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Moderator Markus Lanz: He really wants to know

A very good-looking middle-aged man and one who polarizes: Markus Lanz Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Markus Lanz is considered slimy and neoliberal, for some even a figure of hatred. Others think he's doing the best political talk in the country. What is true?

When Boris Palmer was with Markus Lanz for the first time, a member of the Bundestag for the Greens tweeted: “Now Palmer has come to the bottom.” A lovely example of lived green affect culture: Lanz's ZDF talk show defines “right at the bottom” where the Tübingen party colleague is belongs. Gossip, gossip. Two blowflies with one stone.

Until recently, it was common in media-critical milieus to either ignore Markus Lanz and his eponymous program or to find it stupid. That didn't really have to be justified because it seemed to be self-evident. Slimy conversation fuzzy. Didn't it come from "private television"? Hadn't he even finished off Sahra Wagenknecht? Wasn't there also a connection Picture?

People who wanted to make sure that there were no dangerous ambivalences said harshly: Very likely FDP, definitely neoliberal. He always immediately becomes foxed when he suspects "leftist ideas (or what he thinks they are)", and then acts as an "executioner", wrote the lanzophobe FrankfurterRundschau.

But what if we missed something and Lanz has meanwhile defined it as "right at the top" when it comes to political talks on television, and not just since the Corona Declaration Weeks? The thesis is: Lanz and his editorial team have developed a format for politicians' talks that is unparalleled in Germany because it is really a conversation and because it juxtaposes political content and biographical background so that cross-connections can arise. Or is that an exaggeration? “Please have a look,” as Lanz uses to say.

On a June day, the show's guests were standing in the lounge of the production rooms when the presenter, shirt-sleeved, stepped through the door to do a little warm-up. He tells the Minister Hubertus Heil that he once jogged past the social psychologist Harald Welzer on the Alster, who was standing next to him, but did not speak to him. Welzer asks Heil what the license plate of the ministerial limousine parked directly under the balcony stands for (PE). Whereupon Heil has to justify himself for his hometown Peine and then strike back and say, Welzer himself comes from Hanover?

"Where do you come from?", Lanz says casually to ZDF colleague Jana Pareigis, who he knows is constantly asked as a black woman.

“From Hamburg,” she says.

Lanz smiling: "I know, but from which district?"

In this way he overcomes the everyday racism in a playful way, which Pareigis will talk about in the show and turns the dreaded question of origin into shop-talk among hamburgers.

Markus Lanz is a very good-looking middle-aged man, born in 1969. Despite graying hair, he has the aura of a forty-year-old, perhaps because of his smile and because he looks very slim and wiry. His talk show has been on ZDF's late-night program since 2009. Initially twice, from 2010 three times a week.

Lanz started out as the successor to Johannes B. Kerner, pithy, that is how entertainment for tired viewers was defined at the time: Celebrities presented their new product or their private life, and the moderator kindly poured slime or sympathy over it. That was at a time when Harald Schmidt was on his last legs and Netflix wasn't there yet.

This text comes from the taz on the weekend. Always from Saturday at the kiosk, in the eKiosk or with a weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

Lanz first became conspicuous in 2014 when he questioned politician Sahra Wagenknecht hard about the Left Party's positions on the EU (“dictatorial”, “militaristic”) and then really got on it himself. Among other things, there was a petition calling for his removal. The indignation was that he was with a star- Journalists attacked them together. Two men against one woman, "that seems impolite," he says today. He apologized to Wagenknecht after the broadcast.

But it is also important to mention that the passage he criticized flew out of the Left Party's position paper. “My editorial team had to listen to a lot,” says Lanz, “and so did I.” He was “the man that ZDF regularly lets discuss politics outside of the children's program,” wrote media critic Stefan Niggemeier on the Wagenknecht show Man who gets angry when someone doesn't want to kneel down in the sandpit with him to discuss his level ”.

In conversation with Boris Palmer Photo: Markus Hertrich / ZDF

Lanz ’biography is a real story of advancement. It comes from Italy, more precisely from the South Tyrolean village Geiselsberg in the Puster Valley, more precisely from the hamlet of Gassl east of Geiselsberg. He is a mountain farmer's child, one of three who, with the help of a scholarship, was able to do his Abitur in a monastery high school. And earned some money with accordion music on the side. Lanz considers himself to be shaped by “Tyrolean melancholy”, which he traces back to a historical-political “turmoil” between Italian and German on the one hand, and to the darkness and narrow valleys on the other.

When he came to Germany, he was initially intimidated by the huge range on offer at Tengelmann and the self-confidence of the Germans, at least that's how he saw it. In the mid-nineties he was a volunteer at RTL and was kicked out because he was involved in a song during the French atomic bomb tests in Mururoa Atoll that was on a radio show and criticized the responsible president (“Fuck Chirac”).

Markus Lanz

"I always had the feeling that it must be possible to have another political discussion"

“I just composed the music and produced the song because I had the synthesizer at home,” he says. Two colleagues wrote the text. But, as it is: Huge annoyance, the two distinguished colleagues stayed, the South Tyrolean Volo was thrown out. Or maybe someone showed moral courage after all, and Lanz was able to finish his traineeship at RTL Nord. As a reporter. “That's why I like doing reports so much.” He doesn't just like doing them. He also likes to talk about it. Lanz lovers have always been waiting for him to talk about his reportage trips on his show. He may even do it more often than quoting the political journalist Robin Alexander, one of his regulars.

Lanz made wedding planning and wildlife survival shows at RTL and hosted the previous evening magazine “Explosiv” for eight years. In 2008 he went to ZDF, where he initially represented the then popular Johannes B. Kerner on his talk show; and from 2009 onwards its format and slot - and a cooking show at the same time. In between he failed, as it is always said, because of the moderation of “Wetten, dass ..?” (2012 to 2014). However, the legendary Saturday evening show was already a boring zombie format back then because the world had simply changed.

Lanz also inherited von Kerner - and that brings us to the Picture-Newspaper - its producer Markus Heidemanns. The Heidemanns brothers from Witten are big names in the entertainment media business, discovered by Michael Spreng, the former editor-in-chief of Picture on sunday. One of them, Martin, was head of entertainment for a long time pictureuntil the current editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt could no longer use it.

The other Heidemann is one and a half years younger, is called Markus, and together the two brothers formed a sometimes synergetic axis. If so, then it's long gone. For one thing, Reichelt is apparently not interested in celebrities and the material that you can knead with them - together or at their expense. On the other hand, Lanz does not seem to get up picture and vice versa.

While Kerner was part of the inventory of those of them during his important times picture wanted to make people believe that they are the central figures of the republic (Beckenbauer, Bohlen, Naddel, Friedrich Merz), Lanz rarely appears there and when it does, it tends not to be positive.

When it became clear that Lanz would become a permanent fixture at ZDF, he and Markus Heidemanns founded the Mhoch2 TV production company as equal 50 percent partners. Together with a company that Heidemanns owns alone, they produce “Markus Lanz” and other television formats with and without Lanz. Hundreds of people a year and really like cooking. The company resides in Hamburg-Ottensen on a former factory site.

There are two studios, a large one for cooking and a small one for Lanz. The latter only has seven rows of spectators, which are currently empty. The editors have only just started to follow the broadcast on site. The editorial team consists of about 15 people, almost nobody from Kerner's time is there. “It's a long way from Wendler to Schäuble,” says Lanz, and that means something like: from trash entertainer to political penetrator. The pop singer Wendler would no longer be with Lanz today.

“Markus Heidemanns and I covered the path together.” Heidemanns and he had “a blind, shared understanding of things”. As a Ruhrpottler, the Heidemanns have “a certain lightness”. And, like himself, “a feeling for what people on the street think and what is important to them”. The Porsche, which is parked directly at the front door of the studio, belongs to Heidemanns. And he is married to the dancer and model Stefanie Küster, who as "Estefania" was the partner of the musician Dieter Bohlen for several years at the beginning of the millennium.

The obvious question is whether Lanz politicized the show or the Lanz show. “The show me,” says Lanz. And after an unusually long pause in speech for him: "I always had the feeling that it must be possible to have another political discussion."

The relaxed, concentrated leaning back Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

He's not alone in that feeling. TV and radio journalists dream of having real conversations with politicians instead of asking three lame questions in 90 seconds to which they already know the answers. Lanz did it. He is the man of “one-on-one”, as this format is called. An interviewer, a politician and enough time.

At least this conversation is the core of the show, in fact there are three or four others sitting around at Lanz who can and should shout something in. One of them is almost always a capital city journalist and usually comes from a medium that, in the old thinking, was counted as the counter-camp of the politician.

The function of the journalist in the Lanz show can be compared with that of a dog in a driven hunt. He has to pant and bark to startle the politician and drive him in the direction of Lanz's trick question. The moderator, of course, sees it differently and says that the journalists are responsible for Berlin's insider knowledge. In fact, the revealed FAZ-Journalist Helene Bubrowski times the number of faxes that the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg has already sent to the Greens headquarters to apologize for something. No normal person can know that.

The decisive factor, says a regularly invited politician: With Lanz you have 15, 20 or even more minutes to really formulate your thoughts and you are not constantly interrupted as by the talk moderators Will and Illner, but you are not allowed to "rant" or " Declarations of the Central Committee ”of the respective party. He immediately intervenes. But if Lanz thinks it's really interesting, then he'll ask exactly what you've just said. A practice that is apparently unusual on talk shows.

Skipping act or ritual?

Every program begins with the song "Nur ein Wort" by Judith Holofernes' band Wir sind Helden. It says: "At your feet, I'll talk about my head and neck." Programmatically? “Just a good song.” Then Lanz first grabs his tie with his hand, as if he had to check that everything is still there. Skipping act or ritual? “I've never noticed it before,” he says.

Old parodies of the comedy show "Switch" show the most beautiful of Lanz's rituals and habits, such as the index finger on the lips, the slightly choppy speaking, the program-with-the-mouse questions ("When did you realize that ...?" ), and they show a Lanz who sticks to moderation cards, which is long out of date. He reads the dossiers of his editorial team, he memorizes until he knows all the formulations with which the guest is accustomed to wriggle questions.

Then he makes a match plan while jogging. He writes the guests' ideas himself, “in order to set a certain basic tone”. He reads it off the cards, but then puts it on the table next to him. At most he reaches for it when he wants to read a quotation correctly.

The get to the point look that involves eyebrows Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

As a rule, he alternates between the facing I-am-your-friend-look, the interested talk-further-look and the eyebrow-involving, come-to-the-matter look. Sometimes he leans far forward, the body starts to move. Then he is dissatisfied with himself because he cannot get to the politician.

To lead a conversation hands-free in the planned orchestration to the point that you want to get at: This requires a high level of professionalism, as everyone knows who has already acted as a moderation dilettante. Lanz says his high frequency of broadcasts pays off here.

He makes 135 programs a year, four times as many as his colleague Will.

“Anne Will” on Sunday evening on ARD is felt to be a more upscale category, and the prestige of an invitation is higher than that of Lanz. Still, you can win more at Lanz. The longer route and personal questions give politicians the opportunity to tell Lanz how they cook potato soup and thus create the basic feeling that they are actually quite okay - as a politician and as a potato soup cook.

However, one can also lose with Lanz, because the principle of this “one-on-one” is to create closeness, which also includes the creation of personal vulnerability. The spin doctor of a top politician says that the Lanz editors find out things about his husband that he didn't know himself, but he still likes to send him there because he can develop there and is not used like a gladiator. He sends him because it's “easier with Lanz than with women,” say the others.

The political talk show formats on public television - Will, Plasberg, Maischberger on ARD, Illner on ZDF - work more like a tabloid, sharpening a complex topic in a very shortened way and then jumping back and forth between the discussants. From their point of view, the politician is employed in a functional and relevant manner. No questions of feeling. Potato soup statements only when potato soup is in a national crisis. It is not the idea to “get to know” a politician. But there is also no conversation.

Thomas Gottschalk on Lanz

"You have a certain basic seriousness that I lack, you really want to know something from the people"

Every now and then Marietta Slomka makes a really good and sharp conversation for several minutes in the “heute-journal”. Armin Wolf is likely to have the best and deepest interviews with politicians in the Austrian Tagesthemen called ZIB, but the problem for Germans is that you don't know the interviewees.

The older people sigh at this point that Günter Gaus had had major political talks on television, behind billows of smoke, but intellectually crystal clear. But the founder of the modern politicians' talk is likely to have been Friedrich Küppersbusch, who in the mid-80s talked to politicians in his WDR and at some point ARD show "Zak" in such a way that they discussed it in school the next day. Zak was considered a super-left show, but its real quality was that the presenter was very well prepared, politically contentious and incredibly quick-witted.

That didn't go well for long on ARD. At the beginning of the nineties, Roger Willemsen defined the “one-on-one” in “Premiere” with its mixture of empathy, intelligence and knowledge. At the beginning of the noughties it was Sandra Maischberger at n-tv, in a format that Küppersbusch had developed. Everything beyond public policy and its affiliated bodies.

His “Wetten, dass ..?” Predecessor Thomas Gottschalk once said to Lanz: “You have a certain basic seriousness that I lack, you really want to know something from the people.” Lanz is a good interviewer, says Küppersbusch, who is today Is a television producer and has been a taz columnist for many years. “He can be good cop and bad cop in one person.” Another media expert puts it more graphically. Lanz announces his guest "super slimy" and then becomes "a mastino who wants to bite a piece of meat out of his calf".

In fact, he has a bite that a journalist would like to have. Then things get serious for the politician and he has to be very careful not to leave the studio as a loser. Anyone who conducts interviews themselves knows that it is not so easy to ask more than three times when only blah blah. Then it gets frosty, but then it also gets interesting, as you can see with Lanz, who asks the same question six times if necessary. If still nothing comes, it can be cut out because the broadcast is recorded. But sometimes something comes.

Lanz cuts off escape routes

The SPD chairman Saskia Esken, for example, showed her inexperience with the communicative situation of the Lanz interrogation, she seemed neither charming, pointed nor determined, and in the end she said she could “not judge” whether Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz was “a steadfast one Social Democrat "was. The question can also be found boulevard-esque, but the answer resonates with the whole tragedy of illusions of the SPD base.

Lanz can cut off the escape route for politicians with an interim question. So he tried to accuse the Greens federal chairman Robert Habeck that his party was in decline. When Habeck tried to refute this argumentatively, Lanz simply said: “But the people have the feeling!” That may be populist, but it is rhetorically refined, because that put Habeck in a dilemma of either giving in or opposing the “feeling of the people ”. The green guy did the latter, but didn't seem really happy.

FDP boss Christian Lindner was rounded off really nicely at Lanz by Luisa Neubauer and the entertainer David Hasselhoff because of his Twitter criticism of the climate commitment of students - with the orchestration of the moderator.

Neubauer criticized Lindner in terms of content, Hasselhoff delivered the outrage, and the FDP politician was unusually quiet for once. Lindner is unlikely to be a Lanz fan today any more than Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU), who once slipped deeper and deeper into telling fairy tales while defending his car toll. The nicest punchline of this story: When Lanz attested the minister “the level of Albanian cone players”, she rushed him picture-Newspaper in its fight against racist resentment on the neck of the Albanian Prime Minister.

After the infamous show with Sahra Wagenknecht, she didn't want to come back at first Photo: Cornelia Lehmann / ZDF

If you've looked at a lot of programs with serious interest and sometimes looked the other way, then the irritating thing about Lanz, which you have to be able to get involved with, is that he is really politically informed and interested, but largely unideological. “He asks without an agenda of his own,” says the writer Maxim Biller, who was one of the first to publicly approve of him.

This became clear to me myself when analyzing previous reactions, which turned out differently depending on the guest. With a left-wing conservative politician who was unsympathetic to me, I was amazed at how sharply Lanz asked, and thought: Sooo must you do it. When I met a climate policy activist who I liked, I was outraged at how sharply Lanz asked, and thought: It's not that easy. So the ideologue was me.

What one hears as an argument against Lanz: He "polarizes". Which is not considered a virtue in Germany, but a problem. He lacks the “warmth”, he seems “unsympathetic” because he switches back and forth between the super-friendly and the super-hot. But it is quite appropriate to give people the feeling that you are happy to see them - and then to question them critically anyway.

Lately, some guests have also been complaining that they were told that they should first take a critical part in the main discussion and then at the end of the day they could advertise their new product. But then it doesn't come to that anymore. Which is stupid for an author, because Lanz has the strength to sell many thousands of books. Which is why the guest comes back anyway.

Consistently high ratings

The overall constellation at Lanz is or was at least until mid-March such that, in addition to the politician and the assigned journalist, there is also an actor, comedian or entertaining author. And at the end there comes an anteater researcher or something with animals. Or with the North Pole. The mix works, the ratings remain high even after midnight.

After more than 1,000 programs, around 1.5 million watch three times a week, even if it doesn't start until 11.30 p.m. At Corona weddings 2.5 million times. This is astonishing because it used to be thought that these ZDF viewers were semi-sedated and that they could only be expected to be very light. Nope. Apparently Lanz has developed his viewers in such a way that today they even stick to it when people talk about labor politics and racism for 75 minutes.

After the broadcast, Lanz continues to talk to his guests. Want to deepen the conversation of the show. Discuss the political situation. Or know something completely different. Those who are there for the first time may even photograph them in their changing room for a black and white portrait gallery.

Lanz says that he also wants to know more about the guest because he can then use him better the next time or in a new context. After the show in June, he runs after you almost to the exit door, where the driver is waiting.

The transport service for Lauterbach

Everything was different in the first few weeks of the pandemic. The transport service was constantly on the move between Berlin and Hamburg to transport the epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach back and forth. The virologist was now the central figure. The responsible politicians had to behave - gladly brought in from the Bavarian State Chancellery. But no comedians, no anteaters.

In the face of general fear, all political talks became dimmed-down service programs revolving around a virologist. But because Lanz and his editorial team broadcast three times a week, they provided the daily update of the situation very close to politics and science.

If that all sounds a bit very positive now, then is the right time to ask the fundamental question whether and to what extent Lanz reflects that politics has become the new entertainment. To what extent the politician is an entertainer who completes his ten minutes in front of the camera just as professionally and painlessly as Howard Carpendale does his with Carmen Nebel. A guy like Ludwig Erhard (Federal Chancellor in the 60s) couldn't even become a treasurer at the FDP Wermelskirchen today due to a lack of media skills.

What is felt intensely, what brings emotions, preferably negative, is the stuff we all make, quality media such as social networks, their "stories" and sales. Today these emotions are less in culture, music, royal and / or trash houses, but they are in the political, more precisely in the pre-political.

The usual promistorys are boring, the old artist hero figures of resistance and social liberalization only function to a limited extent. Culture lacks direct reference to the real question of time: whether and how, after the carefree years in the West with liberal democracy, one can cope with the various global and individual crises.

Boards full of gremlins

On this - mostly unspoken - basis, a politicization of new parts of society takes place, but not mostly in the sense of a spokeswoman for the Green Youth, who thinks that everyone will become like her through politicization. And not in a marketplace, but fragmented. The politicization is carried out by social networks, by picture, by Lanz, by Fridays for Future in a different way. In the worst case, it radically evades the problems and consistently focuses on division.

The king of this form of political entertainment is the President of the United States. Classic political reporting does not match him. Outrage and accusations from his constituents only make his fire burn brighter.

Everything happens side by side. Political entertainment can be used to potentiate negative feelings. You can miss large parts of society with classic political reporting, and you can miss the big problems too. One can sensitize in an entertaining way how times and problem situations change. After intensive study, one has to say: ideally, with and with Lanz, the viewer can advance his or her own politicization.

Of course, not everyone at ZDF is equally enthusiastic about the development. Lanz is still part of "entertainment", the others are called "Politics and Current Affairs" at ZDF and report to the editor-in-chief.

Which is perceived as double in common, because Lanz competes with them without having the notorious public service “committees full of gremlins” on their backs, whose “third-rate” misgivings Günther Jauch once let run away as the face of the political talk on ARD. No, says Lanz, nobody ever calls them to interfere.

"I have a job to do, yes"

When something is important to him, Lanz speaks away from the camera without periods or commas, as the saying goes. For example, that he sees himself as “a representative of a generation that has benefited enormously from globalization”, but has completely lost his well-so-is-that-is-that position the deeper his politicization became. That he learned to see the world bigger through his television reports than the generally narrowed German political discourse is willing to see it.

And also in its complexity, for example when he meets black people in a ghetto in Baltimore who are ardent Trump voters or who discover that Trump has reduced arms sales in the USA compared to Obama. In the show, his goal is to break existing narratives and replace them with a story that is closer to reality.

“I have a job to do, yes,” he says another day, “but I don't want to be ideological, and above all I don't feel like walking around as an old cynical sack.”

The story he wants to see told about himself is that of a man who worked very hard to get to a point where he never consciously set off. “Professionally, this is the best time of my life,” says Markus Lanz.

As the leading political interviewer in this country, it would also be a shame if it were different.