• Hannes Jaenicke (© Jürgen Bauer)
    ACTOR & FILMMAKER Portrait


Hannes Jaenicke (© Jürgen Bauer)

Hannes Jaenicke is known to cinema-goers and TV audiences for his appearances as an actor in productions as diverse as KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR, the TV event series HINDENBURG, and the new AMSTERDAM-KRIMI thriller series as well as such international productions as WORLD WITHOUT END, DUE SOUTH, and ODE NAME ETERNITY.

However, Jaenicke has had another string to his bow over the past 15 years by producing and fronting TV documentaries. It all began with the VOXTOURS travel show for the commercial channel VOX with Jaenicke as a presenter for episodes which took him around the globe to places as far flung as the Yukon, Alaska and Madagascar. And it also marked the beginning of a long-standing collaboration between Jaenicke and former VOXTOURS presenter Judith Adlhoch and her partner, the DoP Markus Strobel, whose production outfit Tango Film had been producing the series out of Munich.

“There came a point when some of our ideas became too political for VOX because they didn’t fit into their concept of a travel show,” Jaenicke recalls. “So, I teamed up with Markus and we decided to produce the kind of documentaries we wanted to make ourselves, with our respective production companies Tango Film in Munich and Pelorus Jack Filmprods. Inc. in L.A.”

“We threw in some money together and made an 18-minute pilot film about endangered orangutans,” he continues. This attracted the interest of the German national public broadcaster ZDF who then greenlit a 50-minute film about the shocking trade with orangutans and rainforest destruction on the Indonesian island of Borneo. The film had sensational ratings on its airing in the late evening schedule in 2008 and this was then the birth of the series IM EINSATZ FÜR… – known internationally as HANNES JAENICKE’S WILDLIFE UNDERGROUND.

This first film spotlighting the fate of the orangutans being sold in markets as kickboxers, go-go girls and sex slaves has since been followed by episodes dedicated to polar bears (2009), sharks (2009), mountain gorillas (2010), elephants (2014), lions (2015), orcas and dolphins (2016), rhinos (2017), cheetahs (2018), with the latest film on the loss of songbirds being aired in August of this year.

“I work very closely with Markus and his wife Judith as well as the writer/director Eva-Maria Gfirtner on choosing the subject for each episode and handling its production,” Jaenicke explains.

Why pick endangered species for the focus of each documentary, one might ask.

“It’s an amazingly simple way to illustrate what human beings are doing to the environment,” says Jaenicke who has been a member of Greenpeace from the age of 16. “At the time, there was the campaign against whaling and that motivated me to join. What’s more, I am a great fan of Douglas Adams and his book Last Chance To See which gave us the inspiration for the IM EINSATZ FÜR… series. That book by the late best-selling UK author Adams and the journalist Mark Carwardine had accompanied a 1989 BBC radio documentary series which saw the two travelling to various locations around the globe in the hope of encountering species on the brink of extinction. While Jaenicke isn’t under any illusions that there is still a lot to be done to safeguard our environment for future generations, “it’s encouraging that little German TV documentaries can actually change minds and laws.”

In the episode on sharks – which was screened at the Berlinale in 2010 as part of the Culinary Cinema sidebar –, Jaenicke disguised himself as a restaurant owner and used a hidden camera to film the illegal dealing with shark fins that are a great delicacy in China as shark fin soup. “The footage was used by US NGOs and led to stricter anti-finning laws in the Pacific region. And when the Berlin department store KaDeWe heard about the toxicity of shark meat, the management decided to withdraw all of its shark products with immediate effect,” Jaenicke recalls.

”Our film on songbirds has also had an impact: people contacted us afterwards to say that they didn’t realize you need to feed the birds all year round and not just in winter. As a result, I know of shops that sold out of bird seed after the film was shown. It’s the little things that can matter, and the images in the films can have a powerful effect.”

Jaenicke admits that it can be quite a challenge to coordinate the filming of the IM EINSATZ FÜR… episodes with his acting commitments because he is constantly on the road – Morocco today, Amsterdam tomorrow – although visiting different countries and learning about their particular environmental issues has often given him inspiration for subject matter for future episodes.

“The budget we have to work with is, of course, a challenge,” he observes. “Everyone watches the BBC nature documentaries like BLUE PLANET and marvels at the amazing footage. But you have to know that they have a budget of 30 million, 23 crews and were three years in the making whereas our films are made for anything between 200,000 and 280,000 euros. I am not complaining because I am really grateful for the support from ZDF who also distribute the series internationally through ZDF Enterprises.”

The series has also attracted its fair share of nominations and awards over the years: the orangutan episode, for example, was named Best Documentary at the Agrofilm International Film Festival in Nitra and Best Film at the Los Angeles Reel Film Festival, it won the Diva’s (German Entertainment Award) Earth Award, while the film highlighting the fate of sharks earned Jaenicke the title of Shark Guardian of the Year 2010 from the NGO Shark Project. The films on rhinos and cheetahs both won prizes at the documentary festival in Deauville/France.

In addition, Jaenicke has been personally recognized for his commitment to environmental issues with such distinctions as the Deutsche Nachhaltigkeitspreis, the GREEN BRANDS award, the Courage Preis and the UmweltMedienpreis. And this year has also seen Jaenicke embark on a new creative collaboration with Markus Strobel where they shot a short clip entitled WHAT THE FROG? for a digital campaign about plastic recycling for the cleaning products company Frosch.

“I wrote the script myself and tried to do something from a humorous angle which is not how the Germans would normally do things,” he explains. “We decided to go strictly viral with the clip (https://www.what-the-frog.com) and we’ve already had over five million clicks so far. It’s really great fun because we were given so much freedom that I am already writing the script for a new clip!,” Jaenicke adds.

Martin Blaney