16 December 2008

Horst Tappert

I suspect the murderer drank wine:
Wepper and Tappert in
Inspector Derrick

Horst Tappert has died, at the age of 85. Although unfamiliar to most U.S. audiences, who have television detectives of their own to fetishize, Tappert is known the rest of the world over as “Inspector Derrick,” a level-headed sleuth who kept safe the streets of Munich. John Paul II was a fan; so were my in-laws, and so am I.

Derrick is in most ways the antithesis of an American detective series. It relies more heavily on music than on noise: one memorable episode concerned a murderous gigolo who seduced his victims by playing a recording of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer.” If there was ever a chase scene, during the 25 years of the show’s production, I missed it; guns were present but seldom if ever fired, except by bad guys, who inevitably were held accountable. Stephan Derrick is a man of few words, and fewer actions; he pursues the guilty by fleetness of mind but at a measured pace of foot. Like a less talkative version of his contemporary, Peter Falk’s Columbo, Derrick ensnares his prey with shrewd attention to the evidence and an infallible understanding of human psychology.

Derrick’s foil and faithful sidekick, Harry Klein (Fritz Wepper), is younger and more excitable, and he was known on occasion to sleep with a suspect — something that Derrick would never, ever do. The series recognizes that other points of view exist, but it confirms that they are inefficient. Derrick is always right, and Klein is right only when he heeds Derrick. This became awkward as Herr Wepper aged, and was expected to know better, but such is life.

Derrick was a symbol of the New Germany: calm, reasonable, determined, successful. Tappert himself was drafted into the German army and held as a prisoner of war during World War II, but all of that past was forgotten in Derrick’s quest for justice. As the series was produced, Germany might be divided, and beset by the Bader-Meinhoff group and its copycats, but Derrick remained unified, as it were, in his purpose. He never talked of politics, and he was wonderfully accepting of others, so long as they obeyed the law.

He spoke excellent French, when dubbed for the audiences of my adopted homeland, but he needed little translation in the booming European economy, simply because he got the job done. He looks more like the manager of a bank (and Tappert was a bookkeeper by training) than like the hero of a television series, but that is the point. Crime in the real world is more often banal than melodramatic, and it is by banal means that crime will be punished. My advice to politicians in Germany and throughout Europe is to be more Derrick-like whenever possible: shut up, pay attention, and do what’s right. I wish he were Chancellor right now.

For many years, Derrick ran just after the lunchtime news on France 2, and it’s still running in that time slot on France 3. It’s shameful perhaps to admit, but I often watch the news while I’m eating lunch, and I continue to watch while Derrick does battle with the forces of evil. Though I may sometimes nod off after a good meal, I do so in comfort, knowing that Derrick will prevail. That is Horst Tappert’s enduring gift — to all of us.


Mikebench said...

R.I.P. Horst Tappert! I have to say, what really strikes me in that series is how bad the bad acting can get... I mean, Germany MUST have some very decent actors (we know a few through Fassbinder movies and other wonderful films like "The Lives of Others", for instance), so why were they NEVER invited to play smaller roles on "Derrick"? I was recently in France and watched a few episodes with my mother (a HUGE fan of the series!) and I particularly remember a disco scene where the supers couldn't even dance properly!!!!

William V. Madison said...

Well, now, be fair. Why would supers in Germany be any better informed than supers in the U.S.? They can’t possibly know which songs the producers will be able to get rights to. The fault in that case lies with the director and editor of the episode in question: they shoud’ve given the supers a beat and then worked around it, no matter what song wound up on the soundtrack.

And since when was the acting in Fassbinder movies any good? Apart from the star turns, they’re TERRIBLE actors. Fassbinder sometimes seemed to choose bad actors, simply to prove what an effective director he was.

All that said, the preeminence of Derrick’s internal — mental — process excuses quite a lot of mishegas elsewhere in the presentation.