Neurotic Cops Hunt Neurotic Killers

Tatort ("Crime Scene"), which shows every Sunday night at 8:15, is the flagship German TV crime series. 

There are a couple of interesting things about Tatort.  Every episode’s 90 minutes long, and has no commercial interruptions (Ahh, the glories of state-subsidized television).  Tatort is shot on-location in various different German cities, so we get to know teams of murder detectives in Berlin, Kiel, Munich, and Hamburg.  Germany can do this because it has a dense network of state-subsidized media production companies all over the country.  Because Tatorts are all made by different regional production companies and feature different sets of actors, they vary in quality.  Some become wildly implausible or flutter off into pseudo-intellectual la-la-land in the first 15 minutes, some are original, tautly-constructed thrillers that keep you guessing until the very end.

Last night’s was typical.  It played in Hamburg, where tall, bearded police commissioner Jan Casstorff (Robert Atzorn) is the main figure.  Jan wanted to be a psychiatrist, but quit school to care for his son Daniel.  This episode starts with a shooting in an underground parking garage.  The victim, a workaholic former Army major who served with the KFOR intervention force in Kosovo before becoming the personnel director of a private security firm.  Castorff and team begin looking into recent company firings and military connections, but don’t get very far before another, almost identical murder occurs, this time of a psychologist who treated KFOR soldiers in the field before going into private practice.

Castorff and team delve into the troubled underworld of traumatized former KFOR soldiers.  One of them breaks under Casstorff’s questioning and goes on a random shooting spree, but it’s a false alarm, he wasn’t the killer.  The killer turns out to be a former soldier who witnessed the grisly death of an abused Kosovar Albanian girl (presumably out of political correctness, we’re not told who did the abusing.  Although, of course, it’s not the German soldiers).  The army psychiatrist, though, didn’t think the soldier’s trauma was serious enough to warrant treatment, and his major taunted him for being a weenie. 

After the soldier returned, the trauma wouldn’t let him go.  He lost his family and job, and spent his days writing feverish letters to the editor about what he saw in Kosovo, and staring at the penguins in the zoo.  Eventually he begins writing letters to the penguins in the zoo.  [No he didn’t — ed.]  Until one day, he decides on deadly revenge against the shrink and the major who dismissed the problem that ruined his life.  Naturally, his plan includes leaving hidden clues to his identity…

A few observations about this and other Tatort shows, from someone who grew up on American crime series:

1.  The cops seem to have no power.  During the episode I just described, Casstorff visits a military hospital to try to get clues about a potential suspect.  At this point, the killer is still on the loose, and could well be preparing to strike again.  The military doctors tell him "The records are confidential.  Go away."  And…he does!  He doesn’t shove his way into the file room, hack into the computer system, or even try to convince the district attorney to get a court order, even though additional lives could be on the line.  Eventually, after several time-consuming visits, he convinces a nurse to give him the clue that leads to the killer.  And Casstorff’s not alone in his powerlessness.  In Tatort, suspects and other people constantly insult homicide detectives, tell them to "go away" or "get lost," slam doors in their faces, and walk out of examining rooms unhindered.  Hint for travelers: do not try this in any other country!

2.  The cops have the patience of saints.  As mentioned above, at one point a traumatized ex-soldier flips out and begins wandering through the streets, firing randomly, narrowly missing passers-by.  Even though the suspect points a loaded gun at Casstorff (who is, of course, armed), Casstorff never shoots him — not even in the knee or arm, just to disable him.  Eventually, after wandering around shooting randomly, the suspect puts the gun in his mouth and tries to blow his brains out.  Casstorff does nothing to try to stop him, simply averting his gaze from the horrible scene.  (Fortunately, the suspect is out of bullets.)  The point seems to be that Casstorff has some kind of sixth-sense psychological insight that the guy actually doesn’t intend to kill anybody (and, to be fair, the guy’s wife is standing next to Casstorff when all this happens).  But what if Casstorff’s wrong?  I am a card-carrying member of Human Rights Watch, but if a sweating, screaming madman is walking down my street with a loaded weapon firing randomly, and there just happens to be a cop nearby with a loaded gun and a clear shot, I’m afraid I must admit that I want the cop to shoot the guy.

3.  The criminals are frequently mentally ill. I was a criminal-defense attorney for a while, and in my experience, people usually kill each other out of greed, jealousy, lust, or revenge.  But that’s too one-sided for Tatort.  One of those basic reasons is usually involved, but there is almost always some delightfully Baroque quasi-Freudian "real" reason for the crime: sibling rivalry, delusions of grandeur, unresolved oedipal conflicts, torturing feelings of inferiority, desperate cry for help (very popular), etc.  It’s like fond look back to the Lady- Wootton style thinking of the 1950s, when the bien-pensant set still believed that the plaid-wearing psychologists with the mild German accents were on the verge of developing a therapy to end criminal behavior.

4.  The cops are almost as tortured, vulnerable and neurotic as the suspects.  According to Tatort, mental illness, neurosis, and maladjustment of various forms is the norm, not the exception, in society.  Among the cops, marriages and relationships melt down, family relationships are strained and routinely interrupt work life, the cops have to visit shrinks/drink to excess to deal with the stress, etc.  There is almost no moralizing condemnation of the suspects, especially those who committed the crime because they were damaged or deranged.  "There, but for the grace of God, go I," the cops opine wistfully.  At the end of last night’s Tatort, Casstorff disarms the real killer and then — sits down next to him for several minutes.  One of his buddies, monitoring the scene on video in a surveillance van, asks what he’s doing.  "Listening," the other says.

9 thoughts on “Neurotic Cops Hunt Neurotic Killers

  1. If you want a “classic” crime enviroment try reruns of “Derrick” ­čÖé
    Thats all about nice rich families with greed, lust and revenge.

    I think german crime shows are more depressive than the ones from the United States. The American people probably need tough tv-cops with endless ressources to stop felons with all necessary means including those not covered by law. I guess its the television’s response to the real crime rates which seem to be higher.

    The Germans also mirror themselves in crime shows but its more about circumstances, the “why” and all kinds of psychological problems.

    You might want to check some scandinavian crime shows. Those try to combine both worlds. They have more action and more ruthless cops but they also emphasize the psychological side including many personal problems of the main charcters.


  2. The question is not how the cops behave, and how powerful or powerless they are. The question is if all this is good entertainment. And yes, it is. Otherwise the series wouldn’t have survived for decades. It is a fine example that one doesn’t need to stage a bloud-bath in order to produce an entertaining crime series (or a hot crime series – watch the “Die Reifepr├╝fung” Tatort :-).

    And if you need some tougher cops in Tatort, just watch the ones with Schimanski as detective. Later they became TV movies on their own, separate from the Tatort series.

    “Derrick” and also “Der Alte” are similar classics (the lead actor of “Der Alte” was unfortunately replaced years ago). And if you can manage to get your hands on them, give the very old stuff like “Der Kommisar” und “Stahlnetz” a try.


  3. You might be interested to hear that Holicek even mentions in another Casstorff Tatort that the three main motives for murder are “greed, jealousy and hate”. Nothing is missing, as “revenge” leads to “hate” (but I don’t wanto to quote a whole Yoda monologue here).


  4. Like debz I’m also trying to get hold of the dubbed versions of Schimanski that they showed on English tv! Please help!!
    TITLE: Schlachtschiff Tatort
    DATE: 11/29/2005 01:23:54 PM
    Andrew Hammel von German Joys zu lesen, bedeutet meist ein L├Ącheln auf den Lippen zu sp├╝ren. Denn selten sieht man einen solch analytischen Blick auf sein Land, seine Eigenarten, sein Wesen von au├čen. Von jemandem der innen lebt, aber…


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