An evening with Günter Gauss – The Art of the interview

In December 1967 Günter Gaus, 38 at the time, was interviewed by Anneliese de Haas, a journalist for Die Welt newspaper. The channel he worked for, Südwestfunk, said Gaus, »would make an effort to get rid of the moroseness that current TV shows were evoking in both producers and viewers.« And then he started talking about a special project: »Personally I am fond of a new family series in whose quality I firmly believe. We’ll be producing it in the next nine months. It will be in color and is set – under the title SALTO MORTALE – in the circus milieu. The somewhat extensive management of this series and its products are appealing to all participants.«

Günter Gaus’ family series SALTO MORTALE – which would indeed prove to be an extraordinary success – is a feat that almost no else could bring off these days. Gaus is one of those journalists whose life’s work is characterized so strongly by a specific kind of production, a specific stylistic form, that people hardly remember other facets of his curriculum vitae. »An article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newpaper on the occasion of Gaus’ 70th birthday was titled “The Interviewer.« And it was with the 33 interviews that Gaus did for the ZDF series ZUR PERSON (In Person) that he made television history. Granted, he continued with ZU PROTOKOLL  for ARD, interviewed »Germans«  for WDR, did interview shows after 1989 for GDR Television (which still broadcast for a time after the peaceful revolution), and still works today for ORB, in a production association with Alexander Kluge. Gaus has pursued his interview projects for decades with a rare stubbornness, and it is only fitting that his collected interviews are housed in the »Haus der Geschichte« (House of History) in Bonn as barometers of the situation in Germany throughout the years. But the ZDF productions were and remain the standard meter, probably in part because television was truly a new medium at the time and Gaus’ interviewing techniques, in turn, were new to German television. Gaus has had to fight his early fame up to the present day.

The cool precision of his interviews ignited controversy on ZDF at the time. The managers and committees of the Second German Channel, which after long media-policy  wrangling had been founded as a homey counter-pole to the »cold« ARD, discussed whether it was acceptable to approach high-level politicians the way Gaus did, apparently systematically. Starting with Ludwig Erhard (1963), prominent political figures felt they were being »grilled«. But because Gaus soon had earned a reputation as the political television interviewer in Germany, they let themselves be questoned with trepidation on ZUR PERSON. Hardly anyone refused.

The jurors who selected the recipient of the then young Grimme Prize felt the Gaus series was an example of educational political television, and so he received the award two years in a row, for the shows – today legendary in Germany – with Hannah Arendt and Gustaf Gründgens. When Gaus left ZDF to becme program director and deputy director of SWF in 1965, the Kölner Stadtanzeiger newspaper wrote: »For the Mainz-based channel the end of this series is a palpable loss. Gaus’ Gespräche des Monates (interviews of the month) were by the far best thing on the Second Channel since its inception.« The ZDF had lost a trademark, which back in the 1960s had already offered contemporary observers plenty of material to interpret.

– Paul Sethe in Die Zeit weekly newspaper: »When one says ‘new’, one doesn’t doubt of course that newspapers have long cultivated the art of the interview. But the interviews that Gaus has conducted have been an important step forward in this genre. The traditional form has been developed further. One can feel how difficult Gaus made things for himself; only in this way was the seemingly easy-flowing form of these interviews possible. For each interview he prepared himself down to the most basic things; he was familiar with the respondent’s life, writings, family situation, political opinions. He had very sound knowledge of the subject matter (an old piece of wisdom for journalists: respondents only open their hearts to someone who visibly understands the material and prompts his partner to think in new ways).«

– Wolfram Schütte in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper: »Gaus’ interviewing technique, developed masterfully in ZUR PERSON was never – not even in his new show – to ask questions that one could answer however one wanted. Through the precision of his concise and provocatively posed questions, an assessment of the answer was already pre-determined. If the person being interviewed didn’t have the same clear, exact, sharp, rational argumentation, they would inevitably fall victim to the assessment they made themselves.«

And finally Reinard Baumgart in the Spiegel weekly magazine, in a review of the book version of ZUR PERSON: »So it’s worth looking at the language of the people talking here; it’s worth just as much as it was to look at their talking or listening faces. The proverbial millions won’t read these interviews, but if ten thousand did, that would be enough. For in these interviews Günter Gaus succeeded in blowing away the fog of ideology and official rhetoric that politics has been shrouded in for a long time. He brought it back to the most concrete aspects, to the people who produce politics.«

However, Baumgart had already noted that the millions of ZDF viewers »did the same thing as I did. They too often looked more than they listened. The insistently close faces continually gave clearer answers than their sentences.« Gaus himself said that it was due to the blind faith of journalists that during especially penetrating television interviews revelations and confessions were made. The Gaus method aims at the nuances, the gaps, the expressions and gestures, puffs on cigarettes and breaths of air; in short, at an overall picture of the person. Gaus, almost invisible as an interviewer, staged the person opposite him through the rigid sequence of his questions. »I don’t want to argue with them,« he said again and again.

Anyone who wanted or was able to present himsels as Gaus did would surely have to have a strong feeling for his or her own importance, a certain amount of vanity, and the belief that he or she had a right to rapid rise to fame. Gaus, born in 1929 as the son of Protestant a merchant from Braunschweig,  had learned the ABCs of daily journalism working for the Badische Zeitung and the Deutsche Zeitung, and was a Spiegel editor from 1958 to 1961, before making a name for himself doing portraits of politicians for the Süddeutsche newspaper. At the SWF, in addition to being program director, he moderated the magazine REPORT BADEN BADEN. From 1969 to 1973 he was co-editor in chief of the Spiegel, along with Johannes K. Engel, when the magazine was delaing with both the student revolts and the coalition between the Social Democrats and the liberals. Subsequently, he worked as a state secretary and »Permanent Commissioner« for the Federal Republic of Germany in the GDR (from 1973 to 1981), and then briefly as Academic Senator in the Berlin Senate under Hans-Jochen Vogel.  Since then, Gaus has worked as a journalist and analyst of the process of German unification. »We are dumb victors,« said Gaus about the West Germans’ supremacist attitude toward the East Germans, and as a journalistic counterweight, his TV interviews in the last decade have focused on politicians, artists, an dissidents from the former GDR. The fact that the »Permanent Commissioner« delved into the GDR, its people, and its history more than one would have expected from a West German star journalist, led to furious reactions. Writing on Gaus’ monography, Die Welt der Westdeutschen (The World of the West Germans), the conservative historian Michael Stürmer said in the Spiegel: »This political and social criticism lacks historical seriousness and poignant terminology. It remains tangential, flirting with its own intellectuality. How can a man of the political executive write something like this? Or put differently: how could he represent this state?« Gaus’ successor in East Berlin, Klaus Bölling, accused him of having a certain »camaraderie« with the powerful in the GDR, writing in 1999: »Hardly anyone knew the GDR as well as Gaus. Hardly anyone misses it as much as he does.«

In 1984, at the Mainz Television Criticism Conference, Gaus claimed a la Neil Postman that the medium of television was contributing substantially to the »end of education and enlightenment,« and he continues to hold this view. Naturally, it is striking that a man who owes his fame primarily to television believes this means of communication is posing a threat to democracy (but at least with the restriction, »There are exceptions. Excellent exceptions. But nothing more.«). But in this case, it was probably the distance to the television business that enabled the shows to be of such high quality to begin with. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently wrote that Gaus’ TV interviews, »with their threadbare decoration, their guests often unknown to the general public, and the mannered language of the interviewer, intentionally filled with pauses for affect,« of an interviewer who didn’t conceal his political opinions, were »one single declaration of war on the mass medium.« Here one might ask oneself what “the mass medium” is, and whether Günter Gaus, with his style of interviewing, showed the real possibilities of the medium more strongly than the critics, program managers, and perhaps even he himself would have wanted to admit.  This will be one of the questions that Gaus and Roger Willemsen, who will interview him at the television festival, might be able to clarify. But that Günter Gaus was not so distant from television after all is apparent not only from his unique TV interviews, but also from the fact that the former State Secretary played a text role (head of air-traffic control) in an early TATORT detective show.