Tatort = Volkspaedagogik?

I was talking with an Austrian sociologist the other day, and he told me something interesting: that the German detective series Tatort is guided by a set of principles that determine how it portrays violent crime in Germany. The idea is to present millions of TV viewers with an image of the root causes of crime that will dampen their desire for retribution and harsher penalties. Therefore, criminals on Tatort almost always commit their evil deeds because of outside forces, such as mountains of debt, cultural expectations, social deprivation, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. Thus, one of the goals of Tatort is to counteract the idea that criminals are intentional evildoers. This colleague said that this is a well-known fact about Tatort, but wasn't able to point me to a source right off-hand.

Given my previous posts on West German and East German detective series (plus academic interests), I'd really be interested in a written source that would bolster the argument that Tatort scripts have a "popular education" purpose. Thanks in advance for any help.

16 thoughts on “Tatort = Volkspaedagogik?

  1. I vaguely remember some studies which explore the portrayal of social “theories” (call it Zeitgeist, if you like) about the origins of crime and violence and the role of the state/police over time.

    Media and communication studies was my subsidiary subject at university so I will look into it the next days.


  2. I didn’t do any bookkeeping, but after about 15 or so years of watching “Tatort” more or less regularly I don’t share the impression of the Austrian guy. It’s far from a “well-known fact” and actually sounds more like a relic of the “Rotfunk” myth (i.e. all them damn leftists at public TV and radio).
    Of course they often (sometimes in rather contrived ways) do take up topics that are “hot”, like child abuse/pornography, human trafficking or Ausländerfeindlichkeit. And there are certainly cases that show the criminals as driven by forces they have no control over. But there are also plenty of cases with simply evil guys, corrupt politicians (or cops), mad serial killers, whatever. Actually those corruption with friends in high places etc. cases seem to me at least as frequent as the “turned criminal because of social circumstances”.
    What’s more important, though, Tatort has been running since about 1970 produced by about 10 different broadcasters (like NDR, WDR, hr, BR, etc.) with dozens of different directors. There is no social or political agenda behind that plurality (although certainly some of the directors may have had one)



  3. Totally off topic BUT I like your new layout. The other frightened my little ones when I’d have your blog on the screen LOL.

    Sarah filled me in on TX wind damage. We had power out for a while but we just used the time to play rocket balloons outside.


  4. what can be said though, is that tatort lacks the clear-cut calvinistic duality of good and evil. the construction of the criminal as an other, an entity completely outside societies boundaries.

    a stance so ingrained in american crime tv that its lack must be disorienting to americans, i remember being irritated when i first heard an american child and mother discuss a tv show in terms of goddies & baddies as absolute terms.

    considering the current state of current affairs, this concept was ironically a heirloom from the zoroastrian creed …

    but other than that i concur with johannes, tatort portraits conventional middle of the road consensus among germans with abitur for the most part, varying from one public broadcasting company to the next, and subject to the fads and turns of the zeitgeist it’s a bit like lindenstraße in that regard.

    then again german tv was originally meant to have a popular education purpose called the bildungsauftrag witch used to be very pronounced till about the mid seventies i’d say. that bildungsauftrag can be found in german public television charters to this day.

    the advent of private television was called more then once the end of the erziehungsdiktatur of the middle classes.


  5. to be non-boring even after several decades, the episodes are made more interesting by showing a largely unknown part of the society and for that to make sense the crime has to have something to do with that group and you get to discuss their social rules and show dangers or debunk myths?

    if you watch sunday evening series to get some sort of catharsis and escape your own life before the week starts on monday and want to get into a depressed mood it is more effective, if you can weep about both sides of the crime.


  6. One thing you can count on in Tatort:
    the guy who drives the American car (if there is one) is always the bad guy – and he´s not driven by outside forces. He´s just plain evil.


  7. “Tatort” is a classic of german public tv. As Johannes already has mentioned, the episodes are produced by different (public) broadcasting companies which initially included austrian and swiss participants. Diversity is central to the series’ concept. Therefore it was and is watched by young and old, conservatives and liberals, intellectuals and illiterates …

    Episodes of course were and still are different. Basically “tatort” is not a series but rather a platform. In the early years WDR contributed 7 episodes built around the adventures of a handsome customs-agent resembling James Bond more than Kommisar Lohmann (the grumpy police investigator in Fritz Langs classic “Dr. Mabuse”). 1973 a “tatort” directed by Sam Fuller was broadcasted.

    During the seventies broadcasting agencies established more or less constant patterns for their episodes. A whole lot of superintendents were introduced and tried to develop as steady characters. Some lasted only one episode, some others became very popular and stuck to their role for decades.

    “Tatort” is one of the few features of seventies german tv that has survived. A great part of the seventies episodes are rather social studies than classic crime stories. They are like Chabrol movies.

    From the beginnings to our times some episodes are evidently written and produced to cause public interest by taking up “hot” issues and seldom fail to succeed in stirring discussions, which lay proof to the thesis that “tatort” has become an institution in german society.

    One of it’s undisputed qualities is rather unintended. “Tatort” documents the development of german society in a unique way. Not only clothes, cars, music, manners etc but also mentalities and ideologies.

    The latter can be found easily in the “message” of some episodes from the whole “tatort-history” as well, whereas for instance other episodes’ stories from the 80s and 90s just don’t make any sense at all.

    Showing offenders as victims has a long tradition in “tatort”. Some episodes feature rather “sympathetic” murderers. Although there are some episodes featuring “evil” characters, quite a lot of past and actual “tatorts” claim to deliver more than action and suspense, namely cause “Betroffenheit”. Therein crime is just the start of the story. Typically during the story detectives find themselves investigating society rather than a murder case and revealing it’s rotten state.

    The need to hold audiences and adapt to series patterns in times of rough competition between tv-broadcasters led authors to lay more stress on investigators characters and private lifes and featuring more car chases in the last twenty years. “Tatort” is one of german public tv’s last staples.

    It has changed like german society had but remains being one of it’s most interesting institutions. The regional character represents germany’s federal structure. Some episodes rather awkward efforts towards entertainment and/or enlightenment are typically german.

    It’s a pity Fassbinder never was asked to write and direct an episode.


  8. Hmm,… I do not think that this kind of “Volkspaedagogik”, observed on “Tatort”, is intentional. As far as I can recollect, the producers just strive to give the criminal a more realistic and well-researched motive.
    Though it’s quite likely that Tatort tends to portrait the society in a “shades-of-grey” approach, including the criminal, in order to be more realistic.

    If someone likes to conduct further research, one can find plenty of information at the “Tatort Fundus”


  9. The Austrian sociologist is terribly wrong. Even if some of the murderers are mentally ill, you will find all kind of evil-doers in the series, cold-blooded mercenaries as well as people killing spontaneously as a desperate measure in order to hide other crimes they committed before (often from the field of bribery and corruption). If necessary, I can point out single episodes.


  10. Does anyone know how to get Tatort in NYC? Time Warner used to broadcast it, but their German program, Deutsche Welle, does not.

    Thanks in advance.


  11. forgot the quote:

    “Example: If someday, somewhere in Germany a guy who works at a bakery and whose day job is to make spongecake would kill another guy who makes, for example, danish pastry, then the producers of Tatort would waste no time to come up with an episode of Tatort which took a pretentious shot at „unmasking“ the immoral aspects of the spongecake business and „illuminating“ its „hidden dark side“. The spongecake chef would be borderline psychotic and overweight, and there would be long-winded shots of him in a white spongecake chef’s apron, wielding a palette knife in a sleazy, dark bakery back room, with the cameras slowly panning up from his palette knife-wielding hands, up and up, past his meaty chin, to finally reveal, to much “ooh” and “ahh”-ing on part of the Tatort party’s members, he wasn’t really making spongecake, but staring into nothingness with his totally crazy, murderous, psycho spongecake chef eyes, but the scene doesn’t stop, and we can hear, but never get to see, him stabbing at the cutting board in an increasingly aggressive way, all mounting in a wild crescendo of staring and stabbing, staring and stabbing, staring and…you get the idea, it’s an extremely powerful scene because of the things we don’t get to see.

    Don’t blame that poor spongecake chef though. Because Tatort is at heart a very German show, each episode takes plenty of time exploring the „social conflicts“ and „circumstances“ that lead to a crime. Mirroring the German society, in Tatort, everybody is a victim. Even the detectives. That’s because German people love to come up with far-flung excuses for any wrongdoing that wasn’t committed by a well-off person, and go to great lengths to construct a theory which serves to blame all the usual things they fear or disapprove of: Capitalism, environmental pollution, and being identified as Germans when traveling.

    In the above example, the spongecake chef’s murder would be explained by the brutal, dog-eat-dog world the spongecake making business has evolved into. There would be a huge, faceless, spongecake-making corporation that aims to rule the spongecake marketplace with cheaply made, but bland products, rendering life for the loveably privately kept, romantically small spongecake-shops extremely competitive and impersonal. The murderer’s deed would be explained by the unbearable fear of the future those evil capitalists brought to this simple, down-to-earth spongecake chef, yet, and this is very important, Tatort wouldn’t take all the guilt off him, leaving the audience at your Tatort-Party in an ambivalent state, resulting in statements like ‘I’m not exactly sure who’s to blame here, and I think nobody should jump to conclusions. All we can say is, capitalism brings out the worst in people, right? Right??'”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s