By Annika Breinig
Germany’s television programme is overwhelmingly saturated with crime series. From the afternoon till the late night hours, a lavish bouquet of criminal stories is offered to the audience. Obviously, there are crime series from the United States, such as CSI or Navy CIS, running at prime-time and enjoying a broad fan-base. Further there are European productions, such as Sherlock from the UK, the Swedish Wallander or The Killing from Denmark, which attract a solid audience. And last but not least, there are numerous domestic productions, which range between high quality thrillers and trivial every-day crime stories. Regarding those German productions, some recent trends emerge.
Mord mit Aussicht plays in the small fictional village of Hengasch
Almost every German crime production can be categorized as “Regionalkrimi”. This term specifies crime fiction that has a strong regional tone and concentrates on the cultural characteristics of the areas in question. This development, coming up in literature as well, has been around for many years in series such as Der Bulle von Tölz or Die Rosenheimcops, whose focus on Bavaria is already indicated in the title. There are various productions of this type, focusing on different regions: the SOKO series in cities such as Leipzig, Munich, Stuttgart and Cologne, Mord mit Aussicht in the Eiffel, Friesland – Mörderische Gezeiten or Spreewald. In particular, the rather rural centred series are playing with hillbilly-clichés, such as the German “Gemütlichkeit”, which means to take your time and be comfortable. Mord mit Aussicht for example, shows a female city-detective moving to a small town in the Eiffel, where a slow and even dull mentality contrasts with city life. Unlike other formats, the series obviously mocks those clichés on a meta-level, carrying them to extremes and contrasting them with an external character.
Alternatively, early evening series, such as Die Rosenheimcops or Kripo Holstein, seem to celebrate the rusticity they bring to the screen. The characters fulfil their local clichés by eating regional food, wearing traditional clothes and most of all speaking in regional dialect. Often, the attention is drawn to picturesque images of the local landscape, rural idylls such as the Alps or the North Sea.
In the cities however, the “Lokalkolorit” shows a different facet. The urban fear of crime, the dark corners, noise, poverty and alienation are issues discussed frequently in prime-time or late-night series.
Therefore, there are two main directions crime stories in Germany tend two follow: comedy and drama.
In keeping with the conventions of comedy, the early evening programs show a clear intention to be family friendly and rather light fare. The crime scenes are usually not disturbing, there is no blood, no controversy and no social criticism. Instead, these series often fit into a genre called “Schmunzelkrimis”, a mix of crime and comedy. Take an odd protagonist or a team of unlikely investigators in a rather idyllic surrounding and you’ll have a promising, funny mixture enlivened with stories of murder, kidnapping or robbery. Crime series following this scheme have become more and more popular in recent years. Formats such as the Tatort from Münster, Heiter bis tödlich, Mord mit Aussicht or Der letzte Bulle attract high numbers of spectators. The producers do not hesitate to accept absurd background stories if they yield humorous results. In Der letzte Bulle a detective from Cologne wakes from a coma after 20 years and struggles with the social changes that have transpired, especially regarding gender-conventions. Women watching football and men visiting spas are anathema to him. The series creates comedy out of his outdated macho behaviour and his struggles with technology.
The dramatic alternative can quickly be distinguished by comparing visual styles. The idyllic and bright high-contrast, high-saturation look of the comedic formats is replaced by grey filter and tristesse. Fitting this scene, the plots are saturated with elements of drama and social criticism. However, these formats are much less pervasive than the ones which deliver light entertainment. High quality series, which are demanding and realistic are often too expensive to produce, because they only attract a moderate amount of viewers, as with TV series produced by Pay TV in the USA. Therefore elaborated formats, except for Tatort, are rather rare. Some positive exceptions are Im Angesicht des Verbrechens and Kriminaldauerdienst. Sadly, those formats where discharged after a short period, because of poor ratings.
However, the most exceptional series, called Der Tatortreiniger went viral after an online-campaign and gained fans as well as protestors. The reason for the controversy is the morbid topic: the protagonist, Heiko Schotte, has a job cleaning up crime-scenes. He wipes up the remains of murder victims and during this routine he meets their bereaved in the most absurd situations. Although the series deals with crime issues, it does not exactly fit this category. Instead of focusing intrigue and detective work, the series presents a chamber-play-like non-plot, born out of an unpleasant situation, without a clear story-line or solution. Der Tatortreiniger can be seen as a combination of drama and comedy with elements of crime-fiction. It is witty, quirky, full of dark humour and highly recommendable.
Most recently, many production companies and broadcasters from Germany announced new projects, concentrating mainly on crime fiction serials. Frank Schätzing’s Breaking News is about to be made into a series by Ufa. Tom Twyker, director of Cloud Atlas and Das Parfum is planning a series called Babylon Berlin based on the crime novels about inspector Gereon Rath by Volker Kutscher. Moritz Bleibtreu acts as counselor Friedrich Kronberg in Schuld based on the short-stories by Ferdinand von Schirach and RTL is producing a spy-series set in the 80s called Deutschland_83. Further productions are the international joint venture The Team and Die Lebenden und die Toten with Jürgen Vogel, both by ZDF.
By all appearances the TV landscape of Germany seems to be changing. The new flood of high-quality series could give a fresh impetus to other broadcasters and replace the rather monotonous light-entertainment programmes. Despite all these changes, Germany will stay “Krimiland”. Almost every new series or serial announced can be categorized as crime-fiction, whether in a humorous or dramatic, a complex or trivial, an innovative or repetitive way.