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Literature: Das Versprechen

Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman, better known as The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel', is a crime thriller written by the Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1958. A very popular subject in language classes throughout the German-speaking world.

It was based on the script for the Swiss made-for-TV movie Es geschah am hellichten Tag (It Happened in Broad Daylight), a cautionary tale for the public about child predators and murderers, starring Heinz Rühmann as the inspector and Gert Fröbe as the killer. This film was also written by Dürrenmatt himself, but he was unhappy with the Surprisingly Happy Ending, brought forth by Executive Meddling.

So, he chose to write his own version of the story, quite a bit Darker and Edgier and more complex than the film and its fairly standard plot. Among other things, it makes both the protagonist and antagonist more tragic, and gives the whole spectacle a Bittersweet Ending, perhaps even a Downer Ending.

In return, Dürrenmatt’s book was adapted itself by Sean Penn in 2001, simply called The Pledge.

Yet, both later works follow Tag in their basic plot and premise:

Somewhere in Zurich, in the heart of the Swiss Alps, an old peddler named von Gunten makes a horrifying discovery; in a forest, a school-age girl had been cut to death with a razor blade.

From a local village, von Gunten calls his old acquaintance, Komissar Matthäi of the Canton Police, to come and investigate for himself.

The police investigator meets the murdered girl’s parents, and promises them to find the killer, delivering the story’s MacGuffin. Then he goes to the girl’s school, and finds out from a classmate that she claimed a giant had been giving her chocolate hedgehogs. He finds a picture she drew before her death, featuring herself, the giant, a car and a Capricorn.

In the meantime, the locals have decided that von Gunten himself, previously convicted for sexual offence, is in fact the killer, and try to lynch him. To save him from the angry mob, Matthäi arrests von Gunten and hands him over to the local police. Equally convinced of his guilt, the police conduct a 20-hour non-stop Perp Sweating, and thus torture a confession out of him.

The case seems solved, especially when von Gunten, driven to despair by the interrogation, hangs himself in his cell. Matthäi gets commended for his work and even the victm’s parents thank him for keeping his promise.

Matthäi himself is ordered by the confederation to travel to Amman, Jordan, to instruct the local police force. However, he gets severe doubts about von Gunten’s guilt and his colleagues’ apt and popularist judgement. Seeing how von Gunten is implicated with two further similar child murders throughout the country, the chances are high that there still is a serial killer on the loose.

Overtaken by guilt, he skips the flight to Jordan and quits his job as a police investigator, vowing to keep the promise he gave and track down the killer on his own. He buys a gas station in the alps, in direct vicinity of the crime scenes, and hires Frau Heller, a former Hooker with a Heart of Gold and her little daughter Annemarie. Having taken advice from local children fishing, Matthäi wants to use Annemarie as bait to catch the killer, who seems to be fixated on killing blondes in red skirts.

Soon, Annemarie starts skipping school, and Matthäi finds her in a forest, where she is waiting for a ‘wizard’. The wizard had apparently been stalking her on her way to school and had given her little chocolate nut pralines, which look a little bit like hedgehogs. Matthäi remembers the last victim’s drawing, and identifies the car as a distinctly American design, and the Capricorn as the coat of arms on its license plates. The wizard is the murderer.

Now knowing that the murderer has now eaten the bait, he informs his former colleagues to prepare to set up a trap for the killer. One that involves Annemarie.


The films and the book provide examples of the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear: The main reason for the entire story. Tag was a television movie made for the sole purpose of teaching parents out there about the dangers of child predators. Quite a controversial topic in the 1950s.
  • Alpha Bitch: Frau Schrott, the murderer’s wife, is this in varying degrees in every adaptation. She is always more or less to blame for her husband’s Freudian Excuse.
  • Alternate Ending: The endings of Tag and The Pledge are substantially different.
  • Anti-Hero: Matthäi, who first fails to stand up for von Gunten, and then uses an unsuspecting mother and her young daughter as live bait to catch a serial killer. In the Darker and Edgier novelisation, he also smokes and drinks excessively. He (and his colleagues) hit Annemarie out of pure frustration. And in the end, he goes insane and ends up a senile old drunkard.
  • The Bait: Annemarie, and she doesn’t even know.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the novelisation, through a crass coincidence, the murderer dies in a car crash while driving to the police setup. The police end up thinking Matthäi was wrong all along, Ms Heller and her daughter leave him out of pure detestation, while he persists that the murderer will still show up and spends the rest of his miserable and lonely life waiting for him. Years later, when his superior finds out he was, in fact, right all along, he tries to apologise and tell him he was right, but Matthäi is already to addled to understand.
    Matthäi: I wait. He will still come.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The murder victim's drawing, originally dismissed as a product of her imagination.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Deliberately played straight and lampshaded by Dürrenmatt just to avoid a Happy Ending. According to him, this was his way of showing that in real life, chances of catching such killers are lower than probable.
  • Da Chief: In all adaptations, he is Matthäi’s Friend on the Force after the latter quits. In the novelisation, he even is the narrator of the framework story.
  • Darker and Edgier: The novel. The setting is grittier, all the characters are more morally ambiguous.
  • Deconstruction: The Pledge is one of the crime story genre, as well as of the movie on which it was based. It subverts many of the tropes used in popular crime fiction and rides them into the ground (such as the ending). Thus the subtitle Requiem for the Detective Novel.
  • Dirty Cop: The police examining the murder. They want the case closed as fast as possible, and shift all the blame on the old peddler.
  • Downer Ending: See Bittersweet Ending. It is pretty much one for the protagonist, though not for the audience.
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: Yes, interrogating someone until he is psychologically unable to bear it anymore counts as torture as well.
  • Executive Meddling: Because the subject matter of a child murderer was already pretty horrifying for a 1950s audience, the ending was quite happy and positive.
  • Fake Swiss: Germans Heinz Rühmann and Gert Fröbe, cast as the protagonist and the antagonist in Tag respectively.
  • Foreign Remake: The 2001 movie plays entirely in the U.S., somewhere in the Rocky Mountains (but filmed in British Columbia).
  • Freudian Excuse: In Tag, the murderer lives under the tyranny of his wife, and vents his spleen on his victims.
  • Perp Sweating: Done to von Gunten, for 20 hours, to get him to confess.
  • The Promise: Duh. The thing that keeps plot rolling, given by Matthäi to the murdered child’s parents.
  • Red Herring: It is established pretty early that von Gunten wasn’t a murderer as much as a victim of popular judgement.
  • The Reveal: In the novelisation, years after the murders took place, an elderly woman receiving her holy unction summons Da Chief to her death bed and confesses to him that her husband was the child murderer and died in a car crash on the day of the setup, revealing to the audience and Da Chief that Matthäi was right all along. Too bad it’s too late for Matthäi.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism & Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: Tag is very much in the middle with an upward tendency. Its novelisation and its adaptation are near the bottom. Dürrenmatt did a good job of actually letting the Swiss Alps, of all places, seem gritty.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: Tag ends with the killer getting shot by the police and an unsuspecting Annemarie getting entertained by Matthäi, who has taken the killer’s place as ‘the wizard’. Her mother doesn’t mind so much, either.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The population of the murder victim’s hometown. In the novel, they even try to physically hinder von Gunten and the policemen escorting him from leaving by blocking the road with the local fire brigade’s engine.
  • Vigilante Man: Matthäi quits the force and builds up a gas station business for the sole purpose of finding the killer.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In the novelisation, and especially in the 2001 movie, the mother gives on to Matthäi when she finds out why he even engaged her in the first place; to endanger her daughter’s life by serving her as bait for a violent murderer.

Venus in FursGerman LiteratureWinnetou
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Earth vs. The SpiderFilms of the 1950sGigi
The Unknown SoldierLiterature of the 1950sThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader
To Kill a MockingbirdSchool Study MediaWar and Peace

alternative title(s): Das Versprechen
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