On Ferdinand von Schirach’s Terror (2015)


Ferdinand von Schirach’s latest book Terror contains the play Terror and von Schirach’s speech on the occasion of the M100-Sanssouci Media Award for Charlie Hebdo. On the back of the book, von Schirach states that he wrote the play before the attack on Charlie Hebdo and wrote the speech before the attacks in Paris on November 13 2015. I was grateful for this speech because there was a lot of opposition to this and other awards for Charlie Hebdo, which I found shocking. There seem to be people out there, some well-known writers like Teju Cole (and 144 others), who called the paper racist and tried to prevent it from receiving the PEN Freedom of Expression Courage Award last year. Von Schirach illustrates eloquently why this kind of thinking is unacceptable.

With everything that’s been happening in the last weeks and months in France and Germany, a play like Terror becomes even more important. I first learned about this play thanks to theater reviews in German and Swiss newspapers. The play is interesting in so far as it has been written in the form of a trial and the theater audience is the jury who decides at the end, whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. Depending on that decision, the end will be different. In the book, we get to read both versions. According to the newspaper articles, no audience has ever voted “guilty” so far. That’s interesting because, as the play shows, what the accused has done is against the law.

What is Terror about? A passenger plane with 164 people on board was hijacked and about to crash on a stadium, in which 70,000 people were watching a game. The accused, a fighter pilot, decided to shoot the passenger plane down, although he didn’t receive an order. He thought that killing 164 people was the lesser evil. When the reader/spectator first hears this, he’s quickly coming to the conclusion that it is justified, but after the interrogation of the witnesses and experts and the pleas, one is suddenly not so sure that the pilot’s decision was justified.

It’s intriguing to see why the law finds it unacceptable and why, nonetheless, from a purely moral point of view, the audience thinks it’s OK to shoot down a passenger plane. Just to give you one example. The pilot’s defense argues that the shooting down of the plane didn’t matter, as the 164 passengers would have died anyway. The trial reveals that there might have been a possibility that the passengers could have accessed the cockpit and overpowered the terrorist. But, even if this wasn’t the case, it’s still unacceptable form the point of view of the law because you’d actually say, that people whose lives are doomed can be killed. What about someone with terminal cancer? Would it be OK to kill that person knowing he’d die soon anyway? Of course not. Once you ask yourself this kind of question, you see how tricky it is. The number of possible casualties is, according to the law, also not a good reason to determine whether or not, people could be killed in order to save other people as  you can’t quantify life. Where would you draw the line? If killing 164 and saving 70,000 is ok, then what about 100 versus 120?

The play isn’t flawless and, according to the reviews, the performances were wooden because the play is dry. I loved reading it because I found it thought-provoking. It looks at the case from many different angles and made me see some things in a new light. Once I finished reading, I wasn’t as sure as when I started, whether I would have decided the pilot’s not guilty. I guess, in the end, I would have decided in his favour because a verdict of “murder in 164 cases” seemed excessive, given that he saved 70,000 lives.

The book hasn’t been translated yet but I could imagine it will be. It’s made into a film for German TV that will be aired on October 10 2016. The viewers will be able to play jury and give their verdicts via Facebook, phone, and Twitter. I hope I can watch it.

For those of my readers who read German, here’s another take on the book + discussion on Sätze&Schätze

Ferdinand von Schirach: Tabu (2013) – The Girl Who Wasn’t There (2015)


I bought Ferdinand von Schirach’s last novel The Girl Who Wasn’t There  –  Tabu (Taboo) when it came out in German, but didn’t feel like reading it until now. Meanwhile it’s available in translation and I’ve seen a few reviews on English blogs.

Since I liked his first books  Crime – Verbrechen, Guilt – Schuld, and The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini I was looking forward to The Girl Who Wasn’t There. I didn’t expect a crime novel per se, as von Schirach, even when he writes about crime, is more interested in justice and human dignity than crime-solving or reasons for committing a crime. He recently published a book of essays, which all circle around the idea of human dignity. No surprise then that Tabu wasn’t a “proper” crime novel. So, that’s not the problem I had with this book. My biggest problem was the style and that I felt he didn’t really have a story, only themes he wanted to explore.

Interestingly the reception in English-speaking countries – by professional critics and bloggers – is far more favourable than the reception in Germany. Could it be that the translation improved the text? I don’t think that’s the reason but you never know.

I like spare prose and it served von Schirach well in his first two story collections. His prose was still quite alright in The Collini Case, but it drove me up the wall in this novel. The prose isn’t only spare but clumsy. His overuse of parataxis and short main clauses just didn’t feel right. Parataxis is often used to convey a feeling of alienation. Of course, if a character, like the main character Sebastian von Eshburg, feels dead inside because his father committed suicide when he was only a kid – there must be a feeling of alienation, nonetheless, I would have hoped von Schirach would have tried to convey it in another way.

The book is divided into several parts; each has a color as its title. The longest parts tell about von Eschburg’s childhood and how he became a famous artist. Then we see a man being questioned and threatened by a police man. The next part has another narrator – defence lawyer Biegler. That part is much more lively. Biegler is a lusty, driven man. An interesting character. He accepts to defend von Eschburg, who is accused of murder, because he suspects von Eschburg has confessed a crime he might not have committed. The last parts are dedicated to the trial and its outcome.

Overall I didn’t care for this book. I’m familiar with von Schirach’s themes by now and I found the essay collection more interesting than this novel. The style, as I said, is annoying in German. Nonetheless there were parts I liked. Biegler’s chapter is great because Biegler is a great character. I also enjoyed reading about von Eschburg’s childhood because the setting von Schirach chose – the Swiss Graubünden region – brought back childhood memories.

Unfortunately I can’t say this is a must read. It has interesting elements but that wasn’t enough for me. Since some of the main topics are important – violence, the representation of sex and violence in art, sex trafficking, torture – it could still be a good choice for a book group.

A last comment on the title. The German title refers to the main theme, while the English title refers to the alleged crime.

The Girl Who Wasn't There

Ferdinand von Schirach: The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini (2011)

After having liked both short story collections Crime (here) and Guilt (here) by Ferdinand von Schirach it was only a matter of time until I’d get to his first novel The Collini CaseDer Fall Collini. It has been published in Germany end of last year and is due out in English in a few weeks.

Ferdinand von Schirach is one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyer’s. And he is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach who was convicted of being a war criminal. Given this family history it’s not surprising his new book has a WWII theme. But it wouldn’t be a Ferdinand von Schirach book if it was only about a war crime.

It’s not easy to write a decent review about The Collini Case without giving away too much. Collini is a 6o-year-old Italian who has been living in Germany for a long time. One day – and this is not a spoiler as it happens on the first pages – he enters a hotel room pretending to be a journalist and brutally kills the 80-year-old business tycoon Hans Meyer. He then waits patiently until he is arrested.

Leinen is a young lawyer. The Collini case is his very first case. While there is no doubt that Collini has murdered Meyer, finding out why he did so is important as it can determine the sentence. Unfortunately Collini doesn’t want to speak. This makes it hard for the young lawyer and there are other adversities which make it even harder.

Von Schirach said in an interview that he doesn’t think of himself as a crime writer as the “who did it” doesn’t interest him at all. He wants to know why. And so it’s not surprising that the novel entirely focuses on the question why a spotless man like Collini committed a gruesome murder.

What fascinated me and most readers of von Schirachs’s stories was the fact that they were all based on true stories. Very naturally I was wondering the same here. Is it true? While it is obvious that the lawyer isn’t von Schirah in this case, the trial and the many amazing twists and turns are all based on a real case.

The case as such and how it is presented, the court room part, the look into the way Germany has dealt and still deals with its past are really interesting and I liked reading about it. Some of it left me speechless and was quite shocking. Some of it was very sad. Interestingly though that wasn’t the main appeal of this novel for me. I’ve read quite a few reviews and was surprised how much people wrote about the case and the trial only. What makes this an outstanding book in my eyes is another dimension. Without revealing too much I can say that one of the most important points of the book is the loss of memories. Imagine you find out that a person you like is not what you thought but that on the contrary has been hiding a dark and unpleasant secret. Wouldn’t that make you feel as if you’ve lost all your memories tied to that person? That’s I think one of the reasons why family secrets are so damaging. They can alter the perception of your past to such an extent that you will feel robbed of it.

Once more von Schirach has shown that he not only knows how to tell a story in crystal clear and very taut prose but that he can write interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking books.

Ferdinand von Schirach: Guilt – Schuld (2010)

After having read Ferdinand von Schirach’s excellent first collection CrimeVerbrechen (here is my review), I had to have his second collection Guilt – Schuld and his novel Der Fall Collini right away. The novel isn’t out in English yet but it is due end of 2012.

Any which way you want to look at von Schirach’s books, “literary”, “true story”, whatever, they make for pretty addictive reading. I finished this in a sitting or two.

The angle in this collection is a bit different but some of the striking features of the first are present here as well. Most of the crimes are astonishing, many go wrong, often the perpetrator ends up being the victim and not everybody gets punished.

The focus is less the tipping point than the question of guilt. Interestingly not only the criminal’s guilt but to a certain degree even the lawyer’s guilt. There are a few cases, some date back to von Schirach’s early days as a criminal defense lawyer, where at the end I had the feeling that he felt guilty. Guilty because someone walked who shouldn’t have.

Like in the first collection, we get a close look at the German criminal system. I find it interesting how important it is for the lawyer to follow the law 100% even if the punishment doesn’t sound just. I always find it fascinating how a definition can alter the sentence completely. There is one case in which it is crucial to establish whether if someone kills a sleeping man it can ever be anything else than murder. Can it be manslaughter or even self-defence when the person is asleep? Or let’s say someone tries to kill someone, hurts the person badly but then stops before he is dead. That changes everything as well. These details were the best parts in this collection.

There are cases in which you even wonder whether there is not some superior justice at work, for example when a perpetrator gets run over by a car before being even able to commit the gruesome murder he had planned in many details and written down in his diary.

The tone is close to the first book, laconic, brief, to the point. There is no judging of people, no pointing the finger, just a very factual account of what happened.

All in all I liked this collection but not as much as the first. Whether there is a difference – I felt the cases in the first collection were more astonishing as a whole – or whether they are too alike, I’m not sure but I found it a bit less original and not as touching but still well worth reading. I’m really looking forward to read the novel and as I know it will be published soon in English, I will review it in a couple of weeks. If you don’t have any of the two collections yet it may be worth waiting as they will be released together in September Crime and Guilt.

If you are interested in hearing Ferdinand von Schirach talking about crime, punishment, guilt and his very special laconic writing style you might enjoy watching this interview (English and German with translation).

Ferdinand von Schirach: Crime – Verbrechen (2009)

Are they true? Are they not? The discussion of Ferdinand von Schirach ‘s stories circled to a large extent around these questions  in Germany  and what the respective answers might mean. For the book. For life. And human nature in general. In English speaking countries there is no emphasis on whether they are based on true cases or not. People admire the crisp, precise, unadorned prose, the philosophical background, the look into human depravity, into guilt, gruesome crime and its possible punishment. They are seen as literature and not as true crime accounts. I find this interesting. In this faz interview von Schirach says that all the cases happened and are true. A lot has been changed to guarantee anonymity of the people involved but other than that, this is what happened. Does it matter? Maybe not.

Von Schirach is a famous German defence lawyer. His grandfather Baldur von Schirach was even more famous. He was one of the Nazi criminals convicted in Nuremberg.

The stories in Crime – Verbrechen are astonishing. Some are shocking, some made me laugh, some are puzzling, others thought-provoking, even very touching at times. Often the person who sets out to commit a crime isn’t the person the lawyer in the story will have to defend. Somewhere along the line, the roles are reversed. The initial victim can become the perpetrator. This happens especially in those cases in which silly small-time-crooks inadvertently attack a “big fish”. Some of those stories are hilarious.

But there are stories in which a lot of pain and cruelty pushes a person over the edge. As von Schirach writes in the introduction, this is what the stories are about; the tipping point. We are all, as he says, walking on thin ice, but not all of us make it to the other side. The moment when the ice crashes, is the moment he is interested in.

Punishment is one of the key themes of all of those stories and surprisingly, for various reasons, not many of the delinquents get sentenced. The book, being written by a defence lawyer, gives a lot of insight into the German criminal system, comparing it to other systems, showing how it has changed over time, how it has become more just but much more complicated as well.

I cannot write all that much about the individual stories as that would spoil the fun of discovering what happened. I’m glad I discovered the review of the book on Lizzy’s blog last year.

Some of the stories are gruesome but the majority is just absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking. Many give insight into the German society, it’s problems and challenges; many illustrate that some people are just born unlucky.

Crime was von Schirach’s first book. It was an immense success in Germany and translated into 30 languages. One of the stories of the collection have been made into a movie Glück – Bliss by none other than Dorries Dörrie. It’s in the cinemas in Germany right now.

Another short story collection Guilt – Schuld and a novel Der Fall Collini have followed. Guilt just came out in English.

Der Fall Collini which Die Welt calls a”cristal clear story of disconcerting amorality” will certainly be translated very soon. I want to read both, Schuld and Der Fall Collini. And watch the movie.

Have you read von Schirach or heard about him?