What a 40-year-old TV police drama show can teach you about Germany
Today I came across a great article in the New York Times which tries to explain the ongoing popularity of the German crime TV show Tatort.
Well oserved. Find the original text here.
German Viewers Love Their Detectives
BERLIN — When “Law & Order” kicks off its new season next month, it will tie “Gunsmoke,” at 20 years, as America’s longest-running prime-time drama. Here in Germany, where a police procedural called “Tatort” has been around nearly four decades, 20 years can seem as ephemeral as a high school romance.
“Tatort” is a little akin to what Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” was in America. It’s one of those modest pop-culture symbols and long-standing common experiences that can be hard for outsiders to translate but that speak to, and of, a nation. First broadcast in 1970, before video games or food processors and when Germany seemed permanently split in two, the show adopted the age-old formula of a pair of detectives solving a murder to devise a distinctly German version of the crime drama.
Relatively speaking, violent crime isn’t common here. The killing of four people by a gunman who went on a rampage near Düsseldorf last week was all the more shocking for being exceptional. With a population of 82 million, Germany had 864 homicides in 2007; there were around 20 times as many in the United States, where the population is not quite four times as big.
Maybe that’s a reason “Tatort” (it translates as “Crime Scene”) plays down graphic violence in favor of character development and crime solving.
It was a smash from the start. At one time three-quarters of German television viewers tuned in. Now, when cable channels atomize viewers, more than seven million people still make a ritual of turning off their phones and getting together on Sundays at 8:15 p.m. for an hour and a half to catch the show at home or in bars, some of which, “Tatort” hangouts, receive advance DVDs so fans can pause the action before the killer is unveiled and collectively try to guess who did it.
And by now the opening credits (a pair of eyes caught in crosshairs), which haven’t changed since the first broadcast, are embedded in the German psyche the way Bart Simpson skateboarding through Springfield or the Bunkers croaking “Those Were the Days” at the upright are embedded in American minds. As a measure of “Tatort’s” familiarity, as well as of a certain political desperation, this spring the German Left Party even put up a former “Tatort” actor, Peter Sodann, as its candidate for president. (He finished third.)
Part of the show’s success has derived from an endearing verité. Crimes happen in distinctly German locales like the little city garden plots called schrebergarten, where nature-loving Germans grow their own tomatoes and show off their odd taste for plastic gnomes. The “Tatort” detectives in Cologne invariably stop at their favorite büdchen, the little beer and bratwurst stands typical of the Rhineland. Even the show’s gloomy lighting seems to stir in some Germans a homey familiarity.
There are 15 versions of “Tatort” produced by the various regional divisions of ARD, the German public broadcasting system. So this means there’s a Leipzig “Tatort,” a Frankfurt “Tatort,” a Bremen “Tatort,” a Kiel “Tatort,” a Stuttgart “Tatort” and even a Vienna one, made by Austrian television, all of which take turns sharing the Sunday time slot with “Polizeiruf 110,” the former East German knockoff of the show, still producing new episodes occasionally.
Consider the show a kind of microcosm of the German Federal Republic. Its producers proudly tout it that way. Each “Tatort” makes something of its regional roots, with actors speaking in local accents, solving crimes based on local imbroglios; and Germans talk about their favorite “Tatort” roughly the way they do about their local soccer teams. The “Tatort” from Münster plays for laughs. In Konstanz, a green swath of the country, the “Tatort” detectives often crack environmental cases. Hamburg stars a hunky, James Bond-like Turkish detective who works alone; Hanover, a beautiful, clever female detective, also a loner.
You could say it’s “CSI,” regionally speaking, but it’s too German to be confused with that American franchise, meaning not slick, far less bloody and with an eye toward spicy headlines. Not long ago a “Tatort” about incest in a community of Kurdish and Turkish Alevi provoked tens of thousands of protesters to take to the streets in Cologne and Hamburg; the producers responded by agreeing not to show that episode in repeats.
“We air some 30 new episodes a year, and so there are inevitably protests from time to time,” said Rosemarie Wintgen, with a shrug. She’s the producer of “Tatort” in Berlin, which contributes two episodes a year, at a cost of $1.4 million to $2.8 million each, an extravagant amount for German television.
The Berlin version stars Boris Aljinovic and Dominic Raacke, playing detectives Felix Stark and Till Ritter. Stark is a single father, Ritter a womanizer, a lone cowboy. They’re cool but high-strung Berlin types, and the crimes they solve in this multiracial seat of the German government often take off from local cases of political corruption or violence against immigrants. The last show partly entailed a company selling tainted meat, inspired by a scandal a couple of years ago involving döner kabobs.
Today’s “Tatort” detectives, like Stark and Ritter, follow in the footsteps of Horst Schimanski, played, starting in the early ’80s, by Götz George as a foul-mouthed working-class stiff who both mesmerized and polarized the country. Conservative Germans complained that he shamed the image of the police. Younger Germans saw in him something else. Ms. Wintgen, the producer, described Schimanski as a role model for postwar German men.
“He was a strong character, active, not apologetic or careful,” she said. “He was not how German men acted but how, in secret, they wanted to think of themselves.”
When presented with that thought during a break in filming a new episode here recently, Mr. Aljinovic and Mr. Raacke pondered and then somewhat reservedly agreed. “That was a while ago,” Mr. Raacke said, perhaps feeling a little competitive with a predecessor whom even now no one here seems to have forgotten. Over the course of more than 700 episodes “Tatort” has featured 70 detectives. There are common threads: They’re never Sherlock Holmes. They’re almost invariably glum, gloomy characters, mired in bad relationships or alone — in the end, ordinary people, which is how a country, democratic to a fault, tends to like its stars. In that respect too “Tatort” is notably German.
Or as Ms. Wintgen put it: “Its detectives stand for the dreams of the people. The plain-looking guy or the middle-aged blonde who in the end solves all of life’s problems and finds the murderer.
“That’s our kind of hero.”