Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, (1921-1990) was one of the two great Swiss writers of the twentieth century (IMO, the greater of the two). Like the other one, Max Frisch, Dürrenmatt wrote both novels and plays, though Dürrenmatt’s plays, especially “The Visit,” are better known than is his fiction. As with August Strindberg, whose masterpiece “Dance of Death” Dürrenmatt reworked (as “Play Strindberg”) Dürrenmatt’s view of human relationships and aspirations is so dark that I sometimes suspect that his intent was comic. What I’ve read about Dürrenmatt treats him as a despairing existentialist, but Gore Vidal glimpsed what might be a parodist lurking in the shadows in his version of Dürrenmatt’s play about the last Roman emperor “Romulus the Great” who wants to stay down on the ranch (I mean farm) but, unlike the current American emperor, distrusts not the people, the law, and government, but the project of world-domination.


Dürrenmatt’s short 1958 novel Das Versprechen was the basis for a 1960 Swiss-Spanish movie (“Es geschah am hallichten Tag”— It Happened in Broad Dalylight) and for Sean Penn’s great 2000 film. Although the book has a movie poster cover with Jack Nicholson grimly staring off to his left, the book-movie tie-in was botched and the book was published ten months after the film was released. (Thus, there is a glut of copies, and low-price copies are plentiful.

Although I have read a lot of Dürrenmatt and seen productions of some of his plays, I wanted to read The Pledge because of my admiration for Penn’s film. The main elements of the plot were in the novel and reading it reassured me that I interpreted the ending of the film correctly.

In the book, his former boss tells the story of a senior detective to a writer with whom he contrives a meeting. How the police official came to tell the story takes up some pages and the story is sketchily told in contrast to the rich details with which Penn and Nicholson show the growing obsession and eventual unraveling of the character who is named Lt. Matthäi in the book.


Rather than being about to retire (as in the movie), Lt. Matthäi is taking up a position in Jordan contracted by the Swiss government. The mother of a young girl who has been murdered asks Lt. Matthäi to promise to find the killer — promising on his soul. He makes her that dire pledge and she is satisfied he has fulfilled it when his successors drive a suspect who was near the scene of the crime and has a molestation record to suicide, but Lt. Matthâi knows that the killer is still out there.

Plot-spoiler alert

Other than the story-telling frame, the only thing of any importance that is in the book but not Penn’s film is a scene (echoing the center of “The Visit”) in which Lt. Matthäi confronts a lynch mob. It is the most dramatic scene in the book, in fac

In the book and in the film the ex-policeman baits a trap for the killer with a young girl who fits what he sees as the pattern for the serial killer. In the novel this is straightforward. Betrayal of trust is hardly an issue. By showing a significant relationship between the ex-cop who is on a mission, the girl, and her mother, the film makes this a far more complicated matter and the agonized choice to go ahead with his plan to endanger a girl whom he loves and who loves him and whose mother he loves and who loves him is the heart of the film’s greatness. The ex-cop unravels in both versions, but in the book it is seeming to have been mistaken that drives Lt. Matthäi to despair. At least in my interpretation of the film, it is sacrificing the family he has built that destroys Jack Nicholson after the failure of the stakeout he convinced the police to do, not a blow to his professional ego heavily invested in his infallible intuitiveness. (The film detective’s career was over: he was retired and supposed to concentrate on fishing, whereas Lt. Matthäi throws away his career when he was supposed to take up another post that was part of his nation’s foreign policy.)


The plot of Sean Penn’s film is in the book, as are outlines of the main characters, but the film develops the characters, makes the plot more heartbreaking (for viewers and for the characters) and shows what the characters go through rather than telling about it from the detached perspective of the policeman’s former boss. The book is a swift read (29 chapter divisions, 172 pages of large type) but ingenious in contrast to the performance of Jack Nicholson (, Robin Wright Penn, and others) and the psychological deepening in the film.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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