German film composer Martin Böttcher (1927 – 2019) died April 19th aged 91. Once again, there is no English language obituary, but here are some German ones from Tagesschau, RP Online and Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Deutschlandfunk Kultur also has a nice profile of Martin Böttcher with some musical analysis by Oliver Schwesig.
Together with Peter Thomas and Klaus Doldinger (both of whom are still alive), Martin Böttcher formed the trifecta of the great film composers in post-war (West) Germany. All three started out as jazz musicians and those musical origins also determined the course of (West) German film music for decades.
Martin Böttcher’s early life did not seem to predispose him to a musical career. Due to a childhood injury, he was deaf in one ear and initially showed little interest in music. Instead, young Martin dreamed of becoming a pilot. Those dreams were derailed, like so many, by World War II. Böttcher was drafted towards the end of the war, when the Nazis were drafting every male German aged 16 to 60. He survived and wound up in a prisoner of war camp, where he taught himself to play the guitar. After his return home, he joined the dance orchestra of the newly established North West German radio NWDR (nowadays known as NDR) as a guitarist.
By now, Böttcher had also started composing and eventually left the orchestra to become a film composer. The first movie for which he composed the music was the otherwise forgotten 1955 war movie Der Hauptmann und sein Held (The Captain and His Hero). It’s part of a series of West German WWII movies made in the second half of the 1950s, which are quite critical of the Nazis and militarism and inevitably contrast the Nazi true believers (often officers who senselessly send soldiers to their deaths) with common soldiers who are just victims of the system. I guess the brief popularity of such movies was one way of people coming to terms with World War II. I found a trailer for Der Hauptmann und sein Held on YouTube, where you can hear Böttcher’s music.
Martin Böttcher’s next work as a film composer was a minor classic, the 1956 juvenile delinquent drama Die Halbstarken (the English title is apparently Teenage Wolfpack), starring a young Horst Buchholz, who would go on to be one of The Magnificent Seven, and an even younger Karin Baal as a teen femme fatale. Die Halbstarken is a nice period piece and important to German movie history, but I have to admit that I was kind of disappointed when I first saw it. Karin Baal is great as the bad girl with the angelic face, but Buchholz’ character basically just wants the same bourgeois 1950s life as the parent generation, he only wants to use crime as a short cut to get there. That’s not how I imagine a teen rebel. The plot is very much the filmic version of a 1950s sleaze paperback. Böttcher’s music, however, played by his own jazz group Mr. Martin’s Band*, was great. Listen for yourself:
The success of Die Halbstarken, not least because of the music, made Böttcher a very much in demand film composer. He composed the theme for the 1960s Father Brown movies starring Heinz Rühmann, which are still the most palatable version of the character, probably because they are only very loose adaptations of the stories by G.K. Chesterton. Sorry, but I just cannot abide Chesterton. Still, here is Martin Böttcher’s Father Brown theme, which was reused for the German Father Brown TV series, which ran from 2003 to 2013 and starred Ottfired Fischer.
Böttcher often worked for producer Horst Wendlandt and provided the music for several of Wendlandt’s Edgar Wallace movies such as Der Fälscher von London (The Forger of London, 1961), Das Gasthaus an der Themse (The Inn on the River, 1962) or Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967), which had the disappointing English title The College Girl Murders, though a literal translation would be “The Monk with the Whip” (which the villainous monk uses to strangle college girls). I’m a huge fan of the Wallace films and for more about this unique movie series, Edgar_Wallace. The music was a large part of what made those movies so good, though nowadays Peter Thomas is more associated with the music for the Wallace movies than Martin Böttcher. However, here is Martin Böttcher’s delightfully gothic soundtrack for Der Mönch mit der Peitsche. Naturally, considering the main villain is a monk, the theme starts off with an organ, for why not?
But Böttcher’s most famous film score would be the one he composed for Horst Wendlandt’s other series, the Winnetou movies of the 1960s, based on Karl May’s adventure novels. Ironically, Martin Böttcher himself had never read a single Winnetou novel, which must make him one of the very few Germans of his generation who did not read Karl May. When someone asked him why he didn’t read the novels, Böttcher answered, “I’ve seen every single Winnetou movie dozens of times. I know how the story goes. I don’t need to read it.”
I’ve written about the Winnetou movies and what they meant for several generations of Germans before, so let’s just listen to Martin Böttcher’s iconic Old Shatterhand theme. I suppose every German born in the past sixty years will instantly have a vision of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, portrayed by Pierre Brice and Lex Barker respectively, riding across the prairie, portrayed by a national park in what is now Croatia:
Martin Böttcher also composed the themes and incidental music for several popular TV shows such as the police procedural Sonderdezernat K1 (Special Division K1) and Forsthaus Falkenau (Forester House Falkenau). We will forgive him the last one. Meanwhile, enjoy the seventiestastic title sequence of Sonderdezernat K1 and Martin Böttcher’s theme for the show.
And because I can, here are twenty-five years worth of title sequences for Forsthaus Falkenau (yes, the darned show ran for a quarter century) with Martin Böttcher’s theme in slight variations:
So thanks for the music, Martin Böttcher, and rest in peace.
*A couple of future music stars were members of Mr. Martin’s Band. The most famous is probably trombone player Ernst Mosch, who would eventually become famous as the king of traditional brass band music. Mosch’s mere name is enough to invoke shudders of horror among those who were children in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, because he and his brass band were seemingly always on TV, always plaing the same old music. Hard to imagine that he was once a gifted jazz musician, but then a lot of talented German jazz musicians eventually wound up making terrible folk pop and Schlager music.