Es geschah am hellichten Tag (“It Happened in Broad Daylight”, 1958) // Uncanny German

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Little Gritli Moser is found murdered with a cut-throat razor in the woods. The prime suspect, a French-speaking vagabond by the name of Jacquier, is about to be lynched; he beseeches Dr. Matthäi, the local Kantonspolizei detective, to help him. But the village is baying for blood – and Matthäi already has a plane out of Switzerland booked for a new life in foreign climes.

The plot, then, begins in the Wachtmeister Studer tradition: following a murder a backwater community, the unconventional detective has doubts over the prime suspect. But then the movie pivots in a startlingly modern fashion. Obsessed with the case, Dr. Matthäi cuts loose from the police and starts a rogue three-month stakeout – using human beings as bait. How far is he ready to go to keep his promise?

Legendary Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt conceived this idea and wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Dürrenmatt is probably best known for Der Besuch der alten Dame (“The Visit”, 1956), a dark comedy of scapegoating which settled deep in my cultural unconscious when I read it a few years back. The same pessimism about human nature and complex power games creeps into the dialogue of Es geschah am hellichten Tag, as in the defence of the unfortunate tramp Jacquier: “You put me in prison last year,” he tells the detective, “you knew I was lying then. So now you must see I’m telling the truth!”

One of several uncanny delights in the movie is the unusual use of High German by a gallery of beloved Swiss actors to have cropped up in many of the pre-Sixties movies we’ve seen so far, employed in unexpected roles. Emil Hegetschwiler, the lovable grandfather of Café Odeon and Bäckerei Zürrer, plays a petty-minded mayor. Heinrich Gretler, a.k.a. Wachtmeister Studer himself, crops up as an uncompromising bureaucrat who refuses to indulge our protagonist. Magrit Winter, who had form as a put-upon homely gal for the audience to root for, gets a single scene playing misery incarnate.

Worth a watch?

Hervé Dumont titles his short essay on this movie “Heidi gets bumped off”, which successfully conveys both the Swiss aura and the slightly over-the-top thrills to be gleaned. Dürrenmatt’s original idea puts an authentically Helvetic spin on the plot of Fritz Lang’s M; Hitchcock’s slow burners like Shadow of a Doubt are also a clear touchstone (see also the references to psychoanalysis, uncanny doubling and obsession à la Spellbound and Rear Window). To go with that excellent quality dialogue and supporting cast, the patient pacing in the middle of the movie reaps big rewards when the climax hits.

This results in an almost brilliant thriller which, workmanlike direction notwithstanding, falls short in one area. Dürrenmatt himself put his finger on the weakness: The German comedian Heinz Rühmann, in his first dramatic role as the detective Dr. Matthäi, who plays it “too bourgeois, not obsessed enough”. That doesn’t sound like much written here, but imagine Vertigo if James Stewart was fully in control of his senses – something vital disappears.

The Swiss context, like the cantonal heraldry here, belies Rühmann’s very German style.

Rühmann’s casting didn’t only cause a tonal dissonance at the centre of the movie, it also led to changes to Dürrenmatt’s screenplay. Apparently Rühmann was such a star that he had his own script doctor, who made his character a nicer guy, smoothed the maligned prostitute role into an unlucky factory worker, and above all made the ending a lot more conventional. (That brings to mind yet another Hitchcock, Suspicion, for which Cary Grant’s originally murderous character was made more comic and, well, much less murderous – the tone of that never sat right with me either.)

Actually, the detached Teutonic way Dr. Matthäi proceeds with his insane plan adds another level of uncanniness to proceedings, and the new ending satisfied me; but both are at odds with the tenor of the rest of the movie. For that reason I’d highly recommend following up a viewing of Es geschah am hellichten Tag with a read of Dürrenmatt’s novella Das Versprechen (“The Promise”), written shortly afterwards, which should be taken as his canonical take on the Matthäi story. It’s a hell of a lot darker than the movie.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners).
Availability: Free on PlaySuisse.
Language: High German (weirdly, since almost all the actors are Swiss German). Subs in D and F.

Swissness Lab Report: Uncanny German

I’m coming to this report a couple of weeks after watching the movie, as I put website duties to one side (Swiss life taking precedence over Swiss screen fantasies). In the meantime I read Dürrenmatt’s novella and a got a clearer idea of his vision.

I’d originally thought about writing about the author, and perhaps also about how this story led to 2001’s The Pledge, the Sean Penn-directed, critically-acclaimed flop with Jack Nicholson in the Matthäi role and Benecio del Toro as the Jacquier-scapegoat (now a mentally disabled Native American). But I was drifting too far from a certain weirdness I felt watching the film. The act of simply sitting down and reading Swiss fiction put me back on track.

For the uninitiated, Swiss novels are almost always written in Swiss Standard German. This is basically the version of German I got taught for a year in school in the UK, except it doesn’t use that annoying ß-sign, and it replaces a few bits of vocabulary, like the Frenchified Velo for “bicycle” instead of Fahrrad.

Of course, the dialogue in these books is largely translated from Swiss German dialect, so if, say, a Zurich native confesses to a cutlery-related crime of passion, you’ll read it in the Swiss Standard German “Ich war es, mein Schatz – ich habe den Friseur mit meinem Teelöffel aufgespießt!”, instead of the more realistic Züridütsch: “I bi es gsi, Schätzeli – i ha de Coiffeur mit mim Löffeli ufgespiesst!”

Even a non-German speaker can see from the differences between the two utterances that some big leaps are needed from the standard to the dialect and back again. You’d think that, while reading, that would pull you out of the story-world. But with a great character writer like Dürrenmatt I find it easy to forget the “real life” dialogue would be quite different. After twelve years living in a diglossia situation, your brain slides smoothly from listening and speaking dialect to reading and writing Swiss Standard German.

Another dimension to all this appears when you think that Dürrenmatt’s plays were written and performed in Standard German; and he insisted on his screenplay for Es Geschah am hellichten Tag making its predominantly Swiss German actors speak entirely in the written language. As I noted above, this combines with the oddly Teutonic behaviour of the leading man to give an uncanny result. I ask myself: How much “German-ness” is too much? Or in more scientific terms, what specific effect is created with this (mis-)use of Standard German?

Sandra Wolf at the University of Fribourg has written on the dubbing of Swiss German TV into Standard German for an international audience, and is currently researching attitudes towards Standard German use in a corporate context. She kindly allowed me to borrow from her work reviewing attitudes to “High German” amongst Swiss German speakers.

The first crucial thing to remember is that Standard German tends to be seen as foreign, or at least “exonormative”, by Swiss Germans. So speaking German to somebody can signal that you’re labelling them as not belonging (unzugehörig), or foreign. Another side to this has provocatively described as follows:

Swiss Germans suspect any fellow Swiss who uses High German too well and are embarrassed by anyone who uses it too badly. A native German-speaker will recognise at once that radio announcers on Swiss radio have accents, but to the Swiss they sound too German to be real Swiss.

J. Steinberg, Why Switzerland?

In the movie, this is complicated by the fact that both the main protagonist Dr Matthäi and his antagonist Schrott are played by native Germans. (They might be putting on a slight Swiss accent in the dub, but I can’t hear it.) In real life, when a German meets a Swiss German, the choice of what language to speak comes down to a number of factors. But in cases where the German is very well-known and well-integrated, such as Matthäi with all of his colleagues, and Schrott with his wife, it’s highly unlikely anyone would bother switching to Standard German.

So the numerous scenes here in which a Swiss talks to Matthäi or Schrott make it appear as though either they have forcefully insisted on remaining “foreign”, or the community has collectively decided not to consider them as “one of us”. The irony, of course, is that in spite of being artificial, this bizarro linguistic situation fits both of those characters very well – both loner obsessives mistrusted by those around them.

This scene is a linguistically a shade more absurd: the local bobby explains to the waiter, in Swiss-accented High German, that he won’t take a drink because he’s on duty.

Another really important thing to bear in mind when hearing Standard German in Switzerland (according to Wolf) are the three key domains associated with it. The first and second domains we have seen already: written language, and contact with non-Swiss.

The third is a school setting. Swiss kids are taught in Standard German; primary schools are the place where most of them will encounter the language on a daily basis for the first time. Not that the schools are bastions of consistency. By the time I meet the kids (as a teacher I normally work with older teens), the linguistic landscape of the classroom is well-routined but complex, and characterized by constant code-switching. The teacher might deliver a short lecture or instruction in Standard German, then go around taking questions and troubleshooting in dialect; students will take part in a group discussion activity in broad Züridüütsch, then in plenary switch to a more verbose standard form.

As an English teacher, if I say “Meet me after class” the student may reasonably expect to speak any one of Standard German, Schwiizerdütsch or English during that conversation; this is decided by both of us very early in the conversation, normally without any discussion. But I’m informed that in primary schools, teachers sometimes have to be more strict. It can’t be easy compelling little Swiss to speak this new language all the time.

This brings us back to the film, which actually features a full scene set in a primary classroom. The first detective, a bland and unimaginative guy, gives the murdered Gritli Moser’s classmates a short lecture about the crime, before interrogating her best friend. This is the only scene in which language choice actually makes sense – you could reasonably imagine a policeman to demand the kids speak high German with him, although it would have to be a very snotty or unempathetic cop.

In fact, the language choice again fits the context. One of the main points in this scene is to establish that while Matthäi has more empathy for kids (he kneels at the girl’s level instead of making her stand up), he doesn’t really understand or care about them. The little girl he interrogates gives him a vital clue but, like his colleague, he dismisses it as a fairy tale.

Gritli Moser’s best friend is frustrated and patronized by her experience with the adult policemen, but she goes along with their choice of Standard German, just as she has been forced to do for her whole school life. I think this mood is unconsciously cultivated throughout the entire movie.

By forcing all the adults to speak Schriftdeutsch (written German), and forcing the Swiss audience to hear it in a setting they would expect dialect, the filmmakers capture and replicate the childhood betrayal of all young Swiss: thrust into unfamiliar surroundings, the adult authority figures suddenly speak in an “exonormative” tongue; and, just as the murderer Schrott forbids his potential victims from telling their parents about him so can continue his puppet show, the language of their own minds is temporarily made taboo.


Sandra Wolf, “Funktionalität von Sprachvarietäten im Schweizer «Tatort»”
Jonathan Steinberg, Why Switzerland?
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Das Versprechen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s