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Screenschot: Die Täter - Heute ist nicht alle Tage, copyright: picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold
Image: picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold

Controversial films on NSU murders show in Germany

Sertan Sanderson / Susanne Luerwig
March 30, 2016

A far-right terror group hounded Germany's foreign residents for over a decade without the public knowing about the crime series. A week-long TV event now aims to shed light on the NSU murders.


As right-wing tendencies have surged in Germany in response to the refugee crisis, the case of the NSU's xenophobic crimes takes on a fresh sense of urgency.

At least ten people - nine of Turkish or Greek descent and one police officer - were killed by the right-wing terror organization NSU between 2000 and 2007. Only one alleged perpetrator - ringleader Beate Zschäpe - has survived and has been on trial for a number of years. The trial has uncovered major failings on the part of German authorities in preventing and investigating the case.

The attacks are now the focus of a television mini-series produced by Germany's public broadcaster ARD. The 10 million-euro ($11.3-million) television series, which incorporates three feature films and one documentary to be shown on March 30, April 4 and April 6, sets out to examine the victims' perspective as well as try to understand the perpetrators' motivations.

Is it okay to fictionalize an ongoing trial?

With Beate Zschäpe's case still dragging on after three years in court and Zschäpe exercising her right to silence in an unprecedented manner, the film producers have feared the defendant's lawyers could put a stop to the movies.

The German daily newspaper "Tagesspiegel" said that Zschäpe's lawyers had been keen throughout the trial to expose media intervention, which could potentially lead to a retrial. That would be expensive: The trial has already cost taxpayers nearly 40 million euros ($45 million).

As the series is released, the German daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung" went a step further and posed the question: "Is it possible at all to film a story, which in legal terms has not been clarified and concluded?"

Nevertheless, the public broadcaster is walking the line and choosing the show the film.

Christian Schwochow, copyright: DW
Director Christian Schwochow told DW that instead of feeling sympathy for the perpetrators, audiences had to understand that anyone could be radicalizedImage: DW

Perpetrators are 'people, not monsters'

The first of the films features director Christian Schwochow's probe into the background of the three figureheads of the NSU - Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos , and Uwe Böhnhard.

Schwochow says his film "Die Täter - Heute ist nicht alle Tage" ("The perpetrators - today is not a day like any other") looks into their adolescent years in former East Germany and their gradual radicalization after Germany's reunification in 1990, a time when right-wing tendencies resurged in the country.

"We didn't want to turn this into a biopic with facts being presented in some places and left out in others. What we wanted to convey was what kind of country this was at the time, when these three people, with Beate Zschäpe at the center of events, were still young, and what sort of mechanisms led to their radicalization," Schwochow told DW in an interview.

Beate Zschäpe, copyright: Reuters/M. Dalder
Defendant Beate Zschäpe has been keeping her silence in court for three years - with the sole exception of one occasionImage: Reuters/M. Dalder

German actress Anna Maria Mühe, who portrays Zschäpe in the TV movie, said in an interview with German news agency dpa that there was a lot to be learned from examining the perpetrators' perspective.

"The exact details of Zschäpe's involvement have not even been established yet, so I wasn't sure initially whether it was even proper to portray her. Much about the woman remains a mystery," the 30-year-old said.

Zschäpe fell in with the wrong crowd as an impressionable teenager, but the movie does not turn her into a victim. Anna Maria Mühe emphasized that in no way did she intend to create sympathy for Zschäpe with her portrayal, adding that she did, however, want to provoke unexpected reactions.

Director Schwochow also stressed it was important to look at the perpetrators as "people, not monsters."

"In order to understand evil you have to look at its beginnings and show the courage to realize that [the people we portray] could be my sister, my neighbor, my classmate, my relative. People aren't born criminal and evil; there are certain dynamics that facilitate this," Schwochow told DW.

How the victims were treated

The second part of the week-long TV event takes a closer look at the victims. Scheduled to be broadcast on April 4, "Die Opfer - Vergesst mich nicht" ("The victims - don't forget me") is based on a book by Semiya Simsek, whose father was one of the NSU's murder victims.

Directed by Turkish-born German director Züli Aladag, it not only portrays the family's grief and bereavement but also depicts how police investigations, rather than proceeding to solve the crime, began incriminating the victim's family directly. Illegal drug dealings and other unsavory actions on the part of Semiya Simsek's father were allegedly suggested as the background to the murder, with authorities trying to cover the tracks of informants who failed for years to connect the dots between the attacks.

Screenschot: Die Täter - Heute ist nicht alle Tage, copyright: picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold
Anna Maria Mühe said that performing the Hitler salute as part of her portrayal of Beate Zschäpe left a bitter taste in her mouthImage: picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold

Investigations and trial records indicate, however, that the police was trying to divert attention away from its own failure to stop the crime series - which is the focus of the third film, shown on April 6.

"Die Ermittler - Nur für den Dienstgebrauch" ("The investigators - for official use only") decries the ways in which investigators failed to expose the crime series for what it was: organized crime perpetuated by a right-wing terror group.

Following the broadcast of the third film, a documentary on the NSU murders will be shown.

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