Das Millionenspiel ("The Game of Millions") is a successful TV show from the private station TETV. To win the grand prize of one million German marks, a candidate has to survive seven days on the run while being hunted by the Köhler gang. Of the first 14 candidates, 8 were killed during the course of the game.
Bernhard Lotz from Leverkusen is the show's 15th candidate. After almost a week without sleep and little food, he is full of agony and on the verge of physical collapse; Lotz could drop out, but there is the prospect of the grand prize of one million marks, and he knows the fate of one of his predecessors: when he forfeited the game, he was so derided as a coward that he eventually committed suicide.
The whole country watches the manhunt on TV, some fascinated, some disgusted. Lotz tries hiding, but he is always recognized. Some want to deliver him to the Köhler gang, but some help him. Throughout the game, the Köhler gang is always hot on his heels.
The action is interspersed with scenes from the studio, where the jovial Thilo Uhlenhorst moderates and shows documentation of Lotz's life. Reporters deliver latest developments, interrupted by sexualized commercials by the (fictional) "Stabil-Elite Group". Behind the scenes, game-makers manipulate the game by helping or harming Lotz.
In the grand finale, Lotz has to pass through the "death spiral" – a 28.40-meter-long tube of bulletproof glass with three openings through which the Köhler gang can shoot him. Lotz, who is on the verge of collapse and had been treated by doctors shortly before, is slightly wounded but reaches the goal and receives the million. But according to a doctor he is in a serious state of shock, and is taken from the studio to a hospital on a stretcher. Moderator Uhlenhorst declares the 15th edition of the game over and announces the next episode three weeks later.Jörg Pleva: Bernhard Lotz
Dieter Thomas Heck: Thilo Uhlenhorst
Dieter Hallervorden: Köhler
Josef Fröhlich: Witte
Theo Fink: Hensel
Friedrich Schütter: Moulian
Peter Schulze-Rohr: Ziegler
Annemarie Schradiek: Mother Lotz
Elisabeth Wiedemann: Mrs. Steinfurth
Joachim Richert: waiter
Heribert Faßbender: reporter
Arnim Basche: reporter
Gisela Marx: reporter
Andrea Grosske: Mrs. Grote
Suzanne Roquette: Claudia von Hohenheim
Ralf Gregan: paramedic
Intentionally "exaggerat[ing] the contemporary situation [in television] and project[ing] it into the future in order to illuminate the present", as Günter Rohrbach, then head of TV programming at WDR, said at the time, the film anticipated developments in the media, such as commercial television (which did not exist in Germany at the time), the drive for ratings, reality shows, the Big Brother effect, and constant interruptions by highly sexualized advertisements. It culminates in the moderation of Thilo Uhlenhorst (played by the popular ZDF show host Dieter Thomas Heck) and his "reporters" (also represented by well-known television and sports reporters) who cover the manhunt like a sports event.
Menge achieved authenticity by trimmed exterior shots and cleverly interspersed "documentaries". Lotz is shown evading pursuit by dangerous and dramatic means such as jumping out of windows. When the film premiered on 18 October 1970 on ARD, some viewers thought they were watching a real manhunt. After the film ended, thousands of angry telephone calls, letters, and telegrams were received; some people even called the fictitious telephone number of the station and asked to register in the role of the hunted or a hunter. One woman wrote to put forward her husband's name to be hunted because the family needed the money.
Rebroadcasts and DVD release
The producers made a mistake in securing the film rights: WDR had acquired the right to film from Goldmann Verlag, publishers of the book Das geteilte Ich containing "Der Tod spielt mit", the German translation of Robert Sheckley's short story on which the film was based, but Goldmann did not own those rights, only the rights for the book. The film's producer, Joseph Cates, who held the rights, prohibited further broadcasts and this was affirmed by the State Superior Court in Frankfurt on 3 May 1977. Consequently, the film disappeared from television for more than 30 years after two broadcasts.
In 2002, the WDR acquired the rights from the current holder, StudioCanal, and aired the film on 8 July 2002. It was shown again on 6 April 2006 by the WDR after the death of director Tom Toelle, on 24 November 2007 by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, on 11 April 2009 again by the WDR, and on 17 April 2010 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the ARD.
Once the legal issues were resolved, the film was released on DVD in April 2009, together with Menge's 1973 teleplay Smog, including interviews and documentaries with and about Wolfgang Menge and an audio commentary by leading actor Jörg Pleva.
The film was rated FSK 12. In 1982, the same story was adapted in France under the title Le prix du danger ("The prize of danger"). In the same year, a novel by Stephen King, published in the U.S., told a similar story; the 1987 film The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger is loosely based on this novel.
The fictitious television show, including musical interludes, and the final sequence of the manhunt in the glass tunnel were filmed in the Gartlage hall in Osnabrück, a building normally used for livestock auctions. The comedian Dieter Hallervorden, who played the leader of the Köhler gang, was then still at the beginning of his acting career; he became known by the mid-1970s for the slapstick series Nonstop Nonsense.
Wolfgang Menge and Tom Toelle were awarded the 1971 Prix Italia for the best original dramatic program.