In ConversationPoint of ViewSociety

“Answers like these are heaven-sent”

14. February 2024

The German TV documentary “Inside Rheinmetall: Between War and Peace” provides an extraordinary insight into the tech enterprise’s military side. DIMENSIONS spoke with the show’s maker, prize-winning German TV reporter Klaus Scherer.

A documentary viewed by millions
(Source: ARD)

“Inside Rheinmetall – Between War and Peace”: this 45-minute-long documentary had an audience share of 9.8 percent, an extraordinarily high number for the slot following the evening news. Produced by the public broadcaster Norddeutsche Rundfunk, or NDR, the film first aired on the German news programme “Das Erste” as well as on Phoenix and Deutsche Welle TV, on publicly owned regional stations, and the news channel tagesschau24. The average length of time viewers spent watching the show was unusually long: those who tuned in, stayed tuned in. Including Media Library requests, the piece has attracted millions of viewers. In addition to this comes YouTube, where the film logged over a million views in the first two weeks alone.

The ARD documentary can be seen here.

During filming, the Group’s CEO and ordinary Rheinmetall employees made themselves available to answer questions. Reversing roles, Klaus Scherer agreed to talk to DIMENSIONS in return. Oliver Hoffmann conducted the interview.

Klaus Scherer, why did it take a war to get you interested in Rheinmetall?
I can’t very well make a documentary if the topic isn’t relevant. The war has changed a lot of things – it was more than just a reason for choosing the topic, there was a new flight altitude and plunging risk, a new moral dimension. Moreover, a lengthy documentary won’t work if people can’t remember the reason for it later.

What appealed to you about the story?
I figured I’d get access to exclusive images … and to people, too. To come to life, a TV documentary needs people. And I had questions I wanted to get answers to.

The show attracted a lot of viewers and won high praise. Did this success surprise you?
Yes and no. We’re committed to success. Our whole team is dedicated to making the best film possible, from research to filming to editing. To that extent it didn’t surprise me. But I’m certainly happy about it. The docu­mentary attracted a lot of viewers when it was broadcast on TV, and the same goes for people accessing it in our Media Library and on YouTube, with long viewing times. People who start watching it, keep watching it.

And what about internally? What did your colleagues think of it?
There was plenty of positive feedback at our broadcasting company, NDR, and in the media sections of the press. The piece was perceived as fair, critical and informative.

What is your personal take on it?
I think we succeeded in walking the tightrope. We managed to get very close to the story without sacrificing our independence. In other words, we preserved our credibility. That Rheinmetall was willing to go along with it in the first place was decisive, of course, even though they didn’t know how it would turn out in the end.

Was it difficult selling Rheinmetall on the project?
The company was astonishingly open to the idea. When I contacted ­Rheinmetall’s PR department, you called me back the same evening. Totally transparent. I travelled to Düsseldorf, and we discussed what would be feasible. The executive board gave the project the go-ahead a short time later. Right from the start, it was all very professional and, yes, fair.

What does it take to make a project like this work?
Trust. We made viable agreements that both sides stuck to. This was a bit risky for both of us. Nobody knew how things would develop.

What did the agreements entail?
We had to adhere to the safety rules when filming in the ammo factory, for example. And we had to keep it a secret when we knew in advance that tanks were going to be shipped. And there were a lot of things that we were the first TV team to see that we had to keep to ourselves until the broadcast date. For example, I found out ­early that Rheinmetall’s first deal with the Panther would be with Hungary. Rheinmetall trusted us.

What did you get in return for this trust?
I was able to ask questions whenever I wanted and wherever I went, completely off the cuff. Both sides were honest and sincere, I think. We had respect for what you do and for your people, and you respected our work as journalists. There were no prearranged questions, no effort to pressure us or influence content. This was vital since we were obviously asked later if we’d discussed questions in advance or if Rheinmetall had had a chance to see the film before it was broadcast. We were able to deny this in every case. The viewers would have seen right through it anyway.

Carefully adhering to the safety and security regulations, the ARD team gained unique insights into the Group’s ammunition production activities, including for the Gepard anti-aircraft tank. (Source: ARD)

Did you have to overcome resistance at your broadcasting company?
No. My colleagues and higher-ups were all eager to see a film with lots of good visuals and interesting content and some surprising access. Of course, people were joking around in the newsroom about me coming to work in a tank soon.
(Source: ARD)

Klaus Scherer,

born in 1961, is a television journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker. As a foreign correspondent, the prize-winning NDR reporter headed the ARD studio in Tokyo before moving onto Washington, D.C. His travel shows and documentaries have won multiple awards. Scherer lives and works in Hamburg.

Is it a privilege of public-sector broadcasters to be able to spend so much time on one topic without having to worry about money?
We naturally had to keep an eye on our budget, but this wasn’t really an expensive film. Everything was in Germany, filmed with standard equipment, with NDR camera people I’ve known for years. I don’t see anything akin to privilege here. We were just doing our job. Obviously, it feels good to be able to produce a film like this from start to finish, treating a relevant topic in considerable depth. In fact, I would call it a virtue when documentaries like this aren’t just designed to create an effect but also reflect solid craftmanship. If we don’t do it, who will?

Certain voices are highly critical of Germany’s public-sector broadcasters, calling them the “lying press” in social media. Does this apply to you?
There’s always been criticism. When I was on the news show “Panorama”, we used to get plenty of calls when we were on air, some full of praise, some downright obnoxious. We didn’t let them upset us. It was a ritual for them. They weren’t looking for common ground. Now the insults come in written form, and we’ve got to live with it. I’m more than willing to accept reasonable criticism, something the viewers have a perfect right to engage in. After all, they’re paying us. But hate and incitement are something altogether different.

You approached Rheinmetall with certain expectations. What surprised you most?
The way doors opened when I least expected it. I mean, we were there, right up close when the Hungarian defence minister came to Unterlüß to see tanks and ammo being demonstrated. It was a lively encounter. We were quick to ask questions. And he was ready to answer them. The scene we shot at the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin was another highlight for me. The familiarity between Rheinmetall’s boss, Armin Papperger, and the Ukrainian ambassador, who embraced and chatted like old friends, took me aback. And even though it was rather austere in terms of optics, being able to follow the general shareholders meeting from the critics’ standpoint was quite extraordinary.

An open-air meeting at the company’s proving ground in Unterlüß, where Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger briefed Hungarian defence minister Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky on the armament and ammunition of the new Panther main battle tank. (Source: ARD)
During a subsequent tour of the site, an airport-able vehicle carrying the high-ranking visitor temporarily vanished in a cloud of smoke/obscurant. (Source: ARD)

When CEO Armin Papperger meets the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin to discuss planned cooperation between Rheinmetall and Kiev, Klaus Scherer is also there with the ARD team. (Image: Oliver Hoffmann)

Some people say that you were sort of rough on Armin Papperger…
We conducted a lengthy closing interview in which we came straight to the points. But, hey, a CEO has got to be able to take it. I didn’t want to just work through a list of questions. I wanted to delve deeper. Tanks aren’t just another common garden var­iety technology. What does he find so fascinating about them? I think this worked. Anyway, as I see it, Papperger was a good sport. Later, in the cutting room, I noticed a twinkle in his eye and how his mouth would curve into a subtle smile after addressing a controversial topic. As far as I’m concerned, the interview was a core element of the documentary, a portrait, actually.

How did the audience react?
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive – apart from a few outliers, of course. Some people wrote things like, “You totally blew it, how could you be so unfair?”. Others accused us of making a PR video for Rheinmetall. As you can tell, all kinds of people tuned in. So I think we generally got things right…

The war in Ukraine and the historical “turning point” have changed the way a lot of people view the defence industry. Do you feel the same way after this project?
I’ve learned a lot of details. I wasn’t in the Bundeswehr and I’m no gun nut, but I was never a pacificist, either. Even so, Russia’s attack on Ukraine shook me up. I have a lot of questions, including personal ones. Encountering such interesting protagonists was exciting. The ex-soldier, for instance, who gushed about the joys of driving a tank – before checking his enthusiasm: he’d been to war himself. Authentic answers like that are heaven-sent. This was a genuine Rheinmetall man.

For much of the media, interest in the defence sector has been confined to covering scandals – at best. Are journalists prone to naïve pacifism?
It could be that the “dirty defence business” paradigm has lingered on too long – but that goes for the whole of society. My profession doesn’t play a special role in this context. A lot of the media are now reflecting how this has changed. We were gratifyingly quick, but we’re only part of it.

You were an ARD [German public TV] correspondent for several years in the United States, where the military play a different role than in Germany…
Yes. Nip it [militarism] in the bud, as they say here – and from the standpoint of German history, this is by no means entirely wrong. We didn’t want to start any more wars. But it was Putin who started this one. We’re helping the country under attack to defend itself. Since then, I’ve been debating how the sentiment should be phrased: Are we nipping war in the bud by supplying tanks to Ukraine to resist aggression? Or does nipping militarism in the bud mean not making any tanks at all?

What was your impression of people at Rheinmetall?
Likeable. Everybody I spoke with came across as credible. Our NDR team always felt welcome. People were remarkably open. Nobody seemed to be worried about what they were allowed to say. Talking to them was interesting and enjoyable, including when we were chatting off camera. Talk turned then to the working atmosphere or to tougher times. Now and again, I heard that even in those times the board looked for ways to keep people onboard. That’s very much in line with Papperger’s image, who seems to run Rheinmetall like a family business.

What did you think of our CEO?
I believed him when he told me in the car on the way to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange that he thought a free press was important for democracy. That was the day Rheinmetall joined the DAX [Germany’s index of top-performing corporations]. Obviously, he also knows how to instrumentalize the press, for instance when he makes headlines with plans for a Panther factory in Ukraine. But even critics like the former director of the Hamburg Institute for Peace Research told me: “You can believe in the man’s patriotism.” The public evidently does too. Papperger struck me as uncomplicated and relaxed in a positive sense. When we were filming at the Stock Exchange, he agreed to have a microphone attached to his collar, meaning that we could record all the interviews he gave that morning. That’s not something just anybody would agree to, but he trusted us.

Is there a special corporate culture that sets Rheinmetall apart from other companies?
It struck me as harmonious, even though I can’t think of a proper comparison. Corporate culture is management driven, of course, and Rheinmetall really does feel like a family-run business. Hardly any CEOs have belonged to a company for so long and still know what it feels like to hold a spanner. Others jump from job to job and company to company. It all seems very credible to me. Though, yeah, maybe there are shadowy aspects to Rheinmetall that we touched on in the show but couldn’t shed light on, and times when shareholder value ultim­ately trumps morality.

Tanks and ammunition. Your documentary gives an incomplete picture of what is, after all, an integrated technology enterprise. You left out our civil-sector activities. Do you think this is a valid criticism?
No. We consciously focused on what was important to us. We wanted to talk about weapons of war and the change of image since Putin’s attack. So we had to leave a lot of aspects out in order to stay focused.

In a lengthy research story like this, the observer inevitably gets close to the subject. Could it be that critical detachment suffers as a result?
The debate over “embedded journalism” has been going on for years, i.e., when reporters directly take part in military action and observe events at close quarters. Getting up close is obviously a boon for the viewers. Reporters can’t afford to be professionally blinkered or let themselves be co-opted. We’ve got to maintain our detachment and make sure that we always ask the right questions.

You’ve experienced weapon systems and tanks live at Rheinmetall. Do you think you’re at risk of falling prey to the fascination some people feel for this technology?
Sure. Bundeswehr recruiting adds exploit this fascination with technol­ogy all the time. You’ve got to be careful not to let your enthusiasm for technology get out of hand. On the other hand, there are people who say that, when push comes to shove, a Leopard 2 has a better chance of surviving than a Russian tank. I therefore think it’s only right to highlight the accomplishments of engineers who are doing their utmost to do a good job.

Will the image transformation that companies like Rheinmetall are experiencing be lasting, or will the pendulum swing back?
We’ve witnessed a correction in the one-sided image that used to hold sway. Things are bound to change again once the war in Ukraine finally ends. Given Germany’s budgetary woes and NATO’s two-percent goal, there are sure to be lively debates ahead. From the film, we know that it will probably take ten years to rebuild the Bundes­wehr’s inventories. But society’s appreciation of the role of a reliable defence industry in making sure that our democracy can defend itself is unlikely to experience a complete reversion.

Will filmmakers in future still be able to take on long-term projects like this one? The media industry is faster-moving than ever – also more superficial.
Of course, anybody can post practically anything they want on YouTube nowadays. And even rubbish can be very successful. But there will always be a need for quality journalism. Making good documentaries is part of our core business, and viewers appreciate them. We’ve been dealt a good hand here, but we’ve got to make sure we play it well.
Klaus Scherer, many thanks! May your future projects be as successful as this one!

Oliver Hoffmann is Head of Public ­Relations at Rheinmetall AG.

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