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date: 13 December 2017

The Legal System in German Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

Legal themes, especially those related to crime, abound in German popular culture. This article covers some of the most politically significant and popular examples from the Weimar Republic period to present times, putting them into their social and media sector context.

Due to the country’s experience with totalitarian regimes, one main topic of popular culture is the political abuse of the law. Run-of-the-mill crime stories, of course, are a staple of literature and audiovisual media. Their appeal did not lessen in the age of the Internet. Due to genre and narrative conventions, mainstream media tend to shed a positive light on the institutions and personnel connected with the law.

Much of German fiction is heavily influenced by the example of US films and TV series, so far that they misrepresent the German legal system. Other influences shape content as well. Economic pressures rank high among them, while overt censorship was evident during the Third Reich (1933–1945) and after partition in the German Democratic Republic (GDR; 1949–1990). Highly regarded artistic works often focus on the topic of individual guilt, while lesser productions typically draw on the sensational aspects of crime detection. The ordering hand of the judge, putting things right after a tumultuous court hearing, signifies the German TV judge show (the equivalent of Judge Judy). Measured degrees of social criticism are typical for many of the better TV productions. And, despite television’s influence, novels and plays still claim a stake in popular culture.

Although US media productions dominate the international market for legal fiction, German TV shows, especially police series, became a success story as well. They project the image of the clean, unbiased, correct, and efficient police inspector. Critical films and programs aim mainly at the domestic market due to their specific issues. Nevertheless, the overall effect of German popular fiction dealing with crime and justice tends to be positive, with trust in the law being supported.

Keywords: Popular legal culture, German popular culture, police fiction, lawyer fiction, crime fiction, state crime, political crime, TV crime series, courtroom drama

Introduction

Research on popular legal culture addresses what laypeople think about the law, its institutions, and personnel (Friedman, 1985, p. 191). Scholars try to glean this from works of popular culture—mainly literature, film, and television; on the one hand, these media reflect a lay perspective to a certain degree, and on the other hand, they contribute to what the average citizen feels about legal matters. Popular legal culture is imbued with the zeitgeist, the political and social currents of the time. Therefore, any discussion draws not only on legal knowledge, but even more so on political and social thought. The conditions governing the production and distribution of those popular media also need to be taken into account.

Furthermore, within popular culture, anything related to the legal system is embedded into wider content, most notably fictional stories and tales of real events. The prevalence of crime and its detection in popular legal culture makes a discussion of the courts, lawyers, and judges inseparable from the portrayal of the police. The average viewer will learn about the former usually in connection with crime detection and the continuation of police action. In addition, courts, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and the laws of a country are also depicted via the influence that they have on individuals’ lives.

Over the last 100 years, Germany has seen a variety of political regimes, all affecting popular legal culture in their own way. After the authoritarian empire led by Prussia (1871–1918) ended, the Weimar Republic allowed a wide spectrum of political and artistic expression. During the rule of the National Socialists, or Nazis (1933–1945), and especially during World War II, media and public opinion were ever more tightly controlled and subject to the prevalent racist ideology, and equally so was the legal system. After the war, each of the occupying forces introduced its own policies. Between 1949 and 1990, two different German states coexisted uneasily: the Federal Republic of Germany in the west, member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union; and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), one of the Eastern Bloc countries allied with the Soviet Union. The former was larger, experienced the “economic miracle” of the 1950s, and was pluralistic in political terms. Accordingly, most of the postwar popular culture originated here. The GDR was smaller and economically less successful, and all laws and culture were treated as instruments of the Socialist Unity Party. These developments heavily influenced people’s relation to the law and the path taken by popular media.

In the process of unifying the two German states, the Federal Republic’s legal and media systems were transplanted into East Germany. A significant gap in support of the legal and political systems increasingly closed. Compared to other countries, trust in the courts, judges, lawyers, and the police in Germany appears high, although it does not reach the levels in Scandinavian countries (Machura, 2011).

The Federal Constitution in Article 20(1) declares a “democratic and social state of law.” Germany belongs to the continental European countries with a civil law tradition: Acts of parliament form the backbone of the law and are applied by an independent, though bureaucratically structured, body of career judges. Court procedures combine elements of adversary and inquisitorial style, with the presiding professional judges leading the taking of evidence, particularly in criminal cases. The use of panels of judges, including lay representatives (i.e., mixed courts), is widespread. Public prosecutors are also state employees, similar to judges, but bound to instructions, and lawyers either are independent practitioners or work in private law firms. The legal culture can be called “legalistic,” for lack of a better word, with an emphasis on the application of the legal code. Responses to crime in Germany are less punitive than in the United Kingdom and the United States, to name just two examples. For instance, rehabilitative ideals influence the reaction to crime to a higher degree. There is no death penalty.

German popular culture is full of references to legal themes. Crime and law enforcement are overrepresented because of their entertaining aspects, which appeal to the widest possible audience. Yet, there is also a tradition of drawing on recent national history to contribute to the political education of the citizenry. Usually, the content of popular media is shaped by its own dramatization needs and narrative stereotypes, and the depiction of the legal system in Germany is no exception. Due to the strong influence of US media, German law and courts are not faithfully depicted, and the audience in many ways is familiarized with a foreign legal system (Machura & Ulbrich, 2001). The many divisions and sweeping changes of the 20th century did not fail to leave their mark on German popular culture as well. Peculiar to German cultural life is a multitude of decentralized actors and institutions. However, a typical legal metanarrative occurs: The public is encouraged to trust the legal system.

Key traits of German popular culture are exemplified by some of its most prominent novels, plays, and films. “Die Strafe beginnt” (“The punishment starts”) is the first sentence of one of Germany’s most celebrated novels, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). It tells the story of a man, just released from prison, who is waging a failing battle to rebuild his life amid the chaos of the Great Depression. Döblin tackles the subject of guilt in a stylized way, creating in the central figure the perennial outcast who cannot cope with the burden that society has laid upon him. The book’s title alludes to the center square of Berlin, where the fates of different characters intertwine, many of them bordering the criminal underworld. This story was depicted in cinema in an early talkie from 1931 directed by Piel Jutzi and starring Heinrich George, one of the country’s foremost actors. For decades, the novel has been part of the school curriculum, and a much discussed TV adaptation in 1980 only furthered its centrality in German fiction. The 14-episode TV series represents the most faithful treatment of Döblin’s masterwork and is also the apotheosis of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s filmic output.

That is but one example of the depiction of existential human struggles in German high art. Humans are endlessly interested in issues of lawbreaking and law enforcement, in guilt and redemption, in detection and persecution. Seeing society successfully punishing rule-breakers contributes to its overall cohesion, as Emile Durkheim (1976, p. 181) taught. On the other hand, evading the force of law (especially its unjust application) also thrills an audience. Some artists tend to inject a dose of social critique into their storytelling, stressing society’s responsibility for producing crime.

Döblin’s contemporary, Bertolt Brecht, outright devoted his oeuvre to overthrowing capitalism, and he was fortunate enough to draw a large audience for his agitprop. His key texts also can be found in secondary schoolbooks these days, and plays like The Three-Penny-Opera (1928) are still performed in German and international theaters alike.

Brecht’s approach to society’s injustices was rather didactic, culminating in the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect), a mode of stage direction and acting that intended to break the illusion of theatrical presentation. His technique was new for its time, but it was still rather author-centered. Today, it is assumed that audiences are not only able to detect meaning in pieces of art that are difficult for them to relate to, but they also are able to interpret cultural pieces from different social and political backgrounds. Rather than mainly focusing on authors’ intentions, analyses also have to address the audience perception. Different readings of given content are always possible, and to educated consumers, they form part of the attraction of media. The ease by which the public makes sense of stories situated in foreign social and legal culture allows an interchange of popular mass media from different countries.

This aspect can explain phenomena like the Straßenfeger (street sweepers). In the 1960s, the streets literally emptied when episodes of Das Halstuch (The Scarf), a television miniseries adaptation of British crime fiction author Francis Durbridge’s stories, were screened in Germany. Recipients discussed the latest episode with another easily, as they could assume that they had shared the experience. Now, this would hardly be possible for crime fiction, as the audience is distributed over many media outlets, including pay TV, YouTube, and other channels. In these early days of television, though, Das Halstuch became a cause célèbre, to the extent that when the star comedian Wolfgang Neuss revealed the murderer before the final episode, the spoiler enraged the public, as it was denied one of the defining thrills of crime fiction.

But German cinema and television also frequently deal with serious subjects as well as pure entertainment. While some of these efforts are dismissed as being too didactic, time and again producers have succeeded at portraying legal injustices related to Germany’s recent political past. One relatively recent and acclaimed example was Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), a 2006 movie about a couple spied upon by the GDR State Security Service and a Stasi captain who develops an interest in them as people. The film not only drew a large international audience, but also roused emotions among those directly affected by the East German surveillance state. It became a defining drama for the unified nation as well, as it was made by artists originally from East and West Germany and offered a central protagonist in the Stasi captain who solves a moral dilemma by following his conscience rather than obeying orders. Thus, a typical liberal Western convention of drama (choice of free will) is infused into an East German setting, where historically the actions of the Stasi captain were highly unlikely, if only because he would have been subject to strict controls himself.

A similar pattern can be seen in one of the narratives of films about the Nazi past. A typical recent example of treatments of this subject is Das Zeugenhaus (House of Witnesses, 2014; after the book by Kohl, 2005). The TV drama deals with a little-known aspect of the Nuremberg trials against leaders of the Nazi state. Witnesses for the prosecution and defense waited in the same villa to be called. In this tense climate, these individuals had to come to terms with their past and face their future in light of what they had or had not done. The all-important matter is the question of guilt by various degrees of implication in Nazi crimes. At first, depictions of the Third Reich concentrated mostly on military dramas, including military justice [e.g., Kriegsgericht (Court Martial), 1959], but since the 1970s, a broader range of collaboration and involvement with the regime was depicted. Thus, the genres of crime and law films were loaded with key political issues. However, these genres partially owe their influence to the ever-increasing availability of literature, audio, and moving images.

From Printed to Digital Media

Media communication relies on technologies that can transport meaning to wide audiences. Since the invention of the printing press, new technologies have appeared, influencing media products. They opened up the possibility of multimedia dissemination of content. Crime literature is still in high demand, despite all the films and TV series on offer. Novels by Bernhard Schlink1 and Ferdinand von Schirach, the first a legal scholar, the second a lawyer (Künzel, 2016, p. 71), produced bestsellers dealing with legal topics, such as Schlink’s Der Vorleser (The Reader), published in 1995. Some of these have found their way to the big and small screen.

The case of the “Captain of Köpenick” also stands out as a prime subject of multimedia treatment, forming the basis of a 1931 theatrical play, Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain of Köpenick), by Carl Zuckmayer (1957); six film versions (1907, 1913, 1926, 1931, 19452 and 1956); at least three TV adaptions (1960, 1997, and 2001); and several radio plays. This historic case from the Imperial Era had at its center the injustice of laws designed to control the poor. A shoemaker, Wilhelm Voigt, released from prison in 1906, found himself unable to get a job, as he had no papers and was denied them because he was unemployed (the ultimate catch-22). Donning a captain’s uniform, Voigt put the military drills that he received in prison to use, availing himself of a platoon of soldiers and seizing the town hall of Köpenick so he could lay his hands on the long-desired passport. The story became emblematic for the obedience demanded from Prussian soldiers, state servants, and citizens alike. During the course of the 20th century, the several performances of this play and the film productions varied their approach to telling the tale of the false captain, emphasizing either the tragic or the satirical aspects, but always retaining its popular appeal. While the exact times and mores in which such behavior flourished are long gone, the story inevitably took on a scent of nostalgia, its core proved timeless.

The Legal System in German Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 1. In the film drama Der Jugendrichter (Judge and Juvenile, 1960), Judge Dr. Ferdinand Bluhme (middle), played by Heinz Rühmann, professes the principle of “love with firmness.” While the lay assessors are still under the impression of the unrepentant attitude of the defendant, the lighting and his facial expression suggest that the judge has made up his mind already.

Source: Film still from Der Jugendrichter.

Certainly, the bulk of crime- and law-related material had a more benign view of the social and legal systems. Those who held the highest positions in the popular entertainment industry saw to it that a similar spirit as the (American) Motion Picture Production Code prevailed. Authorities were to be portrayed in a favorable light, and certainly as capable of dealing with any social problems. The 1960 film Der Jugendrichter (Judge and Juvenile) testifies to this. Here, a middle-aged judge who professes to the educational maxim of “love with firmness” (Figure 1) is more than a match for a whole gang of unruly, leather-jacketed Rock ’n Rollers.

On a more serious level, a real-life format like Aktenzeichen XY (the German equivalent of the US television show America’s Most Wanted and the British Crime Watch) draws on the gritty details of true-to-life crimes committed and still unsolved. In these shows, crimes are reenacted in brief clips mixed with mug shots and interviews with police detectives. Since the debut of Aktenzeichen XY in 1967, the audience has been prompted to come forward with any information on cases, usually limited to crimes like robbery and murder. Because it has aired for such a long time, the program has become a staple of the audience’s diet and formed to no small measure public knowledge about crime and its detection. The series has its critics as well; they decry its suggestive film clips, arguing that a culture of informing has been created and that the show concentrates on violence at the expense of white-collar crime.

Aktenzeichen XY includes an element of audience participation, as people phone in with tip-offs that not only sometimes lead to immediate arrests, but also are communicated (without giving away details). Furthermore, the Internet allows members of the public to become broadcasters themselves. For example, LeFloid (whose given name is Florian Mundt), has assembled 2.7 million (mostly young) followers on YouTube with his hyperactive appearance and uninhibited comments on almost everything. The topic of law and justice, for example, is characteristically covered in an entry whose heading translates as “Doctor Who Fans Beat up Star Wars Fans!—Police Chases Child Molesters in a Chat—NSU Trial”).3

The audience has a large menu of media offerings to choose among, and it still often settles for stories about crime and criminal justice. While older formats prevail, though in a modernized form, new outlets continue to emerge as well. Thanks to the new media, it is no longer the case that an elite phalanx of goalkeepers controls the message—today, interested recipients are only a few mouse clicks away from becoming communicators themselves.

Between Avant Garde and Mass Entertainment

Even if in theory, anyone may be able to produce media content today, the tried and tested concepts of media studies have not become obsolete. Scholars and connoisseurs have always differentiated between pioneering high art and low-rise fodder for quick consumption by the so-called masses. In many cases, the critical reception of individual books, films, or TV series is rightfully contested. There are, however, identifiable examples of highly acclaimed pieces.

The labyrinthic and foreboding aspects of the justice system are described as “Kafkaesque.” The unfinished novel Der Prozeß (The Trial), released in 1925 by Franz Kafka, had already been a modern classic when it was made into a film in 1962. It was widely understood as a parable on the alienating effects of modern life. The rather bleak subject matter and Orson Welles’s high-toned art direction makes the film an acquired taste despite the cast of international stars. Welles modernized Kafka’s work by evoking the total annihilation of humanity through the nuclear threat. It is hardly a crowd-pleaser; still, the original critique of bureaucratized justice and meticulously governed life is preserved.

The same can be said of Alexander Kluge’s Abschied von Gestern (Yesterday Girl, 1966) an early example of the “new German cinema” of the 1960s. The film takes a rather inaccessible form, mixing realistic scenes with heavy visual metaphors and outright documentary elements, such as the sudden appearance of General Prosecutor Fritz Bauer.4 The plot concerns the fate of a young East German émigré who cannot adapt to the West German “economic miracle” and resorts to petty crime.

Only entertaining products gain longevity in the popular market. They may, however, contain some social criticism. In part, it stems from genre conventions. In detective fiction, a working-class protagonist often is pitted against affluent and well-educated villains. In addition, popular media tend to pick topics from the headlines. The preeminent example must be the flagship of German TV series, Tatort (Scene of the Crime). Since 1970, more than 950 episodes (including Swiss and Austrian entries) have aired in the Sunday evening prime-time slot. Of all the different inspectors portrayed in the show, Horst Schimanski, played by Götz George, stands out. In one of the early episodes he was shown to the audience disrespectfully placing his foot on a poster board displaying his suit-clad predecessor. In 29 Tatort episodes, cinematic adaptations, and a spin-off series (Hruska & Evermann, 2004, p. 263), the Schimanski character appears rather rebellious, swearing profusely, seeking physical contact with villains, and constantly facing dismissal from the police force (Figure 2). Naturally, this approach divided the audience, but more liberal-minded younger viewers loved the unconventional detective.

The Legal System in German Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 2. In the German TV series Tatort, Kommissar Horst Schimanski (front), played by Götz George, was ready to take any risks in the pursuit of justice.

Source: Film still from TV documentary Mythos TATORT—Die Kult-Kommissare von Schimanski bis Thiel (mit Audiodeskription), Retrieved from http://www.ardmediathek.de/tv/Doku-am-Freitag/Mythos-TATORT-Die-Kult-Kommissare-von-/WDR-Fernsehen/Video?documentId=30892008&bcastId=12877116.

The “Schimanski” episodes of the Tatort series were typical of this earlier period in their gritty realism. Situated in the industrial Ruhr area, Schimanski appeared as a working-class hero, and his cases somehow reflected the topics of the politicized 1970s. However, Schimanski remained a policeman, and each episode ended according to the paradigm of the state prevailing. But the police are the heroes in Tatort, not the public prosecutors and certainly not the lawyers. While more contemporary episodes tend to be more polished, sometimes even emulating cinematic style in their direction and production values, the political angle lives on. The old class perspective is often replaced by more contemporary topics like pollution and eroding family structures (including child molestation). The Tatort series was also avant-garde in presenting the first fictional female police investigator, played by Nicole Heesters, in 1978. Female commissioners then became commonplace in many series, mirroring and perhaps facilitating women taking over high profile jobs in society.

The East German equivalent to Tatort rivaled its counterpart in popularity. Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110), which debuted in 1971, was one of the few survivors of the end of the socialist state. Early episodes located the grounds of crime in the remnants of the capitalist past, while later episodes dealt with “the people’s police” coming to terms with the new political circumstances in a unified Germany. Polizeiruf 110, therefore, developed from a political standpoint defined by the Socialist Unity Party to subtler criticism broadcast on German public TV channels.

The endless programs of private television form mass culture by definition. They have won over 52.4% of the TV audience (Verband Privater Rundfunk- und Telemedien, 2016). A self-produced series like Alarm für Cobra 11—Die Autobahnpolizei (Alarm for Cobra 11—The Highway Police) shows at least some of the changes that have taken place in German society; for example, it features a mainstay character with a Turkish background. Yet, social criticism is not the forte of programs on private channels; rather, they echo the action-packed crime series popular in the US (Machura & Böhnke, 2016).

Although completely fictional formats are likely to come to mind more easily when thinking about popular legal culture, documentaries and fictional stories centering around historic cases also play a significant part in shaping the public’s view of the law.

Real Cases

The depiction of real cases forms one major aspect of popular legal culture. It is also markedly different in its approach. Where fictional stories tend to almost glorify the legal world, those taken from the headlines or history books paint a much bleaker picture. First, they are remembered because something went seriously wrong. In Germany, inevitably, this involves injustices from the political past.

The TV miniseries Der Prozeß─Eine Darstellung des Majdanek-Verfahrens in Düsseldorf (1984) is one of the most ambitious projects delving into the Holocaust. Similar to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), but less widely known, the production relies mostly on “talking heads” instead of original footage (which is sparse) to cover a years-long trial against the guards of the Majdanek concentration camp. The director, Eberhard Fechner, juxtaposes the interview scenes of all the participants involved in the trial, employing an editing style that almost gives the audience the impression that they are having a debate. Nevertheless, a conclusion is implied that the law is an insufficient tool to cope with crimes on such a massive scale, burying the possibility of the admittance of individual guilt in the laudable, but bureaucratic process. Two decades before, Peter Weiss reflected on West Germany’s earlier attempt in bringing the mass murderers to justice with his theatrical play based solely on protocols of the “Auschwitz Prozeß.” Die Ermittlung (The Investigation), which was first performed in 1965, plus several TV films in later years, stands as an early attempt to deal artistically with the perpetrators’ psyche and the state of affairs in postwar Germany as well.

The Bachmeier case, a famous criminal case involving vigilante justice, inspired two films. The best known was directed by Hark Bohm, a former lawyer: Der Fall Bachmeier—Keine Zeit für Tränen (The Bachmeier CaseNo Time for Tears, 1984). The movie focuses on the dilemma of a young mother whose little daughter was molested and murdered. She feels guilty of neglecting the child by working late night shifts in a bar. Finally, she resorts to killing the suspect in the courtroom. Telling the story from her perspective, the film evokes sympathy without advocating similar action. Another much-debated historic murder trial was that of Vera Brühne, who was convicted of killing her wealthy friend. Again, Bohm filmed the story with an understanding for the main protagonist (Vera Brühne, 2001). To the present day, rumors have endured that she was the victim of intrigue and the real perpetrator got away. This exemplifies some of the attraction of some of the films about real cases: They have not finally been put to rest in the court of public opinion.

Another important feature of legal fiction of whatever persuasion is the influence of foreign legal culture via media products, as well as how national literature, film, and television react to it (Machura & Ulbrich, 1999). The German film and TV industry, however, not only gains from international models, but also has become an exporter of legal fiction.

National Media Culture in an Age of Globalization

Even during the Third Reich, German films were not limited to domestic settings; they covered crime and law in foreign countries as well—though with a Nazi propaganda approach, of course. Sensationsprozeß Casilla (1939) is a prime example, showing a star lawyer, played by Heinrich George (Figure 3), defending an innocent German defendant at a biased US court. The film worked for the home audience, however, only because they were already familiar with US courtroom dramas.5 This is one early example of the globalization of popular legal culture.

The Legal System in German Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 3. Brochure advertising the crime film Der Verteidiger hat das Wort! (The Defense Has the Floor, 1944). The title figure was played by the foremost German actor of the time, Heinrich George, whose prestige, as in Sensationsprozeß Casilla (1939), lent credibility to the propaganda. Der Verteidiger hat das Wort! aimed to instill trust in Nazi justice, while Sensationsprozeß Casilla questioned US courts.

Source: Isensee and Drexler (2002, p. 75).

An especially poignant example of legal-cultural globalization through the media is the iconic Hollywood film Twelve Angry Men (1957), about a jury weighing the fate of a young boy accused of killing his father. It is generally regarded as the pinnacle of liberal American courtroom drama. The original motion picture was highly acclaimed in the United States, and it won the prestigious Berlinale Award in the year of its release. In addition, there was a faithful and even slightly expanded German adaptation Die zwölf Geschworenen (1963), one of the first features presented by the second German public TV channel. Although the cast consisted of familiar German performers, the narrative retains the American setting and even adds more than one reference to the iconic American lawyer president Abraham Lincoln (Figure 4). The timeless, almost Olympian drama, which illustrates the search for justice as well as group dynamics (Beck, 2001), has such universal appeal that adaptations in countries as diverse as France, Russia, and India have followed. The German film’s qualities and the audience’s approval are all the more remarkable considering that the use of juries in Germany ended in 1924 (Hadding, 1974), and thus hardly anyone was able to draw on personal experience to understand the situation depicted.

The Legal System in German Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 4. One of the first films produced by the second German TV channel ZDF, was Die zwölf Geschworenen (1963), an adaptation of the famous film Twelve Angry Men (1957). In the deliberation room, a picture of Abraham Lincoln, the iconic American president and justice figure, watches over the jury. This again signifies the influence of the US on many German productions.

Source: Film still from Die zwölf Geschworenen, on the DVD set Straßenfeger, vol. 25, Studio Hamburg Distribution and Marketing, Hamburg 2010.

The contrast of this display of democracy at work, with a lay jury doing its best and reaching a just result in the end, could not be more opposed to Die Wannseekonferenz (The Wannsee Conference, 1984), which showed another gathering of men in one room. This time, they were lawyer-bureaucrats organizing the mass murder of European Jews during World War II. In early 1942, representatives of the Nazi government and administrators assembled in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to work out the “Final Solution.” Although it is impossible to exactly reconstruct the course of action, the film chose a realistic approach to produce a shock effect stemming from the contradiction between the well-mannered behavior of these men and the monstrous decisions they were making. It shows a well-fed elite of military and administrative personnel, with Reinhard Heydrich as the central perpetrator, cunningly manipulating the bureaucratic apparatus to achieve their murderous ends.

The negative appeal of this drama is universal, as testified to later by a British-American TV adaptation (Conspiracy, 2001). The impact of the former version is somewhat greater, even though it avoids the overt depiction of the evil character traits of some of the participants. Even Roland Freisler, who was known to throw tantrums as president of the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court), acts calmly in this different social environment. The outcome is all the more chilling because there is no counterbalancing figure—as there was in Twelve Angry Men—and the resistance against Heydrich’s plans stems solely from technocratic reasons, not humanitarian ones. Upon its release, the film ignited a hefty debate about its content and the authenticity of the presentation (Höhne, 1984).

The popular crime series touches more common ground and usually serves other purposes than fostering discussions about state atrocities or the “banality of evil” (Arendt, 2006, p. 287). In the enduringly popular Ein Fall für Zwei (A Case for Two), which has broadcast over 300 episodes since 1981, a posh lawyer constantly solves his cases in cooperation with a working-class private eye. This configuration is borrowed from successful US models (German lawyers have hardly any investigatory obligations).

At the same time, Germany exported its crime fiction. For example, Derrick (1974–1998, with 281 episodes) was sold to more than 100 countries. The episodes of this program concentrate on the impeccable behavior of the police inspector and subliminally warn against the danger lurking within unconventional lifestyles (Hermsdorf, in press). Another mode of broadcasting is the international coproduction, one prime example of which is Wallander, coproduced by German channels. This series became very influential due to its low-key photography, depressive protagonist succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, and negative characterization of contemporary life. While coproductions often are done due to economic necessity, they also sometimes have tended to set the tone for a generation of film products that endlessly pursue the murder chase, or the topic of criminal defense in court, in various ways.

Fatih Akin, a German director of Turkish descent, located his drama Gegen die Wand (Head-On, 2004) in the immigrant milieu, where two outcasts unwillingly enter into a fake marriage and subsequently find themselves plunged into a nightmare of crime. The film marks the ethnical diversity of contemporary German society. Nowadays, German films and TV series often employ topics of multiculturalism in an attempt to dramatize topics of adaptation, of eking out an existence full of competing cultural demands. They typically appeal to viewers and allow them to come to terms with the new social realities.

Actors interested in the social and political status quo, as well as those aiming at a top-down transformation according to a grand political design, often are tempted to intervene when they feel threatened by media messages. Yet, the arts and the media are social systems of their own, and they thrive if left to their own specific logic (Luhmann, 1997, 2000). They sometimes clash with political powers, and more often with economic constraints. Interference comes at a cost.

Political Media Control, Economic Necessities, and Creative Autonomy

German popular culture tends to be less original and adventurous than some of its foreign counterparts. This explains in part the dominance of Hollywood films and American and British pop music, comic strips, and other products. The cinema of the Weimar Republic has brought forth an array of original talent, which may be attributed to the novelty of the medium and a crisis state between liberal aims and economic disasters. In Germany, the intermingling of entrepreneurship and state support often has restrained creative efforts. Usually cinematic products are cofinanced by the public television stations, theaters are operated by the cities, and the big publishing houses sometimes dismiss popular culture, relying on putting out reprints of classics instead. Under these conditions, popular entertainment often strives for the lowest common denominator. Films are also watched by the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle (FSK; “Voluntary Self-Control”), a monitoring organization of the film industry established in 1949, which operates a system of age classification. Creative personnel, therefore, often aim at either high art (which is granted more freedom), or mass entertainment (promising long-term viability). Finding an appropriate middle ground proves to be a very difficult task.

The most drastic means of dealing with problematic media content is to prohibit it. The German language has a telling, ironic expression for books or other media products whose access is denied—they are put in the Giftschrank (poison cabinet). What is considered by the authorities to fall in this category varies over time. One of the constants since the end of World War II, however, is a ban on Nazi propaganda.

As leading German film personnel served the Nazi regime, sensibilities are still high. The 2001 documentary Jud Süß—Ein Film als Verbrechen? (Jew Süß—A Film as Crime?) asks if film directors have any criminal liability for their products. Veit Harlan, one of the eminent filmmakers of the Third Reich, was, at Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbel’s behest, responsible for Jud Süß, the most prominent anti-Semitic drama. This 1940 film enticed hatred against the Jewish minority among parts of the contemporary audience (Ecke, 2002, pp. 66–68) by distorting the facts about the rise and fall of a Jewish financial adviser to the Duke of Wurttemberg, culminating in his persecution and execution. As the Nazi film portrayed it, he was sentenced for raping an “Arian” girl. After the war, Harlan found himself charged with crimes against humanity for creating the movie.

Jud Süß—Ein Film als Verbrechen? depicted the prewar and postwar events, and in all likelihood, persuades its viewers that Harlan did bear moral responsibility. The topic remains relevant today because the Jud Süß movie still cannot be legally bought in Germany. The authorities assume that it still instigates anti-Jewish sentiments.

Another very rare example of political censorship in West Germany is the drama Bambule (1970), dealing with abuse happening in youth homes. It was written by none other than Ulrike Meinhof, who in subsequent years fronted the Red Army Faction (a radical organization also known as “Bader-Meinhof-Group”). Because of her involvement in terrorism, the feature was not aired for decades. The first nationwide screening of the film came in 2012, in a series on forbidden movies by the German-French Arte channel.

Film art was more tightly controlled in socialist East Germany. For example, Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones, 1966) was banned for its depiction of unruly construction workers and a party official ready to revise central planning, as well as happily committing adultery. The latter faces a comrade court. These lay tribunals watched over the discipline of party members, and their decisions could have a permanent impact on someone’s career. While their boss is in trouble, the workers take their own little liberties, culminating in a group plunge into the city’s stately fountain. The film became widely available only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, and now it is considered a classic.

For the old West Germany, and certainly for today’s Germany, economic constraints are felt much more than political ones. Being relatively inexpensive to produce, law shows are a staple of German television. Public channel series that began in the 1970s, such as Wie würden Sie entscheiden? (How Would You Decide?), running from 1974–2000; and Ehen vor Gericht (Marriages at Court), running from 1970–2000, introduced viewers to the workings of the law, focusing on didactically presented cases. The studio audience voted on the outcome in each case, but legal practitioners (most prominently judges) had the last word.

The private German TV channels transformed the court show genre with an adaptation of the American Judge Judy format, featuring a judge or mediator resolving disputes (Machura, 2012; Olson, 2013). Unlike Judge Judy, however, Richterin Barbara Salesch (whose show ran from 1999–2012) and most of her TV judge colleagues presided over an adult or juvenile criminal court. The US small claims court procedure did not thrill German afternoon viewers, so a rowdy criminal court was presented instead. Former real-life judges listened to fictitious, often highly dramatized cases, with real lawyers playing the prosecution and defense attorneys, but the other personnel were played mainly by lay actors, all to give the impression of reality. The TV producers meticulously noted trends in viewership, and they likely noticed that ratings typically would rise if a scantily clad witness took the stand, parties insulted each other or broke down in tears, or a witness surprisingly confessed to the crime. Given the afternoon time slot and the largely teenage viewership, the Bavarian Censor Board threatened to intervene, at which time the shows were bowdlerized. These judge shows proved very popular for a number of years and have positively influenced the prestige of judges but negatively how people expect to be treated by the other party in court.

All in all, market influences must always be reckoned with when it comes to popular legal culture. The widest possible audience is available only at the expense of the accurate portrayal of legal proceedings.

Social Change

Films on crime and justice also reflect some of society’s current trends, including those that have already been made into law. There is a two-way relationship: Social change influences products of popular legal culture, but the latter also affect society. Some filmmakers have a political, legal, or social agenda, which they try to convey through their art. One way to achieve this is to put things on the screen long before they become reality. For example, in the mainstream police detective series Der Alte (The Old Fox), the main character had a black assistant in the 1980s, at a time when there were hardly any nonwhite police officers in Germany. In fact, Der Alte early on heralded a development that has now set in with men and women from ethnic minorities being increasingly represented among state officials.

After the war, there was a widespread taboo in West Germany against talking about the Nazi past of a whole generation of lawyers. Even the 1959 masterpiece Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor), directed by Wolfgang Staudte, was not allowed to tackle the topic head on, so a satirical approach was chosen instead, and the producer insisted on a more compromising ending (Netenjakob, 1991, p. 71). In the story, a German soldier in 1945 faces the death penalty for taking two rations of chocolate. The special prosecutor (Kriegsgerichtsrat) is shown as a fanatic Nazi, even at a time when the downfall of the regime was inevitable. Later, in 1950s Germany, the soldier again crosses the path of the man who almost got him killed. Now, this man is an esteemed representative of the new democracy, while the ex-soldier is more of an outcast. Eventually, the downtrodden man faces the same prosecutor in court, for stealing the same amount of chocolate. Played to satirical effect, the confused prosecutor demands the death penalty (abolished in West Germany in 1949) and thus blews his cover as a “democratic” public servant. Here, the criticism of the unbroken careers of many ex-Nazis comes across clearly, but the film also expressed that there are reasonable superior officials in the justice system. The film was made at a time in which many, maybe most Germans did not want to discuss the Nazi past. This was, however, about to change. Roughly a decade later, a generation of students and other young people would demonstrate on the streets and ask their fathers about their involvement in the Third Reich.

The 1960s also brought about a broad discussion of sexual morals. Die Konsequenz (1977) deals with a homosexual relationship between an incarcerated adult actor (played by Jürgen Prochnow), and a minor, the 15-year-old jailer’s son. In the film, the youth enters the relationship willingly. When the controversial film was broadcast, the Bavarian television station known for its conservative attitude refused transmission, so that it was not seen in this major province.

In some ways, this TV production followed the tradition of the Aufklärungsfilm (Kasten, 2005, pp. 82–119) of the pre–Nazi Weimar Republic. Those silent films explored various taboo subjects, like prostitution, abortion, and homosexuality, while catering to the public’s appetite for sensational content.

One of the biggest social changes concerns understanding and protecting the natural environment. A topical recent entry, Die Lügen der Sieger (The Lies of the Victors, 2014) tells the story of journalists being abused by big business. A giant chemical corporation, with its spin doctors and far-reaching political connections, proves more than a match for a smart investigative journalist. At the end, the protagonist finds himself duped, having penned a sensational story that missed the key point, a redefinition of admissible chemical waste levels. The strength of this film is the Orwellian depiction of the company, with its faceless specialists and their complex machinations extending into the legislative process.

Another most influential social movement of present times is feminism. Today, female police officers, some in leading positions, are no longer an exception on television. Mord mit Aussicht (Homicide Hills), a satire which has been on television since 2008, goes one step further by taking the success of feminism for granted. A career-driven policewoman finds herself transferred to one of the remotest rural areas of Germany. With her brash, can-do attitude, she offends her easygoing colleagues and gets herself into impossible situations. A quarter-century ago, a story like this would have been dismissed as anti-feminist. Its acceptance now attests to the changing times.

All this history poses the question of why people continue to trust legal authorities, in spite of numerous, far-reaching changes that were propagated by media and deeply affected both private and public life. Several factors contribute to this (Machura, 2011), but the following section is concerned with popular legal culture.

The Culture of Trust

Any research into the effects of media has to start by analyzing content. What are the prevailing themes, and what do they suggest to the recipients? The main message is basically reassuring (Machura, 2016). Fictional media dealing with law and justice tend to paint a favorable picture of law-enforcement agencies, legal personnel, and the law itself. Nicole Rafter (2006, p. 136) wrote about “justice figures” and “injustice figures.” The former struggle to achieve the ultimate objectives of establishing the truth and reaching a fair and equitable solution, while the latter try to obstruct justice. The archetypical legal story starts with a crisis—a crime has been committed—but against all odds, the main character (with whom the viewer can identify) succeeds to put things right again. The criminal opponents usually fail spectacularly.

Popular fiction suggests that legal institutions are trustworthy, and it is only the failings of individuals that endanger justice being done (Greenfield, Osborn, & Robson, 2001, p. 27). The quality of the people in charge is key. This is especially the case in TV series. As Michael Asimow (2000, pp. 557–558) points out, TV series are made to attract viewers for a long time, and this is usually achieved by endearing the main characters to them and punishing the villains at the end of each episode.

The pattern clearly applies to the German TV series described earlier in this article. In addition, the well-written series Liebling Kreuzberg (1986–1999) follows this convention exemplarily: It presents as the central figure a lawyer who seems almost as eccentric as his clients, but nevertheless he serves them with great success. He can be characterized as the “legal family doctor.” Another even more formulaic example is the judge show genre discussed previously, in which the judge almost invariably sentences the real culprit. The narrative modes of some recent American TV dramas like Breaking Bad (2008–2013), in which the main characters are ambivalent and have ambiguous morality (to say the least), and The Good Wife (2009–2016), featuring complex storylines spread over multiple episodes, have not yet inspired German scriptwriters.

This said, a dynamic that leads to constant variation is also typical of popular fiction. On one hand, the audience expects the tried and true, but it also gets bored quickly if there is not at least some degree of variety and originality to the programming. Films made for cinema, which in Germany are typically coproduced by a public TV channel, exhibit this trait more than bread-and-butter TV series: Artistic license is almost a requirement. Plots may be more complex and the outcome less predictable, but usually some kind of trust in state institutions is retained and reinforced. Also, various social changes (i.e., female or black police detectives, a more tolerant view of minorities, etc.) can be integrated into this paradigm.

While the basic plot offers a privileged mode of interpretation, members of the audience may develop their own opinions (for different modes of reading, see Hall, 1980, pp. 136–138). Reading between the lines was especially valuable in times of totalitarian rule. Restriction of creativity was so strict during these periods that the average viewer came to conclude that artistic content could not be taken at face value. The audience not only found its own interpretations, but also looked out for hidden messages and irony.

This mechanism also applies to more open societies, where recipients and creative personnel sometimes enjoy subtlety and content that goes beyond what meets the eye. Media in those societies tend to communicate their very openness and the trustworthiness of institutions in a way that emboldens their critics. Herbert Marcuse (1966, pp. 91–128) coined the expression “repressive tolerance” to describe situations where critique and social change are incorporated into what he saw as the overall power structure. From a different perspective, generalized trust in institutions and their people (“diffuse support,” in the words of Easton, 1965, p. 17) are most welcome, as they enable decision making in a democratic society.

Some readers and viewers may follow their own special selection criteria. Personal experiences or expert knowledge may contradict the standard narrative. For instance, lawyers often find legal fiction unbearable. Representatives of the German Judge Association publicly criticized the depiction of court proceedings and the way they were portrayed in TV court shows. On the other hand, some lawyers have acquired a special taste for courtroom dramas, detective fiction, or similar works. People who have had bad experiences with lawyers (maybe by losing cases in court), or feel unfairly treated by the police may concentrate on negative portrayals in the media. Obviously, there are fewer negative than positive portrayals in German productions. However, there remain examples like the TV film Duell der Richter (Duel of Judges, 1999), which shows two judges feuding over who will be promoted to the position of presiding judge. Meanwhile, because of their conflict, the case they both hear as judges together develops into a mistrial.

While the messages taken from legal fiction can vary, there nevertheless is a narrative metaconvention that dominates German popular culture. Most viewers and readers will feel encouraged to trust the legal system. However, recent developments may well start to erode this consensus. On the one hand, the German population is getting more and more diverse; on the other, television is losing its central influence to the Internet. As a result, media and law studies have never been timelier, and future research may discover a shifting landscape.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

Interest in popular legal culture developed late in Germany, mainly in the late 1990ies, following the American lead. Tellingly, many publications focused on US cinema and television (e.g., Castendyk, 1992; Kuzina, 2000). Previously, it did not go unnoticed that the public has been influenced by popular fiction, but more in passing. Classic explorations of German film theory like Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947) dealt with topics of morality and state authority, but not specifically with popular legal culture. Literature on the works of directors or authors contains only marginal discussion of their films or books related to law (e.g., Pflaum & Prinzler, 1992, pp. 161–162, on Spur der Steine). In the context of Kafka’s oeuvre, his novel The Trial, including its themes of law and justice, has attracted much scholarly attention (Schmidhäuser, 1966; Hebell, 1993; Ziolkowski, 1996).

Two of the earliest publications on crime and courts on TV came from criminologist Hans Joachim Schneider (1965, 1977). Articles that criminology professor Klaus Lüderssen published over many years on crime and law literature and some TV films are reprinted in his 2002 book. The quarterly journal Richter ohne Robe by the German Lay Judge Association regularly reviews products of popular legal culture. Its most prolific author is Hasso Lieber, a former judge and politician. The law journal Neue Juristische Wochenschrift publishes a special issue on law and literature each year.

Another significant volume called Verbrechen–Justiz–Medien (Linder & Ort, 1999) includes an overview article by Peter Drexler (1999) on German courtroom films released between 1930 and 1960. In the same book, another contribution, by Ricarda Strobel, follows the development of West German TV crime series from 19531994. Drexler (2001) also authored an English-language text about courtroom films in the Nazi period.

Fritz Lang’s film classic M (1931), in which the criminal underworld stages a trial against a child murderer, reflects elements of the Weimar Republic, including a sorely felt lack of trust in the legal system, according to Daniel Siemens (2006, pp. 206207). The masterpiece has also been discussed by many other critics, such as Bergman and Asimow (1996, pp. 241244) and Tushnet (2006).

Machura and Ulbrich (2001) highlight several aspects of cultural globalization, including the influence of US patterns of storytelling, based on the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann. The article also quantifies and categorizes the airtime devoted to legal topics. A more recent update can be found in Machura and Böhnke (2016): TV judge shows went into decline, a vast amount of US series dominates on private TV channels, and domestic quality productions are almost exclusively made for public channels.

Recht im Film (Machura & Ulbrich, 2002) features two contributions that delve into national cinema. Felix Ecke discusses anti-Jewish films from the Nazi period, including Jud Süß; He describes, how as a young man, he witnessed a showing of the infamous propaganda film. Eyke Isensee (collaborating with Peter Drexler) investigates the depiction of the courts in films of the Third Reich.

The advent of the TV judge shows, their popular appeal, and the protest of professional organizations were the focus of a number of publications (e.g., Ulbrich, 2003; Grimm, 2005; Brauer, 2007; Mikos, 2007). They included empirical audience research pointing out that the sensationalized proceedings did not go unnoticed and impressed the audience (Thym, 2003; Machura, 2012). Generally, the TV judges were much admired (Machura, 2011), but lawyers were slightly less trusted (Machura, 2015). Notably, one of the German TV judges, a criminologist herself, wrote about the production experience (Herz, 2006; Moran, Skeggs, & Herz, 2010). Greta Olson (2013) contrasts Judge Judy, the American TV judge emphasizing individual responsibility, with the more benign German equivalent, Barbara Salesch, characterizing one as “neoliberal” and the other as “social democratic.”

The German Aktenzeichen XY and the British Crime Watch are compared in Kafatou-Haeusermann (2007). The Tatort series has attracted considerable interest as well. A recent book (Hißnauer, Scherer, & Stockinger, 2014) concentrates on its aesthetic and narrative aspects, as well as the production history. The ongoing international popularity of the Derrick series was underscored by it being the focus of an essay by none other than Umberto Eco (2000). Critics discuss the especially bureaucratically correct treatment received by all the cases, as well as how the fact that the series author, Herbert Reinecker, had a Nazi past may have influenced Derrick (Aurich, Beckenbach, & Jacobsen, 2010; Hermsdorf, in press).

The volume Recht populär (Stürmer & Meier, 2016b) includes a discussion of works by the best-selling author Ferdinand von Schirach, his reinvention of the genre of the lawyer novel, and the play and TV adaptations.

In Germany, the law is widely considered an area for specialists, accessible only to law graduates. Therefore, other academics tend to shy away from dealing with legal matters in depth. According to Röhl (2002, pp. 3, 35) the unpredictable effects of pictures on an audience have sparked a picture phobia in German lawyers. While it is already difficult to convey precise legal meaning through the medium of printed text, pictures are even more open to interpretation by viewers. Lawyers strive for clarity in their communications. Furthermore, at law schools, professors usually concentrate on topics related to dogmatic law. Introductions to the sociology of law have just started to mention popular legal culture (Baer, 2011, pp. 7778, 158, 263264; Röhl, 2015). The study of popular legal culture, especially film portrayals of the law, is left to those with a very special interest. This phenomenon explains why academic literature is scarce.

Further Reading

A discussion of earlier German cinema and its treatment of the country’s legal system can be found in two publications by Peter Drexler:

Drexler, P. (1999). Der deutsche Gerichtsfilm 1930–1960. Annäherungen an eine problematische Tradition. In J. Linder & C.-M. Ort (Eds.), Verbrechen—Justiz—Medien. Konstellationen in Deutschland von 1900 bis zur Gegenwart (pp. 387–402). Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer.Find this resource:

Drexler, P. (2001). The German courtroom film during the Nazi period: Ideology, aesthetics, historical context. In S. Machura & P. Robson (Eds.), Law and film (pp. 64–78). Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

The influence of popular legal culture on Germany is theorized in:

Machura, S., & Ulbrich, S. (2001). Law in film: Globalizing the Hollywood courtroom drama. In S. Machura & P. Robson (Eds.), Law and film (pp. 117–132). Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Röhl, K. F. (2015). Alltagskultur des Rechts und Popular Legal Culture. Retrieved from http://rechtssoziologie-online.de/.

A categorization and analysis of recent TV programmes can be found in the article:

Machura, S., & Böhnke, M. (2016). Law and justice on German TV. In P. Robson & J. Schulz (Eds.), Law & justice on TV: A transnational study. Oxford: Hart.Find this resource:

For more than a decade, TV judge shows on private channels were very prominent and their success sheds a light on German popular legal culture:

Machura, S. (2012). Television judges in Germany. In P. Robson & J. Silbey (Eds.), Law and justice on the small screen (pp. 251–269). Oxford: Hart.Find this resource:

Olson, G. (2013). Intersections of gender and legal culture in two women judge shows: Judge Judy and Richterin Barbara Salesch. In H. Petersen, J. M. Vilaverde, & I. Lund Andersen (Eds.), Contemporary gender relations and changes in legal culture. (pp. 29–58). Copenhagen: Djøf.Find this resource:

A basic bibliography on literature and law as treated by articles in German law journals can be found in:

Franck, L. (2016). Digitales Fundheft Literatur und Recht. Retrieved from http://lorenzfranck.de/dokumente/litrecht.htm.

The depiction of law in literary works is extensively discussed in the following bibliography:

Sprecher, T. (2011). Literatur und Recht. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1.) Schlink’s works are controversial, as some accuse him of wanting to lay German historic guilt to rest (Stürmer & Meier, 2016a).

(2.) The director of the 1931 film, Richard Oswald, made still another version as an emigrant to the United States (the 1945 film Passport to Heaven, aka I Was a Criminal).

(3.) “NSU trial” (which started in 2013 and is expected to end in 2017) refers to the murder case brought against members of the so-called National Socialist Underground terrorist group.

(4.) Fritz Bauer prosecuted the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial (1962–1965), on the infamous Nazi concentration camp, against resistance within the legal bureaucracy, and reported the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann to the Israeli secret service. In 2015, a film on his personae called Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer (The People vs. Fritz Bauer) drew public attention. This movie, together with Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (In the Labyrinth of Silence, 2014) and the documentary Fritz Bauer—Tod auf Raten (Fritz Bauer—Death by Installments, 2010) are discussed in several articles in the Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen (2015). In February 2016, Die Akte General (The File on the General), another television film on Bauer’s fight to make the Auschwitz Trial happen, aired.

(5.) Until 1940, the two leading American film studios delivered some of their most prestigious movies to Germany (Spieker, 1999, p. 90–97).