German Language Blog

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s crime novel and movie “Das Versprechen” – “The Pledge” Posted by on May 24, 2011 in Literature

Am Wochenende (on the weekend), I had the chance to watch one of my favorite Filme (movies) “The pledge” with Jack Nicholson on TV, a movie based on the Kriminalroman (crime novel) ‘Das Versprechen’ – ‘The pledge’ by Swiss Dramatiker (playwright) and Romanautor (novelist) Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

Here is a rough plot outline for all who are not familiar with the movie: Police Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is on the verge of retirement. On his Abschiedsfeier (farewell party) he receives the message that a little girl was murdered. He immediately initiates investigations. Shortly after some investigation, the police are convinced that they have found the mutmaßliche Täter (suspect) and close the case, but for Black the case is completely incongruous and from then on he is obsessed with the idea to convict the ‘real’ murderer.

“The Pledge” was directed by Sean Penn and was released in 2001. But Penn’s screen adaption was not the first one.

In 1957, Dürrenmatt was assigned to script a TV movie, which should address the topic of sexual offenses on children. The Uraufführung (first release) of the resulting movie “Es geschah am hellichten Tag” (lit. It happened in broad daylight) took place on July 4th, 1958 at the 8th Berlinale, the international film festival in Berlin.

Although Dürrenmatt was satisfied with the movie, he was not really enthusiastic about it. He said that the protagonist Dr. Hans Matthäi, who was acted by Heinz Rühmann, was too bourgeois. He would have appreciated it when the movie would have been more defiant and burlesque. Dürrenmatt also did not like the end of the movie, where Dr. Matthäi convicts the murderer. Therefore, Dürrenmatt wrote his own version of the story, which was based on the script. Unlike in the movie, the protagonist in his novel begins to suffer from emotional distress and mental problems.

Sean Penn’s adapted Dürrenmatt’s alternative deliberations. And I find that Jack Nicholson was able to transform Dürrenmatt’s intentions very well. However, Penn’s adaption distinguishes from Dürrenmatt’s work, too. For example, Dürrenmatt’s protagonist is not about to retire but to go to Jordan in order to train the police there. But I won’t discuss this matter here in detail.

If you like you can watch the 1958 movie on YouTube. There you will find the complete movie. Below you can find the first part of it.

And finally, if you like to improve your German I would suggest to get a bilingual edition (German and your mother tongue) of one of Dürrenmatt’s comedies, for example, “Die Physiker” –“The Physicists”, which is somewhat ghoulish but also really hilarious. It is about three psychopaths in a madhouse, one of them is a real physicist and the two others think they are the physicists Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Maybe you have already come across one of Dürrenmatt’s works?

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About the Author: Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra


  1. Marion:

    I read ‘Die Physiker’ last year and thoroughly enjoyed it – although I didn’t understand all the German. I’m lucky to have an inspirational teacher and be able to go to my class. I am 75 and started learning German only a few years ago. Also, thank you for your blog which I very much appreciate.

  2. marcia bernhard:

    I was excited to read about the film based on the Dürrenmatt novel ‘Das Versprechen’. My all time favorite of his is the psychological crime novel: Der Richter und sein Henker. I’ve read it at least 6 times and each time find it fresh and exciting. I also like his drama ‘Der Besuch der alten Dame’ (much more so than ‘Die Physiker’ applicable even in modern times. Also cool is his short story ‘Der Tunnel’. Thanks again!