Welcome to the final installment of a three-part essay discussing the supernatural in contemporary German h?rspiel. Today I?ll recommend three outstanding contemporary German audio dramas (with links to Mp3 samples) and finish up by considering what the thriving German audio drama market might teach the struggling American one.
Let?s get to the heart of the matter: the productions themselves. The following three h?rspiele releases are among the best of the contemporary boom. Naturally in a field this big there are many other titles I could have chosen: tune in to future Malleus columns for further coverage.
THREE OUTSTANDING CONTEMPORARY GERMAN AUDIO DRAMAS
Geisterj?ger John Sinclair: Der Anfang
by WortArt / L?bbe Audio
Geisterj?ger John Sinclair: Edition 2000 is the supernatural detective serial that kick-started the audio drama boom in Germany back in 1999, and it’s still going strong. It?s an action-packed blend of adventure and horror themes, and very pulpy in an old-school manner. Der Anfang (The Beginning) is a deluxe production with an even larger cast than normal and a cinematic sweep. As you might guess, it concerns the title hero’s first brush with the forces of darkness. Der Anfang sold so well that it became the first audio drama to crack Germany?s music charts. There are currently 42 Geisterj?ger John Sinclair CDs in release, with more in production.
Sample tracks: http://www.sinclairhoerspiele.de/downloads.php
Gabriel Burns #1: Der Fl?sterer (The Whisperer)
by Universal Music Family Entertainment.
Another supernatural serial, this is one of the most sophisticated h?rspiel productions on the market. Gabriel Burns is a bit like Chris Carter?s X-files in terms of generating creepy atmosphere and keeping tantalizing, unanswered questions forever just beyond the listener?s reach. Where John Sinclair is over-the-top action, Burns is restrained, subtle, and genuinely frightening. It also has some of the best, most atmospheric soundscape design I’ve heard anywhere. (Another haunting German serial, Edgar Allen Poe, comes very close.) Where John Sinclair audio dramas are adaptations from a book series, this original audio drama series inspired a book series. Gabriel Burns recently concluded its opening 22 CD story arc and is currently on its 28th release. This one is a true masterpiece in the making.
Gabriel Burns #1: Der Fl?sterer was released on CD and in a special DVD edition with Dolby Digital 5.1. Sound.
Sample tracks: www.gabriel-burns.de (click folgen (“episodes”) on the side, then click on an album cover and a list of sample tracks will appear.)
Gruselkabinett #3: Die Familie des Vampirs
(?The Family of Vampires?, adapted from a short story by A. K. Tolstoi)
by Titania Medien
Gruselkabinett isn’t a serial, but an expanding anthology of dramatized horror classics. I’m particularly fond of this series because of its high caliber acting, excellent production values, and willingness to tackle more obscure tales alongside the standards (while they do cover Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Phantom of the Opera, they publish even more stories off the beaten track – something I wish more English-language producers would do. Instead of recording the umpteenth English audio dramatization of Dracula, how about adapting it’s little-known prequel, Dracula’s Guest? Gruselkabinett did both.)
Die Familie des Vampirs is probably Gruselkabinett?s most critically acclaimed release, and for good reason: it’s one of the best vampire tales I’ve encountered anywhere, in any medium. Essentially it concerns an isolated peasant family in the dead of winter, a visiting stranger, and a breed of vampire that prefers to stalk those who loved it in life. The story begins when a father’s attempt to kill a local vampire goes amiss, and he returns to his wife and children – changed. It?s a harrowing fable about the dark power of denial and the insatiability of love.
Sample tracks: http://www.titania-medien.de/gruselkabinett_3.php
That wraps it up for my top three German audio drama recommendations to beginners. Now here are some ruminations on the
FIVE LESSONS FROM THE HOERSPIEL-BOOM FOR AMERICAN PRODUCERS:
1. Get ’em while they’re young!
Germany?s audience for audio drama was built in the 1970?s and 80?s through mass-market cassette releases aimed predominantly at children. The explosion of talent today and the willingness of Germans to support it with their Euros is largely a product of childhood exposure to the medium. In the USA companies like ZBS managed to do this to a lesser degree, but German companies had a big advantage: their audio dramas could be purchased from mainstream stores. These days in the USA there are plenty of music stores and bookstores with children?s sections, but the audio drama presence on their shelves is practically nonexistent. In some ways the audio drama scene in the United States is much like the comic book scene: it?s aging.
It?s well recognized that the future of comic books as a viable American popular art is very much in doubt because children don’t read them any more: kids who might once have read comic books are playing video games, browsing the internet and watching home videos instead. Rather than rise to this challenge, major publishing houses like Marvel and DC have largely given up on attracting children and focused on milking their already existing, older fanbase more effectively. Many long-time comic book professionals cite this trend as a sign that their industry has no future.
Is the contemporary U.S. audio drama scene much different? If children aren?t introduced to compelling audio drama, either commercially or over the airwaves, where will tomorrow?s paying audience (or for that matter, tomorrow?s creators) come from? In Germany children?s h?rspiele are still being produced in substantial numbers along with the more adult-oriented material aimed at nostalgic 30-somethings. There is actually a young company in the U.S.A., founded by Jens Hewerer, that is producing English-language audio dramas in the h?rspiel tradition for English-speaking kids. Everyone with a stake in the future of this artform should wish him luck. You can read more about Mr. Hewerer’s company and personal quest here: http://www.giddio.com/AboutUs.html.
2. Price low to sell
Some audio dramatists seem to take their CD pricing cues from the music industry. This puts them at a serious disadvantage, since music industry CDs are well promoted on radio and television, and audio dramas are not. By and large the music CD purchaser has heard the content already and knows exactly what they?re getting when they plop down $18, but the audio drama purchaser is usually making a gamble. Many people, particularly new listeners, won?t gamble at those prices. German audio dramas were inexpensive in the 1970?s and 80?s, and they?re still inexpensive today. Prices are usually low enough that customers can act on impulse without much reflection.
The great price leveler will probably be internet distribution, as more and more people get used to downloading MP3s than buying a physical product. You can already see the substantial price drops internet downloads have facilitated for companies like Big Finish and Graphic Audio. Internet distribution also allows listeners to sample before they buy. By allowing potential customers to discover contemporary talent for free, I think Radio Drama Revival provides the field with an exemplary service here. (That’s not self-aggrandizement – Fred runs this site and the show, I just write here.) I?d guess whatever losses producers might accrue by posting their work for free on RDR is offset by future purchases from customers who would otherwise never have heard of them. It?s still worth keeping in mind, though, that a $5 audio drama download is much more likely to move than a $15 dollar one. Especially if your line emphasizes:
3. Serials, serials, serials
The cassette adventures that laid the foundation for today?s German boom were predominantly serials, and serials still dominate both adult and children?s h?rspiele today. In the old days these serials were sold one episode per cassette, nowadays they sell one episode per CD. Even most multi-part stories are generally sold one CD at a time. German fans tend not to complain as long as they don?t have to wait too long for the conclusion of a multi-part adventure, largely because the prices of individual CDs are kept low. British company Big Finish also releases single CD episodes of multi-part serials, but they price the individual CDs so high that collecting the entire story becomes prohibitive fast.
The bottom line is, getting customers hooked on a serial story is a good way to net future sales. By advancing the story one CD at a time, you minimize your initial production costs. Customers won?t mind if you don?t gouge them and if each CD tells a satisfying story in itself in addition to being a link in a longer narrative chain. Serial publishing doesn?t require a fast rate of output. Adult German serials generally put out 6 releases a year at most, with the majority managing 3 to 4. Some epics even crawl along at a pace of one CD per year! (The 12 CD limited series Abseits der Wege (Off the Beaten Path) is one of those: after 2 years they?ve released two of the 12 episodes. I have to say, though, that each episode has been well worth the wait.)
Some German companies are beginning to collect their single-CD releases in cheaper boxed sets after the single CD versions have been out for a couple of years. This repackaging at a lower cost helps move product after interest has cooled. In many ways it?s highly reminiscent of the strategy used by today?s American comic book publishers, who release stories first as serialized magazines and later collect them into cheaper trade paperbacks.
The contemporary German scene isn?t limited to licensed products: far from it. But there are a lot more professional productions using licensed properties in Germany than in the United States right now, and these properties get attention and bring new listeners into audio drama as a medium. These range from obvious big-name properties (Star Wars) to the slightly offbeat (Forgotten Realms, Hellboy). There?s a lot of potential for good licensed product, particularly when the chances for further film or television continuations are slim to none, because there?s a built-in fanbase eager for more. American publisher Dark Horse comics has released a further ?season? of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with original creator Joss Whedon overseeing the project and writing lead stories, much as he did for the T.V. show. It?s Dark Horse?s top seller.
This may be beyond most American producers’ budgets, but limited advertising on television and radio has benefited German series like John Sinclair and Gabriel Burns. For U.S. producers, internet advertising may be more viable.
Well, meine Damen und Herren, this concludes my introductory discussion of supernatural horror serials in contemporary German audio drama.
Next week I?ll switch to English material to begin a two-part review of ZBS productions? Jack Flanders: Midnight at the Casa Luna. Tune in for this and free Balinese Gamelan music recorded on location in Ubud, Bali by yours truly.
Great stuff. With each article I’m a step further towards picking up a bunch of (audio) books and starting to study German.
Each of the three series’ sound outstanding, and your tips for new dramatists is dead-on. And by all means, I hope producers get a few bucks out of their work being aired on the show! “Try before you buy” is very important.
Chris Dueker says
Glad you’re enjoying the posts. I’m afraid your temptation to learn German is only going to grow as Malleus continues to review the great material coming out of Germany.
Can you offer any tips for us language learners as to easier h?rspiel until we are ready for these? Thank you.
Good question. I’m not a language instructor, but I’d be happy to give some advice about what worked for me.
Long story short, you do need a basic understanding of German grammar to start with. Once you have that, my advice is to just start reading (reading first, then listening) material that would appeal to you in English. And if that means you’re reading contemporary German horror novels instead of 18th century classics, so be it. The key for me was to keep the drudgery (Grammar crunching) to a minimum, and emphasize the pleasurable parts (reading what I wanted).
Bad news first. You do need to get a handle on German grammar. I’d advise one year of German classes, or one summer of an intensive German program, to get the basics.
After that, keep things as fun as you can. In my experience, starting off with heavy literary works (Goethe, Schiller, etc.) was unrealistic for a beginner, frustrating, and counterproductive. The key for me was to start from scratch with children’s material, and to chose to read / listen to things in German that I’d read / listen to for pleasure in English. If mysteries are your thing, read German mystery writers. If it’s science fiction, get into German science fiction. After an initial investment in grammar and dictionary translating, you’ll build up enough of a vocabulary that you can decipher new words by context. Soon you’ll be putting the dictionary aside. Most importantly, if you like what you’re reading for its own sake, you’ll tend to read quite a bit more than if you are just doing it to improve your language skills.
Reading-wise, Michael Ende was a big help to me. I read the “Neverending Story”, “Momo”, and some great short fiction (I even translated one story for friends, “The Prison of Freedom”.)
Herman Hesse, although a “serious” literary figure, also has a lucid, simple yet poetic writing style that made his books a pleasure to read. I recommend “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf”.
Listening-wise, I’d recommend starting off with Maerchen (fairy tales), if you have a taste for them. I particularly enjoyed Manfred Steffen’s CDs of Grimms stories. These are audiobooks, not audio dramas, but if you’re just beginning a single storyteller with a clear reading voice might be a better bet than a diverse cast with music and sound effects. I chose to go with Grimms because while aimed at children the stories are classics adults can still appreciate, rich with meaning and subtle humor. (If you’re interested in exploring how rich, I recommend Bruno Bettelheim’s English book, “The Uses of Enchantment”. A fascinating read.)
There are many, many German audio dramas aimed at children, and many German adults who grew up on them still enjoy them. A lot of these are sort of “Bloodhound Gang” or “Hardy Boys” type junior mystery serials. While there is nothing wrong with them, this just wasn’t my cup of tea, so I’m not the best person to ask about them. An American series, Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators (in Germany, Die Drei Fragezeichen) is much more popular in Germany as an audio drama serial than it ever was here as a young adult book series. If you like the sound of that, there are plenty of “???” audios out there.
My first German audio drama series was the “John Sinclair: Edition 2000” series. Jason Dark (Helmet Rellergerd), is arguably something of a talented hack, and these are pulp novels, so action is brisk, sentences are simple, and stock lines get repeated a lot. Maybe not the easiest thing for a total novice to start with, but an excellent intermediate choice for someone who is moving beyond the children’s level. Gabriel Burns, on the other hand, with its complex plots and more sophisticated dialogue, would be something to tackle after John Sinclair has become easy for you.
The good news is that learning to read / understand spoken German is much easier than learning to speak it. If you want to become fluent, you’ll need much more than a year of German classes, and ideally you should spend serious time in Germany. If you just want to read German books or listen to German audio dramas etc., you’ll need to work at it, but not nearly as much.