By Annika Breinig, with thanks to Daniel Magennis
When watching Polizeiruf 110 today, audiences could easily mix it up with the West German Tatort.
These series are broadcast at the same time and on the same channel. They share similar approaches to narrative structure and production, and concentrate on the same themes and motives. There are few signs indicating that this show is the only survivor of German Democratic Republic television, with beloved children’s program Sandmännchen another example. Although at the beginning the series was meant to be a GDR equivalent of the West German Tatort, it distinguished itself from its model in many ways, not the least of which was its treatment of political issues.
Polizeiruf started in 1971 with “Der Fall Lisa Murnau.” It was one of several programmes commissioned by Erich Honecker, secretary general of the GDR, who claimed that the country needed more entertaining and exciting programmes to offer to its audience. The DFF [Deutscher Fernsehfunk, the GDR’s state television broadcaster] created a separate department entirely devoted to the production of Polizeiruf. In contrast to its West German equivalent, the investigators in GDR changed every episode and were not bound to a specific city, as actors were often committed to other projects in theatre or film. Therefore the private lives of the detectives never played a role at all. Instead, Polizeiruf stories centred on crimes and the criminals committing them.
One problem the television series faced was that crime was ostensibly non-existent in the GDR. The government claimed that in a society without class ambiguities, there could be no breeding ground for crime and so conflicts could be solved peacefully by the community. To better understand the realities of the GDR, the participating actors, directors and authors went to schools and companies to talk about crime in everyday life before the production started. These conversations seem to have influenced the ideology reflected in the series. In contrast to crime fiction in the West, the episodes hardly ever depicted violent crimes, like murder or rape. Other taboo themes were flight from the GDR and pollution. Instead the series focussed on more minor offenses, such as burglary, theft, blackmail, fraud or juvenile crime. But most importantly, the perpetrators could never be people supportive of the state.
The series followed a simple Good Guys vs. Bad Guys line. The detectives are ideal GDR citizens: they never drink, smoke or wear scruffy clothing. At the same time, the crimes committed often are pictured as a consequence of alcohol abuse. This became apparent when the focus switched from a Whodunit structure to an in-depth depiction of the perpetrator and the circumstances that lead to the crime. With this shift, the series increasingly constructed a binary opposition between the good, law-abiding detectives and bad, self-serving perpetrators. Polizeiruf was one of the few shows actually touching upon the problems of the GDR, though mostly in a cautionary way. Therefore, in later years some episodes were restricted and recut by the government. Moreover the show was supervised by a member of the Ministry for Internal Affairs to ensure that the contents and language complied with regulations.
The most significant case of censorship occurred in 1974 when the broadcasting of an episode entitled “Im Alter von…” (At the age of…) was forbidden and the material was confiscated by the GDR government. The film was based on the case of Erwin Hagedorn, who was executed for sexual abuse and murder of three boys. Hagedorn’s was the first death sentence ever carried out in the GDR. The production of the episode had already been considerably obstructed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Although the script was revised several times, the case was still considered “too real” for television in a country where crime was supposed to be obsolete. The film remained lost for more than 3 decades, until in 2009 the negative material was found. After the sound track was resynchronized, “Im Alter von…” was finally broadcasted in 2011, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Polizeiruf.
As the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification came closer, there was a subtle wind of change in Polizeiruf that only a perceptive viewer would have recognized. For example, a crooked poster of the party and a detective’s claim that abilities more than disposition qualify a person for a profession, were hints foreshadowing an upheaval. Only three episodes directly refer to the changing political climate. In “Unter Brüdern” for example Polizeiruf detective Fuchs first collaborates with Western Tatort investigators (Schimanski and Thanner), not without serving East-West clichés, like the Bruderkuss (brotherly kiss), which was only common among state officials. Fuchs was later replaced by Thanner as the first West German superior in East Germany, showing that the old GDR tradition personified by Fuchs had reached the end of its time. This change also becomes apparent in the opening credits to the television series, in which all the GDR-typical items, like cars, were replaced by West-German ones.
When DFF was dissolved in 1991 the future of Polizeiruf was unclear. However, its wide popularity throughout Germany led to the production of more episodes after a one-year hiatus.
Today the series continues with 4 recurring teams of investigators from Potsdam, Rostock, Munich and Magdeburg. However, the series does still not have the same appeal as Tatort, attracting 1.5 million fewer viewers. The West German series boasts five times as many investigating teams, a cast of German stars, and sensational plot lines. Though the cases in Polizeiruf are becoming increasingly similar to those featured in West-German episodes, with a growing focus on murder plots, minor and violent crimes are represented as well. The recurring characters are depicted in greater depth today, though the focus on the perpetrator is still conspicuous. Apart from this, there are few differences from the West German series, and when it comes to quality the format is in no way inferior to Tatort. In particular, the Munich Polizeiruf has been well received by critics and nominated several times for the Grimme Awards (Germany’s prestigious television award, formerly known as Adolf-Grimme-Preis).
Writing about Polizeiruf is like giving a lesson in contemporary German history. There are few other series that reflect on the division and reuniting of Germany from an East German perspective. The troubles of state control, the reunification, and the differences between East and West are manifested in Polizeiruf in a unique way. Surviving those vicissitudes of history and keeping a bit of its own character, the East German Tatort remains a significant fixture of German popular culture and television to the present day.