The new season of the series "Schuld" ("Guilt") based on Ferdinand von Schirach starts on ZDF. The author is considered a genius – but what if he is merely catering to voyeurism?
Larissa Leibhold (Elisa Schlott) becomes the victim of a violent crime in the crime series Photo: ZDF/Gordon Muehle
Some people become victims in their lives. Like 15-year-old Larissa Leibhold, for example. A neighbor rapes her, Leibhold becomes pregnant, nine months later she gives birth to her child in the toilet, losing it right there. A court later charges her with infanticide.
Or Sheryl. Unknown persons attack her while she is jogging in the park, rape and kill her.
Larissa Leibhold and Sheryl are not real people. They are characters in the new season of "Schuld," a crime series based on the short story collection of the same name by best-selling author Ferdinand von Schirach. The season starts on Friday on ZDF.
Schirach, once a criminal defense lawyer himself, is now a mainstream author. His books have been translated into numerous languages, sold millions of copies, and staged abroad. And although his books are ultimately crime novels of the kind that can be found in bookstores by the thousands, the name "Schirach" is always surrounded by an air of high culture.
A simple formula
But what if Schirach is simply serving voyeurism, using the suffering of others for simple entertainment, and no one notices?
He himself will not see it that way. Schirach likes to stage himself as a critic, as someone who not only tells blood stories, but raises questions about morality and guilt in his books. That’s true, Schirach’s stories go into more depth, testify to more knowledge of the legal system, to a will to really get close to crime, not just to paint it in gruesome bestseller colors. And yet there is a central problem. The problem is Schirach’s view.
The decisive question is from which position art emerges. A recent ZDF documentary about him says that Schirach prefers to watch, on the sidelines. That’s where his stories about abysses, ambivalence and human dignity emerge. That sounds plausible, but on closer inspection, Schirach’s formula reveals itself to be frighteningly simple.
Women are always only victims
From a privileged position – uninvolved, white, old man on the sidelines – nothing more emerges than an image of the suffering of others. A work that makes use of fates, exploits them for fame, for the entertainment of the widest possible audience. For it is well known that Schirach’s stories are never pure fiction; he claims to have experienced them in this or a similar way in his career as a lawyer.
A work that makes use of fates, makes use of them for fame, for the entertainment of the widest possible audience, is not subversive.
This illustration of the illustration is far from being a critique. Nothing about it is subversive.
In fact, it is often women whose fate it must become in "debt" to be victims of violence and crime simply because they are women. It’s the same simple calculus that runs through much of crime literature: You’re a woman, you’re a victim. Schirach is in good company there in the male-dominated industry. Women authors are simply underrepresented in crime fiction.
Authors dominate literature
The writer Nina George, in collaboration with the Institute for Media Research at the University of Rostock, has published a study on the visibility of women in the media and in the literary world. George herself published renowned crime novels under a male pseudonym for a long time, because she knew that if you write crime novels as a woman, you will hardly be noticed by the market. "Women write for the heart, men for the brain," it is still said far too often.
The only function of the two central female characters in "Schuld" is to be victims
The results of the pilot study also confirm this. "Authors and critics dominate the literary review business," it says. 75 percent more authors than female authors are presented in the literary business, 82 percent of men also prefer to review male authors in the genre of crime fiction. So: men review men review men. Figure of Figure of Figure. The conclusion states, "Genres like nonfiction and crime fiction are being appropriated by authors and critics alike."
It is not Ferdinand von Schirach who must solve this problem. But he is also part of it in a way that cannot be overlooked. Male authors like Schirach produce books that are far too often determined by the so-called male gaze, the male view of reality, including that of women.
Self-reflection alone is not enough
The term male gaze comes from film theory. If you look for this male gaze in Schirach’s work, you quickly come across Larissa Leibhold and Sheryl, the two central female characters in the new season of "Schuld" – whose only function in the story is to be victims. This male gaze mixes toxically with a pronounced voyeurism.
The fact that Schirach’s crime series is so successful shows us how uncritically cultural production deals with the suffering of others, with women’s experiences of violence.
More self-reflection is needed, also in literature and film. It needs a Schirach who recognizes what responsibility he has – as an ex-criminal defense lawyer and as an author. And it urgently needs more women. More real ones who write and are read. And more female characters who are more than victims.