A robbery-gone-wrong led to the tragically infamous hostage situation which has been referred to as “the darkest hour of German journalism since the end of WWII”. For 54 hours in August of 1988, the German media pursued Hans-Jürgen Rösner (Sascha Alexander Gersak), Dieter Degowski (Alexander Scheer) and their hostages through Germany and across borders while broadcasting the situation live to the nation. Many stops were made along the way by the kidnappers where media interviewed both hostages and their captors, got them coffee and even personally directed them out of a town and onto a motorway to continue their calamitous journey. The hostage takers even freely stopped off to pick up Rösner’s girlfriend, Marion Löblich (Marie Rosa Tietjen).
This is gripping TV that creates layer upon layer of almost unbearable frustration at the overall response by the police, the media and the gawking, mesmerised public crowds.
Over two episodes, the series accurately charts the incident even down to incorporating scenes that are virtually exact replicas from the abundance of available photos and video taken at the time by the frenzied on-scene media.
54 Hours is directed by Kilian Riedhof, who identified the “shock and powerlessness” he felt while living through the crisis as it unfolded. He says, “The Gladbeck trauma needs to be processed through our collective empathy”. One of Riedhof’s aims with the series was to portray the events from the differing perspectives of the police, the media and the hostages to get viewers thinking about “what would I have done in their situation?”
Both the police and the media received widespread condemnation in the wash-up of the Gladbeck hostage crisis. The police were in a state of confusion about who they were taking their orders from as the travelling circus moved into and through neighbouring German police districts, before finally crossing the border into the Netherlands. This complicated the police command and totally baffled police on the ground.
Orders from Herbert Schnoor (August Zirner), the then Interior Minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, explicitly denied police intervention without total adherence to a “zero risk strategy” – to take all kidnappers out at the same time without causing any harm to the hostages. Rather than getting the federal anti-terrorist unit involved, the police chose to use the local police commando squad, for which they were also ultimately criticised.
No ambulances were organised to be waiting anywhere near the scene. Ultimately when ambulances were needed, a police roadblock prevented them getting through for 20 minutes at what was a critical life and death point. This tragic confusion contributed to a series of bumbling moves by police that arguably directly contributed to the disastrous conclusion.
The hostage takers went shopping, dined out, dozed off, bought supplies of alcohol and gave interviews to journalists, all under the riveted gaze of the German public courtesy of the media broadcasting the whole mess live.
As a direct consequence of the hostage crisis, the German National Press Council criticised the media’s involvement and made immediate legislative changes to take tighter control of what media could do at such incidents. These changes included the rule that no media outlet could interview hostage takers while a crime was in progress.
The lessons learned from the Gladbeck hostage crisis remain relevant today – although the professional media have more guidelines for their role and behaviour at major incidents, technology and the era of smartphones has created an ever-changing playing field. Social media interference from public eyewitnesses and the participants of crime is almost impossible to control, resulting in unpredictable consequences. The use of live streaming is also currently under review by Facebook after its use in the recent New Zealand mosque shootings.
54 Hours has been nominated for Best International Programme at the BAFTA Television Awards being held in May 2019 while in Germany, it took out the 2019 Deutscher Fernsehpreis for Best Multipart Television Film.
54 Hours: The Gladbeck Hostage Crisis premieres on Thursday, 18 April at SBS On Demand.
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