Serial murder in Cold-War Berlin: Leichensache Zernik and the struggle for panoptic control

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Leichensache Zernik was released in the GDR in 1972 but set in 1948, before the creation of the two German states and the construction of the Berlin Wall. It offers a Marxist re-imagining of the serial murderer as motivated by economic profit rather than sexual gratification: he strangles his victims, obliterates their identity, and burgles their homes. He emerges not as the evil 'other' of society but as a product of capitalism, trading on anti-Soviet propaganda and the political divisions in Berlin. Detectives in the Western sectors fail to pass on information to police headquarters, and they establish their own rival police force. Leichensache Zernik thus presents us with what we can see, in Foucauldian terms, as the reversion to a pre-panoptic society that cannot be penetrated by a single gaze of power. The murderer is caught only when he kills a woman from the East, where the police and bureaucracy work together. Yet panopticism can only truly be said to function when those under surveillance know that they can always be seen. By showcasing the effectiveness of surveillance in East Berlin, Leichensache Zernik aimed to win the struggle for panoptic control not in the film, but in the auditorium.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-110
JournalGerman Life and Letters
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2013


  • serial murder
  • panopticism
  • detective film


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