Meet Bernhard Kimmel, the ‘Al Capone of the Palatinate’…
At the age of fourteen, Bernhard Kimmel left school and got a job at the local weaving mill, making curtains. He grew up in the town of Lambrecht, which is situated in a narrow valley and consequently sees only a few hours of sunlight. Opportunities are few beyond the local mills and so Kimmel was seemingly taking the familiar course through life. However, by the age of sixteen he had formed a gang with some friends and, by night, they would carry out raids and robberies. At first the targets were relatively low-key – grocery stores and the like – but these would lead to much bigger jobs: banks, factories, department stores. There were six members in the gang, including Kimmel’s fiancé. Upon their capture in 1961 they were charged for 179 separate counts of robbery and theft, all of which had taken place within the past four years. During this time Kimmel continued to live at home and maintain his day job, the local community completely unawares of his double life.
Alongside those 179 counts of robbery and theft was a charge for murder. Karl Wertz, a 49-year-old caretaker, was shot by gang member Lutz Cetto out of fear that he would be able to identify them. Cetto earned himself a life sentence as a result, with Kimmel sentenced to 14 years. Despite the murder there was a media sensation surrounding Kimmel, now dubbed the “Al Capone of the Palatinate” in reference to the forest where the gang hid out. In 1969 there was even a German TV movie made about their exploits, co-starring a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which changed the names but kept the Al Capone moniker. Shortly after its production Kimmel himself was released, in the Spring of 1970 having served two-thirds of his sentence. Beforehand he had heard that filmmaker Peter Fleischmann was interested in meeting him and so, just eight days after his release, he chatted to the director and his camera.
Kimmel and Fleischmann struck up a friendship that would see the former robber become involved in the filmmaker’s work. The 1970 interview material didn’t surface immediately, but Kimmel found himself cast in Das Unheil from 1972. By all accounts he didn’t quite fit in on set, unused to taking direction and lacking the kind of discipline required for such a production. He would go back to his old ways resulting in another conviction in 1982, this time for killing a police officer and severely wounding another. Kimmel maintains that his intent was to shoot above the officers’ heads; nevertheless this led to a sentence of life plus 13 years. Two years later Fleischmann paid him a visit in prison, on New Year’s Eve 1984. He did so “as a friend” but brought his camera with him in order to record new interview material. This footage, and that captured in the Spring of 1970, would form the basis for his 1987 documentary Al Capone von der Pfalz.
The combination of thirtysomething Kimmel and that of an incarcerated man approaching his fifties gave the initial documentary a quality not unlike that of Michael Apted’s Up series. There a group of British children were filmed every seven years (a process that is still ongoing) as a means, initially, of reflecting the UK’s class system, though over time it has encompassed wider significances. In the case of Al Capone von der Pfalz we see how a criminal lifestyle and prison can change a man: the cocksure and charismatic Kimmel of 1970 giving way to a more fragile figure whose current existence is “too horrible” to truly contemplate. Young Kimmel, at the height of his infamy (which he clearly enjoys), is interviewed whilst donning a suit that makes him resemble Lee Brilleaux of the British band Dr. Feelgood – indeed, there is something of the rock star about him. Fast-forward to 14 years later and we find a slightly heavier bearded man whose eyes of full of doubts and worries. The juxtaposition alone tells its own story.
A further layer was to be added in 2006 with Mein Freund der Mörder. Fleischmann once again filmed Kimmel, this time a free man once more having been granted parole after serving 22 years of his sentence. The second documentary is in many ways an extension of the first, much like the various Up instalments were, utilising footage from the seventies and eighties alongside its new material and telling the full story of Kimmel’s exploits once more, albeit with the added perspective that comes from both Kimmel’s advancing age and the after-effects of all those years inside. In-between times he and Fleischmann had also become closer. The filmmaker notes how he strives to obtain an objective distance from his subjects, but his association with Kimmel over such a long period and the correspondence between the two during his second sentence (despite Fleischmann’s attempts to never become too heavily connected) produced a heavy friendship. During the eighties he even used Kimmel once more on a film, as an advisor to the robbery sequence in 1984’s Frevel.
Mein Freund der Mörder is likely the closing chapter to Fleischmann’s cinematic relationship with Kimmel. Al Capone von der Pfalz left some questions behind, specifically with regards to the sentence Kimmel had received and his protestations of the charge. Yet Mein Freund der Mörder ends with the former robber at retirement age, his criminal career hopefully behind him. It should therefore be viewed as the more definitive of the two given this sense of closure and its ability to encompass the entire Kimmel story. Of course, that story is fascinating enough that both films make for equally riveting viewing. Not everything from the 1987 documentary makes it into the 2006 one, but the key areas remain the same: the differing attitudes (and perhaps even mental state) of their subject over the decades; the tales of his escapades and the reactions of the townsfolk to their local hero; the switch from being a German Robin Hood (or a modern day Johannes Bückler) to becoming a murderer.
There is also the whole Nazi dimension to Kimmel’s tale that provides another area of fascination for the viewer. We learn of how, as an eight-year-old, he witnessed retreated German soldiers in the town’s surrounding woodland. The one-time heroes of his homeland were now viewed as cowards, an event which some speculate played a formative role in his establishing a somewhat off-balance moral code. That same woodland was also a goldmine to a young Kimmel who would regularly come across abandoned firearms and grenades from the war, once again prompting potential connections to his future armed robberies. More interesting is the revelation the man who fronted the manhunt for Kimmel and his gang following the death of Karl Wertz was subsequently convicted of war crimes. He would even be incarcerated at the same prison as Kimmel. This man, Georg Fleischmann (no relation to the director), was one of a number of war criminals (ex-Gestapo and the like) who had found employment in the police force in the areas surrounding Kimmel’s hometown. The fact that such instances colour both Mein Freund der Mörder and Al Capone von der Pfalz not only adds to the overall intrigue, but also places their tale within a very specific period and place, one that adds yet another dimension.
Yet whilst both Fleischmann’s documentaries share many of the same qualities and whilst Mein Freund der Mörder is arguably the more ‘definitive’ account of Kimmel’s life, I cannot help but find Al Capone von der Pfalz the more satisfying. The Kimmel we meet in 2006 is understandably relaxed and contemplative. The Kimmel of New Year’s Eve 1984 is somewhat haunted and this translates into a more immediate viewing experience, even if we acknowledge there is a slightly voyeuristic edge to such a statement. There is a tension in the earlier documentary not only because that swagger of the early seventies has entirely disappeared, but also in the conversations between Kimmel and Fleischmann in the prison’s visiting space. In 2006 they eat and drink in the sunshine; in 1984 they are in a pokey little room with Kimmel clearly distressed by his plight. He has many years of this come, he has contemplated suicide and he practically pleads with the filmmaker as he states his innocence: the policeman’s death was an accident, he is not a murderer. Of course we see all of this, too, in Mein Freund der Mörder, but it’s softened by retrospect and its newfound second contrast to that of Kimmel the free man of 2006.
Such considerations and preferences are ultimately meaningless, however, given the inclusion of both films on this particular set. It seems highly unlikely that someone will choose to watch only one of the documentaries and so it is that we get both the immediacy of Al Capone von der Pfalz and the more definitive qualities of Mein Freund der Mörder. In combination that’s a potent mixture.
Mein Freund der Mörder and Al Capone von der Pfalz have been released as a double-disc set by Edition Filmmuseum encoded for Region 0 and both French- and English-friendly. Each documentary gets its own disc with an additional 34-minutes worth of interview material also appearing on the first. Both films come in their original Academy ratio and mono soundtracks. The footage utilised over the years switches from black and white 16mm from the seventies, colour 16mm from the eighties and digital video from the 2006. Understandably this results in a number of different ‘looks’ but nothing that proves problematic for their transfers. Colours (where applicable) are excellent as is the detail for a standard definition presentation. Damage is also minimal – and largely relegated to the black and white footage – and there is nothing untoward about either film’s transfer. The soundtrack is similarly as crisp and clean as you would expect, though again some of the older material comes with its own inherent flaws. Optional subtitles are also available in either English or French.
Extras amount to the additional interview material plus a reprint of a conversation between Fleischmann and Rudolf Worschech, the editor of German film magazine epd Film, from 2009. The former doesn’t come with any contextualising information, though presumably these pieces were considered for inclusion in Mein Freund der Mörder. Here we have additional footage of Kimmel himself, whilst he is also the subject of discussion from other contributors too. Presumably Fleischmann initially intended for a wider-ranging approach to his film, but ultimately decided that the new footage would revolve squarely around his own conversations with Kimmel with little room for anyone else. As such this bonus material is a welcome addition, providing as it does some new voices and with that some new angles on the man and his exploits. As with the main features, English and French subtitles are once again available. The interview is similarly tri-lingual, amounts to three-pages per language and offers a quick overview of both documentaries. The booklet also finds room for a filmography for Fleischmann and the expected credits for the two films.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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