Last week Malleus traced a rough history of German supernatural horror serials and considered their defining impact on the contemporary H?rspiel-Boom (audio drama explosion). What are some general characteristics of these new horror serial audios? I?ve made a list below of several trends I?ve noticed over the past 9 years, many of which differ from British and American tendencies. Read on to learn about casting practices, pricing, and for an answer to the strange riddle: Why do German audio horror serials rarely feature German heroes, and why are practically none of them set in Germany?
It?s a young scene:
Most prominent German audio dramatists are fairly young, prolific, and producing their best work now.
Audio dramas have found a profitable niche alongside audio books:
Audio books (H?rb?cher) are just as popular in Germany as they are in the U.S.A., but they haven?t driven audio dramas from the shelves in merry old Deutschland. Although audio books have a larger market, both genres are profitable and cohabit peaceably.
It remains to be seen whether that trend will last, given the considerably lower cost of audio book production. It?s much too early to make predictions, but more audio drama companies are testing the audiobook waters. Rather than introduce another drama series, Lausch is launching a new enhanced audiobook line of multi-voiced adaptations of the dark future Punktown stories. Big Finish, a private audio drama production company in the U.K., has been doing much the same recently with its recent Dr. Who-related audio book releases. Just diversification, or a sign of things to come?
Most German audio dramas are sold at a ?Schn?ppchen Preis? as cheap impulse buys, regardless of quality. With the dollar at record lows, the poor exchange rate considerably offsets this low cost for American buyers. Still, compared to American and British productions, they remain relatively inexpensive. Although music CDs in Germany typically sell for around 15,45 Euros, single CD audio dramas often run under 10 Euros, which is less than 7.68 British Pounds or 15 US dollars as of 03/15/08. By way of contrast, single cd releases of comparable quality (and casts about half the size) from British publisher Big Finish currently run $22.21 apiece.
Supernatural adventure is a driving force on the scene:
In the U.S.A. and to a lesser extent Britain (particularly outside of the BBC) science fiction dominates audio drama production. In Germany, sci-fi is definitely present (Takimo, Perry Rhodan, Star Wars), but supernatural and horror themes are more prevalent, in particular the occult detective sub-genre. The field is changing and diversifying, and children?s, mystery, fantasy and sci fi in particular constitute a sizable and growing presence. Still, the defining footprint of the supernatural sleuths remains clearly visible. It?s a legacy from the audiocassette horror serials of the 80?s, which were in turn inspired by the German horror pulp explosion that began in the late 60?s and caught fire in the early 70’s. See last week?s Malleus column for more on this.
Serials, both licensed and homegrown, lead the field:
CD serials sold one disc at a time are the driving force behind the German audio drama boom. Essentially these are the modern iteration of the Klassiker serials that were sold one cassette at a time in the 1980’s. Many of the new CD serials adapt licensed properties from Germany and the English-speaking world (books, movies, comics), although a healthy number of audio serials are self-originated by German creators. With notable exceptions like Graphic Audio and ZBS, there?s a bizarre lack of serials, licensed or otherwise, in the professional U.S. audio drama market right now. Outside of the BBC, England basically has a single private company specializing in licensed audio drama serials (Big Finish).
Non-German leading characters and locales predominate:
Strangely, most adult German audio drama serials feature leading characters who aren?t German and don?t live in Germany. Instead, the heroes are usually from English-speaking countries. Why?
Some of this can be traced back to the Grusel-Krimi supernatural crime genre that dominates the h?rspiel-field. When horror adventure pulps began in Germany the Hammer studios films coming out of England heavily inspired them. For many German writers of the time, England seemed a particularly exotic, Gothic setting for horror stories. This was certainly true for German-created British heroes John Sinclair and Tony Ballard. (Interestingly, Germany has had precisely the same exotic, Gothic appeal for many British writers, including Michael Moorcock (Hawkwind) and the creators of the Warhammer fantasy gaming universe.) Britain isn?t the only popular non-German locale for German writers. The first German horror pulp hero was American FBI agent Larry Brent. (Ah, those Germans. What American author would name his action hero ?Larry??) More recently Canada became the setting of Gabriel Burns, a superbly produced serial based in dark and mysterious ? wait for it – Vancouver.
The preference for English sounding names extended to the pseudonyms German pulp authors of the 1970?s adopted. Grusel-Krimi authors invented English pseudonyms ranging from the mild mannered (A.F. Morland, H.G. Francis) to the cartoonishly macabre (Jason Dark, Dan Shocker). As with English heroes and locales, English pseudonyms sounded more gothic and imposing to Germans than the authors? own German names. I?ve also heard it argued English names appealed because they seemed more cosmopolitan or international, presumably because of the dominance of English-language movies and television. While modern German writers generally use their own names (Volker Sassenberg hasn?t started calling himself “A.S. Jameson” or “Bob Evil”), so much material from the early pulps is still being mined for audio drama scripts that English pseudonyms remain highly visible.
Personally, I think Germany?s infamous post WWII guilt complex also plays a role in the continuing vogue for non-German heroes adventuring in English-speaking homelands (none of the audio dramas, of course, are actually in English). A number of German friends have told me they find the notion of fictional German heroes laughable. From an American perspective this is utterly bizarre. Americans generally prefer to consume stories about American heroes. Even when exotic locales are involved, there?s usually a (white male) American hero in the starring role.
All right, Americans are too stuck on themselves, particularly us white males. Still, I find Germany?s aversion to German heroes more than a bit sad. I hope someday a German audio drama producer will make a Grusel-Krimi serial set in Germany featuring credible, heroic German protagonists.
But I?m not holding my breath.
Large casts are the norm:
German casts tend to be big in horror, science fiction and fantasy audio dramas (and probably in other genres that I?m less familiar with). It?s common for single-CD German audio dramas to have casts of 15 professional actors or more. I can only speculate why. Perhaps German actors are less costly than their American and British counterparts. That would make a certain amount of sense, given that the audience for German-speaking work is quite a bit smaller than for English-language productions. German fans? limited tolerance for double- or repertory-style casting, both of which are common money and time saving devices in British and American audio drama, may also be a factor. (There are some German series, like Danger, that do use repertory casting, but Danger isn?t one of the better selling series, and I?ve seen a fair number of Germans complaining about its repetitious casts on bulletin boards.) I?ve even read angry complaints from German fans about the same actor playing two different roles in sequential episodes. Fan sentiment like that would put ZBS, Graphic Audio, Big Finish and countless other English-language audio drama producers right out of business.
Casts are fully professional and feature highly talented actors:
German actors are superlative. I?d put them up against the best the English-speaking world has to offer, including the BBC and Yuri Rasovsky?s Hollywood Theater of the Ear. Today most h?rspiel actors are drawn from Germany?s large synchro-sprecher (dubbing) industry, which primarily creates German dubs of American and British t.v. shows and movies. German dubbers, unlike their American counterparts from 70?s kung-fu films or modern anime, are excellent actors in their own right, so much so that many Germans prefer them to the original Hollywood actors? voices.
Since German synchro actors are most known to their German audience by the American actors they dub, some German audio dramas even advertise with those American actors? names. (?Featuring the German voices of Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, and Jack Nicholson!?) It?s ironic since audio drama is one area where German actors get to originate roles themselves, particularly when it comes to genres that are too expensive to produce in visual mediums. Germany hasn?t been a major film-producing center since the Weimar republic (this doesn?t mean there aren?t still great German films getting made, but there isn?t a German equivalent to Hollywood anymore), but in audio you will hear the most lavish productions imaginable. This is particularly true of genres like fantasy and sci-fi that are financially out of reach for German film directors working out of Germany. (Remember, Roland Emmerich made his films and fortune in Hollywood. And compared to many German audio drama producers he isn?t very talented.) Years ago RTL television did attempt a Geisterj?ger John Sinclair TV series, but low budget special effects made the supernatural show a farce. Volker Sassenberg?s supernatural epic Gabriel Burns might have made a fantastic TV show, but it would never get produced in Germany.
Repetitious use of music tracks:
This is a noticeable weakness of many German h?rspiele. While there are significant exceptions, many German h?rspiel serials tend to use the same music tracks in each episode rather than hire a composer to individually score each one. In some cases these tracks aren?t even produced or commissioned by the drama publisher, but licensed from vendors of stock music. As a result, some different audio drama serials even share the same music tracks. If you want to get a taste of what this canned music sounds like, listen to the ?Dick Dynamo? episode that was posted on this website on March 7th. The music used in ?Dynamo? is the same that is used in the John Sinclair and Gespenster-Krimi lines. I should note, though, that those music tracks are much more crisply and professionally implemented in the German serials than in ?Dynamo?.
This is an area where British companies like Big Finish and American ones like ZBS really shine, as all of their productions, even serial episodes, are scored individually. As a result, each adventure has its own atmosphere and unique feel. Many German audio drama serials are more like T.V. shows that feature the same canned tunes in every episode.
Generally speaking German sound design is superb. At this point there aren?t many stylistic generalizations you can make. From the splatterpunk ?shock-effekten? of Geisterj?ger John Sinclair: Edition 2000 to the subtle, state-of-the-art soundscapes of Gabriel Burns, it?s really a question of mood and directorial preference. The sound design in Gabriel Burns in particular is equal to anything I?ve heard from the U.S.A. and Britain, and superior to most of it.
And that?s it for this week. Next time I?ll present some potential lessons the thriving German audio drama scene could offer its poorer American cousin. I?ll also spotlight three outstanding productions from the H?rspiel-Boom, with links to free MP3 samples so you can hear what I’ve been talking about.