Mod private detectives Sebastian West (Ulli Lommel) and Andy Schubert (Marquard Bohm) and their super-sexy secretary Micky (Uschi Obermaier – rowr!) are hired to spy on an adulterous wife, only to discover Annabella (Iris Berben) is not married to Mr. Busse (Peter Moland) at all. In fact he is a stalker, threatening to shoot Annabella unless she sleeps with him. So when Busse arrives at her apartment with a loaded gun, the boys give him a sound thrashing. Rather decently they then bandage his wounds. Lessons learned the gang celebrate with a party. While Sebastian spends the night with Annabella, Andy generously allows Busse to share a threesome with Micky. All's well that ends well, right? Apparently not. The next morning Sebastian disappears on an assignment for ageing aristocrat Kruger (Walter Rilla) leaving Andy decidedly pissed off. Kruger suspects his estranged mistress Christa (Elke Haltaufderheide), with whom he shares a son, is plotting to have him killed in order to collect his insurance money. So Sebastian befriends the sweet single mother and plants a bug in her house. But then Andy gets involved, exposing Sebastian's plan to grab a piece of the action.
Beginning with Breathless (1959) radical European filmmakers of the Sixties held a longstanding fascination with American pulp fiction. The film noir anti-hero embodied by Hollywood icons like Humphrey Bogart held a certain subversive appeal to young cineastes and eventually gave birth to the pop cultural concept of outlaw chic, meshed with a sociopolitical critique of American politics. Auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapted several American crime novels into more idiosyncratic, existential art films. Although not based on any particular pulp novel, the German made Detektive exudes a certain Raymond Chandler-esque air albeit filtered through the cynical, flip, borderline amoral outlook of the late Sixties counterculture. Indeed featured amongst the cast are two key counter-cultural figures on the West German art scene: Fassbinder associate Ulli Lommel, who later turned director with Tenderness of Wolves (1973) then relocated to Hollywood to crank out offbeat video nasties like The Boogeyman (1980), and iconic actress-model Uschi Obermaier looking yummy as heck in her little black mini-dress. Obermaier would re-team with co-star Marquard Bohm, director Rudolf Thome and writer Max Zihlman for the feminist science fiction satire Rote Sonne (1970), a film filled with even more deadpan strangeness than Detektive.
Filmed in stark, beautiful black and white with minimalist mise-en-scene in the fashion of much New German Cinema, a la early Fassbinder, Detektive exudes a certain cockeyed charm in spite of its manipulative, morally bankrupt characters and frustratingly vague plot. Certainly several other films in this vein are more concerned with subtext than linear plotting to sublime effect, Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965) comes to mind, but for all its posturing Detektive is skin deep. One could interpret its cynical dog-eat-dog worldview as a jaundiced portrait of emotionally detached, politically disenchanted German youth. In their dealings with women, children, clients and friends, Andy and Sebastian project an air of then-fashionable late Sixties indifference that, to be honest, comes across as plain dickish behaviour to modern eyes. Sebastian betrays Andy in a fit of pique, shacks up with Christa only to abduct her little son in a bid to scam money off Kruger. For her part poor Christa only wants Kruger to finally marry her but is driven to vengeance when it becomes clear he is only interested in his heir. It is possible Thom and Zihlman are mounting an allegory for German society with Andy and Sebastian mercenary young men, Micky and Annabella flighty good time gals more concerned with thrills than morality and the wily old Kruger embodying the exploitative establishment. However, like a lot of deceptively progressive counterculture films the ladies are reduced to sexy cyphers, lounging attractively in bikinis or underwear, not because they lack personality but because the heroes seem uninterested in them on anything but a physical level.
Everyone double-crosses each other, switching alliances at the drop of a hat. Amusingly however the characters do the most despicable things with impeccable manners, plotting against or torturing one another one minute then all smiles and courtesy the next. What is more almost everyone gets what they want leading to a cheerfully perverse 'happy' ending.