Suicide in art: what Goethe can tell us about Netflix series 13 Reasons Why

A number of tragic deaths linked to a German novel sparked discussion about the effects of depicting suicide in the media. 250 years later, the topic is more relevant than ever.

Suicide in art: what Goethe can tell us about Netflix series 13 Reasons Why
Alexander Fehling in the role of Goethe in a 2009 film. Photo: DPA

‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ could be considered the world's first best-seller, and its author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is the most celebrated German author in history.

Goethe is on par with Shakespeare for the quality and number of poems and texts he produced in his lifetime, but it was this novel, published in 1774, that catapulted him to international fame at the tender age of 24.

Goethe's novel is loosely autobiographical, written in the form of letters penned by the doomed romantic hero, Werther.

It delves into the psyche of the sensitive and troubled young man as he falls in love and soon becomes obsessed with a woman who can never be his.

Werther descends into despair at the world, his mental state becoming increasingly self-centred and toxic before he eventually shoots himself with a pistol borrowed from the woman’s fiance.

The novel soon gained a cult following as the intense emotions of the protagonist struck a chord with young men and women across Europe.

Young men began to dress like him in blue suits with yellow vests and women even wore a perfume called ‘Eau de Werther’.

But the fanatical behaviour had a darker side and was linked to an increase in suicide rates in several European countries, according to a report commissioned by Mindframe.

A number of these suicides were undoubtedly influenced by the novel. One such case was the death of a young courtier named Christiane von Lassberg who was found dead with a copy of ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ in her pocket, after throwing herself into the river Ilm. 

In response, the book and Werther’s signature clothing style were soon banned in Leipzig, Italy and Copenhagen and widespread debate about the possible effects of depicting suicide in the media was sparked.

But it was not until 1974, exactly 200 years after the novel was published, that the term the ‘Werther Effect’ emerged.

It was coined by sociologist David P. Phillips to mean a copycat suicide influenced by a real or fictional suicide presented in the media, also known as suicide contagion.

According to a report conducted by the Mindframe National Media initiative, “until the 1960s, debate about the Werther effect was based on anecdotal reports and impressions”, but since then there have been a huge number of scientific studies into the topic, many of which have found evidence linking depictions of suicide in the media with suicidal actions.

One such study was carried out in Germany in 1988 which centered around a television series which depicted the suicide of a male student.

The series had been broadcast twice – once in 1981 and again in 1982 – and the results showed that “after each series there was a significant increase in German suicides involving the same method as that used by the student in the series.”

What’s more the group most affected were of the same sex and roughly the same age as the character.

This effect is not limited to fictional suicides. Another study was carried out in Baden-Württemberg between 1968 and 1980 which showed a correlation between the publication of stories on prominent suicides in major newspapers and an increase in suicides in the following days.

The Werther Effect was cause for concern last year after the release of the hugely popular Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’, known in Germany as 'Tote Mädchen lügen nicht', or 'dead girls don't lie'. 

Based on a book of the same name, ‘13 Reasons Why’ tells the story of a high school girl, Hannah, who commits suicide but leaves behind 13 tapes accusing a number of people in her life of “causing” her suicide.

Several mental health organizations, including the Jed Foundation and Everymind, voiced concerns about the series for a number of reasons.

These included its potential for heroicizing Hannah’s suicide as a catalyst for social change, the fact that it places the blame on specific events and people, rather than mental health issues and its graphic depiction of suicide. 

Despite these concerns, the show gained a great deal of popularity, becoming the most tweeted about series of 2017, and production is well underway for a second season which is likely to air in just a few months.

The creators of 13 Reasons Why released a statement in response to the criticism of the series saying, “We have heard from many viewers that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the difficult topics depicted in the show.”

It is certainly true that suicide should not be made a taboo subject in the media. Suicide is a worldwide issue and according to Destatis there are around 10,000 suicides per year in Germany alone.

In an article on LinkedIn, Jaela Skehan, a director of the mental health organization Everymind, advocates for constructive and realistic stories on the topic of suicide and urges media outlets and writers to be mindful of how they approach the discussion in the future.

Suicide is preventable. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or has been affected by the issues raised please contact Deutsche Depressionshilfe, Samaritans, or Mind. Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.


7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)