The Judge and His Hangman

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The Judge and His Hangman
First English edition (1955)
Author Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Original title Der Richter und sein Henker
Country Switzerland
Language German
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Harper & Brothers (US)
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardback)

The Judge and His Hangman (German: Der Richter und sein Henker) is a 1950 novel by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was first published in English in 1954, in a translation by Cyrus Brooks and later in a translation by Therese Pol. A new translation by Joel Agee appeared in 2006, published together with it sequel Suspicion, as The Inspector Bärlach Mysteries, with a foreword by Sven Birkerts. Together with Dürrenmatt's The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel, these stories are considered classics of crime fiction, fusing existential philosophy and the detective genre.


Commissar Bärlach of the Bernese police, who is dying of cancer, must solve the murder of his best officer, Lieutenant Ulrich Schmied. Bärlach is assisted in his investigation by officer Walter Tschanz. As Schmied had been investigating the crimes of Richard Gastmann, a career master criminal who is an old friend and enemy of Bärlach, suspicion immediately falls upon Gastmann. But Bärlach's and Tschanz's "investigation" of Gastmann yields an unexpected twist after Tschanz kills Gastmann, supposedly in self-defense. Bärlach then reveals that he has known all along that Tschanz is the one who murdered Schmied.

Tschanz had purposefully killed Gastmann so that Gastmann would be forever blamed for Schmied's murder. Furthermore, Bärlach had manipulated Tschanz into this action with the manner in which Bärlach had pressed forward with their seeming investigation of Gastmann. Bärlach had deliberately pushed Tschanz toward a final, fatal confrontation with Gastmann, resulting in Gastmann's death: the punishment Bärlach considers just for all of the previous crimes Gastmann had committed, but which Bärlach had been unable to prove.

In fact, Gastmann and Bärlach went back forty years. They had long ago made a personal bet with one another as to whether it was possible to commit the "perfect" crime, such that even an investigator who witnessed it would never be able to prove the perpetrator guilty. After that bet, Gastmann, as Bärlach well knew, had pursued a lifelong career as a purveyor of crime, evil in its comprehensiveness, arrogant and mocking of civilisation itself. And indeed, he always remained one step ahead of Bärlach's tireless but fruitless efforts to convict him. Gastmann recalled to Bärlach: "I wanted to prove that it was possible to commit a crime that couldn't be solved." Gastmann had been correct, and Bärlach's final plot is an acknowledgment thereof. By murdering Schmied during Schmied's investigation of Gastmann, Tschanz had ruined the terminally ill Bärlach's final chance to bring Gastmann to justice in a courtroom. Therefore, using Tschanz as a pawn, Bärlach finds an alternate method to mete out the justice for which he feels Gastmann is overdue.


The central question of this book is whether or not it is right to frame a person for a crime they didn't commit, if they've committed another crime that was never proven. Bärlach affirms the question when he says to Gastmann: "I couldn't prove that it was you who committed the first crime, but I am transferring this crime to you" — therefore, Gastmann, the very embodiment of evil criminality, was finally punished.

The interplay between Bärlach and Lutz takes on a symbolic dimension. Lutz, the university educated overseer, insists on the efficacy of modern, scientific crime-solving methods "from the Chicago school", which is based mainly on circumstantial evidence and forensics. Bärlach is skeptical, relying instead on his deep knowledge of human motives, born of lifelong experience. Tschanz, Bärlach's underling, makes use of the modern evidence-to-proof method and serves as a contrast to Bärlach's style of natural intuition and usage of human manipulation. While Tschanz's methods make ostensible progress on the case, ultimately, it is Bärlach's intuitive sense that has long since enabled him to determine the truth, and also enables him to use Tschanz to settle his old score with Gastmann.

One can understand the novel also as question: "When humans determine themselves the fate of others they become the judges, and when they become the instrument of others they become the henchmen." Having been set up by Bärlach to kill Gastmann, Tschanz says to Bärlach at the end of the story, "Then you were the judge and I the hangman". Tschanz then kills himself the following day by stopping his car on an active railroad track.

Film and television[edit]

  • For the first time Der Richter und sein Henker was adaptated by the German television Süddeutscher Rundfunk in 1957, using the same title.[1] It aired on 7 September 1957. In 2012 the film has been released on DVD for the first time.
  • In 1961 the British Broadcasting Corporation produced a second adaptation. It was shown as an episode of the long-running series of televised plays BBC Sunday-Night Play titled The Judge and His Hangman. It premiered on 17 December 1961.[2] Frank Pettingell acted in the role of Inspector Hans Bärlach, Brian Bedford played Lieutenant Chanz. The show has not yet been released on the home video market.
  • Daniele D'Anza directed the third adaptation in 1971/72. Radiotelevisione Italiana aired Il giudice e il suo boia on 6 February 1972, starring Paolo Stoppa as Bärlach and Ugo Pagliai as Tschanz.[3] The TV movie has since been released on DVD in 2009.
  • On 8 November 1974, the fourth adaptation was produced under the titel Le juge et son bourreau for a French broadcasting corporation.[4] The TV movie was directed by Daniel Le Comte and starred Charles Vanel in the role of commissaire Baerlach. The role of Tschanz was renamed as lieutnant Terrence, played by Gilles Ségal. The TV movie remains unreleased on the home video market.
  • The novel was once more made into a film in 1975, titled End of the Game, directed by Maximilian Schell, with screenplay by Dürrenmatt and Schell.[5] Jon Voight took lead billing as Walter Tschanz, with Martin Ritt as Hans Bärlach and Robert Shaw as Richard Gastmann. Jacqueline Bisset and Friedrich Dürrenmatt also appeared in the film, and Donald Sutherland played the role of the corpse of Ulrich Schmied. German silent film actress Lil Dagover made her last screen appearance before retirement in the film. The film was also reissued as Getting Away With Murder, Murder on the Bridge and Deception. The original 105 minute film version has not been released on the home video market. The shorter 91 minute international version has been restored and released on a German Blu-ray edition in 2011.
Main article: End of the Game


External links[edit]

  • Friedrich Dürrenmatt home page sponsored by the University of Chicago Press. Includes a 1969 interview with Dürrenmatt, his story "Smithy" and essay "Automobile and Railroad Nations," and essays on Dürrenmatt.