By Annika Breinig
When asking Germans about their favourite television crime series, the answer will most likely be “Tatort, natürlich”. Every Sunday evening up to 12 million Germans (almost 14% of population) are watching Tatort at home, with friends or in bars, where the TV usually is used to show football matches. In a country excessively rich in crime fiction, this consensus seems surprising. Explaining to people from outside of Germany what makes Tatort so unique and favourable to the audience is difficult, since the series has a long tradition and a cult status, which even fans are not able to reconstruct.
The first Tatort “Taxi nach Leipzig” aired in 1970. Down to the present day, more than 900 episodes of the series and its East German equivalent Polizeiruf 110, have been produced and broadcasted in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The general concept is easily explained. Every week a team of detectives from one of several locations has 90 minutes of screen time to solve a crime. Currently, there are about 20 returning teams from 20 different cities or areas in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This means that one week the series might feature a team of detectives from Munich investigating a crime, while the next week an entirely unrelated female detective from Hannover is the protagonist of the episode.
In most cases the storylines are told from the inspectors’ perspectives. While their private life played a subordinate role at first, in the 1980s the focus shifted with the appearance of the most famous Tatort investigator “Schimanski” (Götz George). Afterwards the returning characters where developed in more depth. Although every episode tells its own coherent story and several months can pass between two episodes featuring the same team, the characters gradually develop. Since every week another team is investigating, the wide range of characters and places provides variety.
The diversity of characters and different group dynamics facilitate genre pluralism. While some episodes are largely composed of comedic features, others are closer to political thrillers, action or melodrama. The crime-fiction genre serves as an umbrella under which numerous subgenres can flourish. The mix of different moods helps the series appeal to many different types of viewers, because there is a storyline for every spectator. If one prefers light-hearted comedy with trenchant and witty chats, the team from Münster, which is probably the most popular one, will meet those expectations. For fans of loud action with a classical western-like hero, car races and machinegun-shootings, the rather new team from Hamburg, starring the famous German actor, Till Schweiger, would be the right choice. For those favouring strong female characters and psychological depth, the Hannover Tatort offers a compelling drama.
The most popular Tatort
Top ten Tatort investigators
The local colour of the actual crime scenes contributes to this variety. The episodes are often spoken in the regional dialect (even though this has diminished in recent years). Furthermore the series treats and mocks local clichés. The detective team from Cologne regularly takes a break in one of the typical “Buden” to eat a “Bratwurst”, while many other episodes feature panoramic views of the regions and cities or depict typical German customs, such as the carnival. Tatort pictures the different parts of Germany in a critical, sometimes benign, sometimes unsettling way, illustrating their quirkiness as well as their dark sides.
Regarding the development of Tatort over the decades, several changes appear. As mentioned before the private life of the detectives, their families, their sexuality and their psychology have come into focus more and more. Further, the attention of the audience is nowadays directed towards the psychology of the criminals. Solving the case is not sufficient any more. Questioning the reasons leading to the crime by illustrating the social background, the family life, and other influences on the perpetuator has become an important part of recent episodes. Rather than simple solutions and condemnations, Tatort viewers now see closer examinations of the motives and circumstances of a crime, which generates compassion for the person committing it.
The Munster Team
This focus enables Tatort to point at social problems in Germany, which makes it an outstanding program in the country’s television landscape. As one of the few serials discussing socio-political issues, Tatort has covered topics including the German division, the gap between rich and poor and, in recent years, immigration most of all. Its aspiration for reality and actuality makes it a mirror of the German zeitgeist. Several episodes triggered a public controversy and were broadcasted only once before being censored for their divisive topics. For example the episode “Wem Ehre gebührt” in 2007, covering the death of a young Turkish woman belonging to the Alevi-community, was not shown again on television after the first broadcast, because many Alevis felt offended and protested against it.
Like the reception, the quality of the different episodes tends to vary. Some of the teams and genre-mixtures are well-composed, while others do not have the same appeal or charisma. Some episodes are subtle and picture the German society aptly, others seem overdone or try to adapt American crime-fiction traditions. Every Monday all over Germany, students and professors, workers and housewives, pensioners and adolescents are discussing the most recent Tatort, the teams, the plots, the scenes and the actors.
These discussions and reminiscences make Tatort irreplaceable in Germany. The reason for the consensus around Tatort’s popularity is the consensus itself. People want to gather, to watch the series with their peers and to discuss it afterwards. Watching Tatort, provides you with a common topic for every Monday conversation. It is not primarily about the plots, the actors, or the social criticism, though all of those add to the quality of the program. Watching Tatort has become a social event, a pretence for meeting friends, for having small-talk with the boss, for writing a twitter-post and for being proud of actually having read and understood an article in the Zeit or any other sophisticated German feuilleton.