Dhe freelance journalist Juan Moreno takes a cardboard box from the closet. It is marked by hand with the words “Die Riesenscheiße”, which includes all the documents that first caused Moreno a lot of trouble and then made him famous. “Spiegel” editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann prefers the term “clusterfuck”. They are auxiliary terms to describe one of the biggest media scandals in Germany, which also made waves internationally.
The rise of child prodigy Claas Relotius began with the text The Murderer as Nurse, a story about inmates with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. With this he became instantly famous, received many awards and was widely courted in the media industry. It was actually literature, it was said at the time, that had something cinematic about it. In hindsight, there is a certain irony that these terms were chosen to lift his reports from mere journalism into the realm of art.
Then, after two months of trial work, I got a job at “Spiegel”. “And then he just delivered,” says Steffen Klusmann. “Stories that were so amazing it was hard to believe it was out there.”
In Daniel Andreas Sager’s documentary “Invented Truth – The Relotius Affair”, these two have their say, the freelancer and the editor-in-chief, who were close to the scandal and its uncovering. Many others who were involved did not want to be interviewed, the film lists their names at the end. That’s a pity, of course, but on the other hand it prevents people from repeating what they’ve read so many times. Instead, the documentation looks around at the locations of the reports and contrasts Relotius’ descriptions with on-site images. The report “The Last Witness” talks about the graves of those who were executed, on which the names can hardly be read. The camera moves over grave crosses, only numbers on them. So he really wasn’t even there.
There were also always inconsistencies that were noticed, but which bounced off the editors and the boundless trust in their golden boy. For example, there was Syara Kareb, a Kurdish cameraman who, on behalf of Spiegel TV, is tracking down the underage suicide bomber described in the Relotius report “Löwenjungen”. During the interview with Kareb, the boy explains that he has never spoken to Relotius. The cameraman reports this to Spiegel-TV, but he says they didn’t believe him. Relotius is very famous, he has received many awards.
Or the freelance journalist Asia Haidar, who helped Relotius on behalf of “Spiegel” to research the story “Ein Kinderspiel” about the causes of the Syrian war. She herself came to Germany as a refugee in 2015 and has a great personal interest in the topic. After a year of searching for facts, Relotius suddenly broke contact and did the rest on his own. He overwrote the painstakingly researched facts with his lies and received the reporter’s prize for it. He didn’t even tell Haidar about the nomination. She was angry and disappointed, she says, “this article is now considered a fake”. He didn’t just do that to her, but to this whole extremely sensitive political narrative of how the revolution in Syria started.
Or of course Fergus Falls, the small American town that has to serve as a typical Trump stronghold. Relotius was there, residents report. But he did not speak to them. And finally, “Jaeger’s Border,” the robber’s gun about the vigilante group allegedly shooting at Mexican refugees — the text he co-wrote with Juan Moreno. Tim Foley from the “Arizona Border Recon” also has his say in the documentary, the man whom Relotius allegedly accompanied on the patrol at night in the mountains. Who is confronted by Moreno with the article about him and laughs his head off at what is written about him. “The guy was probably sitting in the hotel and taking LSD,” is his first reaction.
It was weeks before the “Spiegel” was finally convinced by Moreno and his friend, the photographer Mirco Taliercio. It’s still not entirely clear why. It came out bit by bit, something new every day, reports editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann. His biggest concern was “that we will get a blow to the neck from which we will not recover”.
What will probably not recover any time soon is the genre of the all-explaining reportage, which stages larger-than-life scenes and in which even the song that happens to be playing on the radio seems to comment on what is happening. “What these lyrics did is, they made you feel like the world isn’t very complicated,” says Juan Moreno. “They hugged you and confirmed what you thought.”
Dennis Betzholz is one who also has his say. In 2013 he was invited to work with Relotius for two months on a trial basis at “Spiegel”. He gives everything, but in the end he doesn’t get a job offer, Relotius does. Betzholz has now happily landed in the local section of the “Kieler Nachrichten” and is no longer looking for big stories that explain the world, but rather small ones that are close to the reality of people’s lives.
Invented Truth – The Relotius Affair airs at 8:15 p.m. on Sky Documentaries.
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