winds up dead, Schimanski and Tanner get involved. Once again, it’s a ripped from the headlines case, because a lot of couples adopted Vietnamese children in the 1970s and early 1980s and often had to deal with blatant racism.
The most memorable moment of this episode comes near the end (here, though you should really watch the whole thing), when Schimanski realises why the couple to whom he’d traced the dead kid could still present a living adopted kid, namely the kids were twins and one died (of natural causes). At the very end of the episode, the adoptive father shows up with the surviving kid in tow and basically dumps her onto Schimanski, complaining that he paid sixty thousand Deutschmarks for the kids and then one died, his wife fell into depression and besides, the neighbours are talking and a kid like that doesn’t really belong into a nice German suburb anyway. And Schimanski tenderly takes the abandoned little girl in his arm, turns her away, so she won’t see it, and punches out the vile father. Then he takes the little girl home, where Tanner (who’d gotten kicked out by his girlfriend) is waiting on his doorstep. “Tanner”, a delighted Schimanski announces, “We have a kid.”
It’s a powerful scene, which is made even more powerful, if you view it as the precursor to gay parenthood that it was never allowed to be (though Schimanski and Tanner shared a flat – totally platonic of course – for a while). The little girl reappeared in later Schimanski episodes BTW, though sadly the name of the actress is lost to history.
Götz George left Tatort in late 1991 and continued to appear in increasingly high profile films such as Schtonk and Rossini, two of the biggest hits of the German film boom of the 1990s. In 1995, he portrayed Weimar Republic era serial killer Fritz Haarmann in Der Totmacher (The Deathmaker) and won the best actor award at the Venice film festival. He returned to playing Schmimanski in the eponymous series in 1997 (which was not nearly as good as his Tatort years), while continuing to play difficult characters in German movies. He played Joseph Mengele and in 2012 even his own father, Heinrich George. Götz George continued to act up to his death – his final TV drama will be broadcast sometime later this year.
Impressive as those later movies are, the part with which Götz George will forever be identified is still Horst Schimanski. So rest in peace, Götz George, and thank you for helping to blow away the genteel mildew of West German TV. Say hello to Tanner up there and have a beer on me.