Spiegel: THE VERDICT at broadcaster ARD: in the name of the television audience
By Anne Haeming
A soldier shoots down a plane in order to save 70,000 people – the ARD experiment THE VERDICT, adapted from Ferdinand von Schirach, is an attempt at interactive television. Whether it is a success will be left to the audience's judgement.
It's dark outside, we glimpse the dome of the Reichstag glittering in the twilight through the window façade. In the courtroom within, the defendant, attorneys, and spectators all stand up as the judges and jury members return. The joint plaintiff is clenching her fists and breathing heavily when she hears the judge's words: "I pronounce the following verdict: the defendant Lars Koch has been acquitted at the expense of the state treasury." She remains standing, her countenance frozen, then slowly sinks into her chair.
"Thank you!" – the filming of the scene is complete, and Jördis Triebel, who plays the joint plaintiff in the television film with the working title THE VERDICT, wipes away her tears with a tissue and blows her nose. And then the whole scene all over again from the beginning. Only this time the judge says, "The defendant Lars Koch has been convicted of 164 counts of murder." And Triebel smiles.
One more wide shot from above, then applause, and director Lars Kraume (The People vs. Fritz Bauer) and Burkhart Klaussner, who plays the judge, embrace. The shooting is completed after 15 days in a studio north of Berlin-Spandau.
But the audience will only be seeing one of these versions when the courtroom drama is aired this fall (provisionally October 10) on the ARD. Since with this film, which is based on the play Terror by Ferdinand von Schirach, they are the ones who will be deciding – via phone calls, Twitter, and Facebook – whether soldier Lars Koch should be convicted or acquitted for shooting down a plane with 164 people on board, in order to save the lives of 70,000 stadium spectators.
The film is also set to be screened a week earlier in movie theaters in a number of cities – with 150 on the list to date – and the results of these screenings will also be counted toward the decision. This interactivity is already a feature of the play, which is currently being staged in 17 German theaters (up to now, 59.4 percent of audience members have voted for acquittal).
The major TV event of the year?
This TV program is certainly intended to make a splash (Degeto director Christine Strobl even predicts it will be "The major TV event of the year"), something visible not only in the choice of cast, the cream of the crop among current actors: in addition to Klaussner and Triebel, Martina Gedeck plays the public prosecutor, Lars Eidinger the defense counsel, and Florian David Fitz the defendant. One look at those attending this press conference, and the ARD's high expectations for the drama are clear: as well as Schirach, director Lars Kraume, the leading actors, and producer Oliver Berben, program director Volker Herres, Christine Strobl, managing director of ARD's film subsidiary Degeto, and WDR talk show host Frank Plasberg have all made the trip.
And this comes as no surprise given the football stadium and terrorist attack – while he was writing the play, Schirach could hardly have imagined how close to reality his subject would become, by the time of the November 2015 Paris attacks at the latest. "It's an experiment," he says. "It would never have occurred to me to ask people to vote for something that actually happened. That would be total nonsense in addition to being extremely dangerous."
But the resemblance between fiction and reality has become so undeniable that Das Erste has put a few security measures in place. Though in a theater there's never any doubt that it's all just a play, with Til Schweiger's Tatort idea (at the latest), where a Tagesschau broadcast is raided by terrorists, it's been clear how sticky an affair this can all become on a TV screen, with journalistic facts and fictional dramas merging with one another.
"We can't do our ironing while we're watching it"
For the evening television program, a real episode of Hart aber Fair is being planned that will discuss the film's theme. During the 15 minutes the judges – that is, the audience – are voting, the floor will be given to Frank Plasberg, with the discussion continuing after the verdict has been announced. It's likely, however, that this will only further blur the line between fiction and reality.
THE VERDICT will be broadcast on Das Erste and the ORF; it still remains to be seen whether Swiss television will be participating as well. Pairing the program with the talk show Hart aber Fair is only planned for the ARD. A web page is also forthcoming and will offer information about relevant verdicts of the Federal Constitutional Court, helping viewers make a more informed decision.
"It's something rare to present a complex subject matter in such concentrated form in a film of this length," says director Lars Kraume. Or in the words of producer Berben, "We can't do our ironing while we're watching it." He rejects any comparisons with previous attempts at interactive television: "This isn't one of those crime thrillers where people are only voting about the end. Here it's about each person going through the decision process himself." This is the only way the audience can become a part of the whole, he explains – responsible fellow citizens of this democracy.
"It's a fictional idea," says von Schirach. "The intention is to have a discussion about our state, about how we want to live." Even if the film's underlying motivation occasionally sounds as if it were coming from the Federal Agency for Civic Education, the fact that the debate itself is the focus, and not the verdict, has great appeal. Whether it comes off as a success will probably depend on the audience's viewing habits: for fans of such dialogue-filled American series as House of Cards or The West Wing, it just might work. Especially since, in contrast to previous television versions of Ferdinand von Schirach's stories, this time the sobriety of his legal argumentation is not sacrificed to an emotionalized narrative style: there's no plane with screaming passengers, no collective panic in the stadium – the whole film is set entirely in the black austerity of the courtroom.
Nonetheless, Ferdinand von Schirach has already made his opinion clear: in a contribution for DER SPIEGEL, he explained that he would be opposed to an acquittal. But the courtroom speeches and current events are not the only factors that will sway the audience's verdict: "We've got a problem in the film," says von Schirach in Berlin, referring to leading actor Florian David Fitz. "The defendant is too good-looking."