What happened to Herrhausen?

What happened to Herrhausen?

By Michael Pickard
June 4, 2024


German political drama Herrhausen – The Banker & The Bomb shines a light on the assassination of a prominent banker just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Producer Gabriele Sperl, writer Thomas Wendrich and star Oliver Masucci tell DQ how they brought this true story to the screen.

A political murder mystery without an answer, four-part German miniseries Herrhausen – Der Herr des Geldes (Herrhausen – The Banker & The Bomb) is based on the true story of an influential banker who was assassinated in the weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the 1980s, Alfred Herrhausen was a rising star of the banking world, and his ideas of providing debt relief to the world’s poorest countries made global headlines. He also brokered a loan deal to support the USSR, a move that supported President Gorbachev’s reform plans and pushed him into the spotlight of world politics as he tried to combine self-interest and social responsibility.

But with the CIA, KGB, East Berlin and West German radical group the RAF all watching him, time was running out for the Deutsche Bank official as rivals and opponents inside and outside the company rallied against him. He was later killed in a car bomb attack on November 30, 1989 – three weeks after the Berlin Wall was dismantled on November 9.

Though the RAF later claimed responsibility for the bombing, series producer Gabriela Sperl describes the event as an “unsolved crime story,” and teamed up with writer Thomas Wendrich and director Pia Strietmann to bring it to the small screen.

“I wanted to make a series about Herrhausen ever since he died, because after the wall came down, everyone was really euphoric, but this guy was killed three weeks later,” she tells DQ. “Then immediately you have a question – who was the murderer? But they never came up with the person who did it.”

Director Pia Strietmann and writer Thomas Wendrich at Series Mania

The idea to dramatise the events leading to Herrhausen’s death had been with Sperl for some time before 2001 documentary Black Box BRD, a film that partly focused on his life and death, was released to award-winning acclaim.

Sperl then approached Herrhausen’s widow Trudl for permission to make a scripted series – a request that was turned down. But years later, when executive producer Christian von Lindquist provided another introduction to Trudl, Sperl found she was now open to backing a new project.

Sperl and Wendrich had previously partnered on German History X and were at that time developing a series called The Wall, which would explore why the Berlin Wall fell in 1980 – and Herrhausen’s story was set to be the final act.

“Then Thomas said, ‘I don’t want it to be part of another thing.’ This is where the whole thing [Herrhausen’s story] started to be its own show,” she says. “Herrhausen was a very important part of why the wall came down because it was all about money.”

Wendrich describes the miniseries as the narrative of a peaceful revolution that saw only one death, that of the “ambitious and narcissistic” Herrhausen. “But it’s not recognised because it was three weeks after the wall came down,” he says. “Nobody was interested in someone who was killed. We were all euphoric. For me, it was an interesting question as to why this revolution was peaceful – and was it even a revolution? Herrhausen was very sympathetic, but he did things that aren’t sympathetic. These two parts are very interesting.”

Beyond who Herrhausen was, the series seeks to explore the circumstances surrounding his murder, amid a power struggle between politics and the economy and set against the backdrop of German reunification. But as dramatic as the story is, Wendrich knew they couldn’t identify who they think is responsible.

Alfred Herrhausen was killed by a car bomb three weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall

“So we show the different possibilities,” he continues. “There’s the US Secret Service, the Stasi and there were also many people inside the bank who didn’t like him because he was modern, fast – too fast. There’s a lot of stuff to bring into the show.”

Sperl notes: “We end with his death and say, ‘Look, what we’ve been told up to now is definitely not true and we’re presenting you with food for thought. Make up your minds and see what happened and how it happened.’ It’s very modern, and this is where Pia comes in because she made it into a brilliant, modern story. It’s not a period piece. It’s very dynamic.”

“Of course, we show all the possibilities of who might be interested in his death, but on the other hand I think we’re pretty clear in saying RAF terrorists haven’t done it all by themselves,” Strietmann adds. “And it was important for me when I read the scripts that we not only do theories, but we have proof as well.”

The research behind the series went on for “months and years,” Sperl says, with Wendrich writing the scripts over a five-year period. Then when it was time to film the series, Strietmann tried to forget all the research, the facts and the historical accuracy and tell the story as if it were purely fictional.

“All of us talked and sat together for a really long time trying to find out how we’d like to look into his head,” she says. “Thomas was like, ‘No, we are not interested in his feelings and how he is.’ But there were a couple of scenes at the end of the first episode where it’s a total nightmare, and it’s just a short glimpse into his head. We tried to find more of these cinematographic elements in all four episodes.

“On the other hand, we tried to put all of the historic stuff, like make-up, hair, wardrobe and the art department, in the background and just use it for the basis [of the series], but not to look at it. The 80s are so coloured and strange; we love seeing the 80s but we said we don’t want to put it in the foreground. We tell it as if it’s relevant as if it’s today, so we tried to find a visual language which is more modern, like Herrhausen was, and tried to find a fast pace.”

Herrhausen is portrayed by Oliver Masucci, known for series such as Dark and The Swarm

Playing Herrhausen himself is Dark actor Oliver Masucci, who Strietmann jokes is similar to the title figure because “they were both very impatient. That’s why he’s always in motion, not only thinking but with his body as well.”

Masucci was familiar with Herrhausen, having grown up in the Germany city of Bonn in the 1970s and 80s at a time when there were several terrorist attacks by the RAF. He even witnessed the aftermath of an assassination: “I came home from partying by bicycle, and he was lying on the street. That was the day I said I hate ideology.”

When he read the scripts, he liked the fact Herrhausen was a seemingly conservative man who was also one of the visionaries of his generation. “He was miles ahead, and he wanted to do things,” the actor says. “At the moment we have a lot of criticism about capitalism. But Herrhausen said, ‘We have to bring three-quarters of the world to a status when we can trade with them.’ That’s what I really liked about this character. He always wanted to go further, think faster.”

Masucci didn’t want to impersonate the real Herrhausen. “I’m quite a modern soul, like he was. I have a lot of energy, like he had,” he says. “I was always complaining to Pia that I can’t stand this fucking tie anymore, this conservative form. So I had to press myself inside this conservative form. I did something with his speech – I tried to give him a more formal, specific and precise language when he was talking. I wanted to give him some truth, not by going to him. Instead, I dragged him to me.”

If the research and preparation behind Herrhausen seems like a monumental task, it paled in comparison to the challenges Sperl, Wendrich, Strietmann and Masucci faced as they neared production.

Six weeks before shooting was due to start, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 led to huge price increases that wiped out plans to film in South Africa, where sets were already under construction to recreate numerous international locations within easy reach of Cape Town. Plans were then redrawn to film in Belgium and Greece.

The drama will debut on German broadcaster ARD this autumn

“As soon as we started talking about it, it was very difficult,” Sperl says. “It was a total nightmare, but everyone went beyond their limits.”

Strietmann adds: “We had started shooting in Germany and couldn’t stop, so we had to scout the locations in Belgium on weekends. We had just two weeks between the end of shooting in Germany and the start of shooting in Belgium, so it was all at high speed. We had teams in Germany and teams in Belgium. But it worked out very well. It was amazing that we found all these locations.

“In the beginning it was like, ‘We found all these great locations in south Africa and now we have to go to Belgium?’ For personal reasons it was also a nightmare. But then I remember the first weekend in Belgium, they showed us around and we knew exactly what we were trying to find, and that made us work faster. They showed us around and it was even better than in South Africa.”

Produced by ARD Degeto and German regional broadcasters RBB, HT and SWR in collaboration with X Filme Creative Pool, Herrhausen debuted at French television festival Series Mania earlier this year, where Wendrich won the best writing award. It is now set to debut locally this autumn on ARD, while Fremantle is handling international sales.

Though there are no definite conclusions the series can draw, the programme makers hope to push viewers to doubt what they know about the attack that killed Herrhausen and show how these events, driven by money and power, also reflect modern political life.

“We walk with doubts. We want to make the audience doubt what we know,” Wendrich says.

“This is the truth as far as it can be. This is the truth that we are told every day to believe,” Sperl adds. “And it’s all about money. Where do we buy our oil? Where do we buy our gas? It’s mirroring the realities of today.”

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