At the end of the 1960s, Eduard Zimmermann, inventor of “Aktenzeichen XY … unsolved”, brought horror into German living rooms with real criminal cases. A new documentary about the cult moderator now shows his not so flawless past.

On October 20, 1967, “Aktenzeichen XY … unsolved” went on the air at 8 p.m. Inventor, producer and presenter Eduard Zimmermann said at his premiere: “Using the screen to fight crime is the goal of the new show.”

Director Regina Schilling, who has won the Grimme Prize, among other things, now takes a critical look at that era. In the documentary “This show is not a game – The uncanny world of Eduard Zimmermann” (Thursday, August 10, from 10 a.m. on the ZDF media library and at 11 p.m. on ZDF), she lets her spokeswoman Martina Schrader say: “The Viewers have no idea (that evening) that they will sleep worse in the future.”

Eduard Zimmermann (1929 – 2009) was the first television man to bring real criminal investigation cases into living rooms. His show is considered the world’s first true crime TV series. And was one of the most successful. Up to 25 million watched when Zimmermann “investigated”. The ZDF show, moderated by Rudi Cerne for many years, is still a successful format today.

In the late 1960s, the breeding ground was ideal: the easy-going Germans, spoiled after the economic miracle, loved thrillers. The Francis Durbridge films were “street sweepers”; in the cinema, followed by millions, a machine gun rattled the letters “Edgar Wallace” in the form of drops of blood onto the screen. After all, Eddi Arent often made fun of it. But the fun stopped with Zimmermann. Because at the same time, as the soon-to-be-named “crook-Ede” warned, “the crime rate is increasing five times as fast as the German population”. Such things did not fail to have an effect.

File number XY: Did Zimmermann want to play with people’s fears?

The narrator says in the film what Johannes B. Kerner Zimmermann and his daughter Sabine, who temporarily took over the XY legacy after the 300th Ede show in October 1997, once confessed: “I was always afraid.” Zimmermann said no the interview used for the documentary that he wanted to stir up fear. On the other hand: “Fear has a pedagogical effect: you become cautious.” Filmmaker Schilling seems to have a different view. She asks: Did Zimmermann really just want to solve crimes? Or did he deliberately play with the fears of the viewers, did he rather stir up fear and paranoia, sowed mistrust and encouraged informers? In short: “Did Zimmermann need the fear?”

After 90 minutes, which seem increasingly oppressive towards the end, one thing is certain: neither Schilling nor Schrader need be accused of being fans of Zimmermann, the man whom Ulrike Meinhof (before her radicalization) disrespectfully called the “television sheriff” and des accused of “mass fraud against citizens”. They transport less the image of the “fighter against crime” than that of the arch-conservative guardian of outdated traditions and the apocalyptic admonisher. Not only from criminals, but also from everything new. Empowered women? The green? nuclear power opponents? They all seemed, as the documentary conveys, to Zimmermann an abomination.

Eduard Zimmermann himself was in prison

There is a short sidestep into the life of the “TV investigator”, who confessed in his biography: “There was always something illegal about me.” Rightly so, by the way. After an unsettled childhood – his father, a regular customer of his waitress mother, never cared – he survived after the war with odd jobs and also thefts. This led to a short visit to the JVA Fuhlsbüttel. He was in Bautzen for a long time. There he was to be imprisoned for 25 years in 1950 because the Russian military court in the Soviet Zone convicted him of espionage. He was released after four years under an amnesty and offered his story to western tabloids. According to the documentary, this first contact with journalism led him to Mainz, to ZDF, which was founded in 1963.

The documentary touches on a number of the 4,977 cases that “Aktenzeichen XY” presented in 588 programs – 1,953, i.e. 39.2 percent, could be cleared up. But it’s more about “carpenter through the ages”. And the times were actually good when the broadcast started: The world of most Germans was fine: father did his job, mother was in good hands at the stove, in between the children liked to have a large crowd. But this bourgeois order soon fell apart. Which also made “Aktenzeichen XY” an accompanying program of social upheaval.

The questionable image of women of the “Aktenzeichen XY” inventor

Student revolt (1967), government takeover by the SPD (1969), the sloshing sex wave (from 1970), debate about abortion paragraph 218 (1971), the German autumn with the RAF acts of violence (1977), in the 80s demos against NATO rearmament, runways and nuclear power, the founding of the Greens… And above all the young people’s desire for freedom – and then this terrible feminism. All of this, so the story goes, was not to Eduard Zimmermann’s liking. And you can hear that in his moderator from back then.

In particular, Zimmermann’s image of women is critically questioned. But he was also a man of his time. In any case, he was not the only one who used the female cliché “KKK” (children, kitchen, cable television) of the time in the criminal cases recreated. “Monaco Franze” is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. There is the image of women, even if it’s a comedy, really not progressive. And a little earlier, ARD, which Zimmermann described as a “gangster fright” in 1970, ran “The 7th Sense”. Among other things, the attested women had problems with the seat belt (“Your breasts are in the way.”) or denied them their ability to drive – in front of an audience of millions and meant absolutely seriously.

Zimmermann: “Women who spend their lives in bars or with more or less random male acquaintances live dangerously”

Zimmermann liked to appear as a Nostradamaesque admonisher. The devils he painted on the wall in his moderations were hitchhiking (“I have a bad feeling when I see young people standing at the freeway ramps”), drugs (in one case it wasn’t about finding the perpetrator at all, but to give a chilling example: the victim was the addicted Siegfried, who fixed himself dead) and women who wanted to free themselves from the “traditional” role. All of this might have had an effect then, but what is it like from today’s perspective? – The viewer is more likely to get the uneasy feeling that Zimmermann accuses women of “complicity” in many murder cases. Zimmermann, live on TV 1970: “Women who spend their lives in bars or with more or less random male acquaintances live dangerously.”

Yes, Zimmermann, who from 1964 to 1997 also broadcast the series “Caution Fall! – Nepper, tugboat, farmer catcher” moderated, certainly made people more cautious, and that can’t be the worst thing. But presumably “XY” also planted fears in the Germans. Don’t get in strangers’ cars! Hitchhiking is risky (which a study disproved)! As the article says, some of Zimmermann’s “blind spots” may coincide with our own.” But the thesis according to which the fascination of the citizens with the hunt for criminals via TV, in addition to the “lust for fear” and the rewards, was perhaps based on the fact that people saw themselves as victims after the lost war seems quite daring.

The documentary “This show is not a game – The uncanny world of Eduard Zimmermann” rightly bears its name. It is extremely interesting as a cultural-historical digression. But she also gets a little scary towards the end. One wonders: What might “crooks-Ede” have done to Ms. Schilling or Ms. Schrader? We all slept badly back then after XY. And still learned a lot in the process.


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