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01.09.2016

Germany: Film version of Gladbeck hostage drama gets the green light despite murderer's personality rights issues

by Ingo Beckendorf

The planned film version of a real hostage drama, which happened in the German town of Gladbeck in 1988, is legally permissible. The general personality rights (rights over personal publicity) of one of the hostage-takers and condemned murderers do not conflict with the realisation of the film project.

Car mirror_public domain_900X600 "Dieter Degowski and Hans-Juergen Roesner brutally robbed a branch of the Deutsche Bank in Gladbeck [then West Germany] and took two employees hostage. They demanded 300,000 Marks and a fast getaway car. They were granted both. But it was then that the real drama began to unfold." - Deutsche Welle on the Gladbeck hostage drama. (Photo: public domain)

That was decided by the District Court (Landgericht) in Aachen by Court order on 24 May 2016 (case no.: 8 O 168/16). The District Court rejected a legal aid application of the perpetrator who is still detained in a prison in Aachen today.

The murderer and his accomplice robbed a bank in Gladbeck in August of 1988. During their subsequent escape through Germany and the Netherlands, two hostages and one policeman were killed.

Both offenders were sentenced to life imprisonment by the District Court in Essen in 1991.

The murderer wanted to obtain the necessary financial aid to file an action for a preliminary injunction to stop the film project. He wanted to hinder the Berlin-based production firm Ziegler from creating a film version of the hostage drama.

According to the German code of civil procedure, people with low income have a right to apply for financial help to pay for legal aid - but only if the intended legal persecution has a chance of success. In this case, the Court decided that the perpetrator had no chance of success and denied his application for financial aid.

The Court reasoned that the general personality rights of the perpetrator would indeed be affected by the film, but his rights had to stand back behind freedom of expression and broadcasting freedom.

To stop the film project, the perpetrator’s lawyer Rainer Dietz sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Berlin production firm, but Ziegler TV refused his request. The advocate of the TV firm, Christian Schertz, argued that the hostage drama of Gladbeck in 1988 was one of the most spectacular crimes in German post-war history.

Therefore, the involved criminals were figures of contemporary history and had to accept a cinematic portrayal of the events. He further argued that their situation was comparable to that of the criminals of the German terror organisation Rote Armee Fraktion.

The perpetrator’s lawyer Dietz replied that the planned film would jeopardize the perpetrator’s chance for rehabilitation. The reintegration of his client into society would be endangered by filming the hostage drama from the perspective of the victims. That would also mean a heavy violation of the perpetrator’s personality rights.

The advocate pointed to the “Lebach” decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht). That decision from 5 June 1973 (case no.: BvR 536/72) is a landmark decision in Germany as far as the fair balance between broadcasting freedom and personality rights is concerned.

The judges of the Constitutional Court decided then that the public’s right to information about a criminal act outweighs the personality rights of the offender. But the judges also underlined the fact that there can be an exception, if the report about the criminal is able to endanger his resocialisation.

However, the judges from Aachen did not see an exception applying to the present case. The film project may affect the murderer’s personality rights, but any risk to his resocialisation would be lower-ranked compared to the freedom of broadcast, expression, press and art.

Rösners lawyer said that he will immediately appeal the order with the District Court in Aachen.

Ingo Beckendorf works as a scientific assistant at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR) in Saarbrücken/Brussels.

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