What I Learned from Tatort Part I

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It's time for the first in an occasional series I'll call 'What I learned from Tatort'. Tatort ('crime scene'), a weekly 90-minute crime drama aired by German public television, is one of the longest-running series in history and is perhaps the fundamental building-block of German popular culture. It is also an window into what The Germans are thinking about various social issues. Or, more accurately, what a certain group of upper-middle-class, university-educated public-television cultural bureaucrats want Germans to think about social issues.

There are certain fundamental didactic premises underlying all Tatort episodes. For instance: Anyone who drives an expensive car is morally dubious, unless that person is a member of the German civil service (otherwise known as Mankind's Noblest CallingTM), in which the expensive car is a harmless diversion from the excruciating ordeal of working for the German state. All civil servants, for that matter, are hopelessly überfordert (overburdened), which explains any mistakes they may make from time to time.

However, in addition to the general didactic premises, the moral 'background radiation' of Tatort's universe, there are more specific lessons in each episode. A few weeks ago, for instance, we learned that art is sacred, that the artist must be permitted to bend or break the rules, and that his vision must never be interfered with. And just before that, in an episode clearly modeled on a Scientology-like organization, we learned that Scientology-like organizations are sinister, profit-driven cults that prey on the weak of mind.

Last Sunday's Tatort revolved around the murder of a little girl at an amusement park. Several suspects appeared, including a Croatian lawyer, a possibly-reformed pedophile, and the girl's own mother. Among the lessons:

  1. People from the Balkans are a rather hot-tempered lot, with a tendency to get jealous, which makes them screamy and stabby. Nevertheless, just because fiery Balkan blood rages in their veins doesn't mean they're always good for the murder.
  2. Just because someone behaves unusually after one of their relatives dies doesn't mean she's guilty of murder.
  3. Child molesters who've served their time in prison and are cooperating with their therapists deserve a second chance, (but only/especially/even) if they are white and German.

I think that about covers it. Worthy sentiments, all! Let me know in comments if I missed anything.

7 thoughts on “What I Learned from Tatort Part I

  1. Great idea!

    With this articles I can compare German culture with the deep knowledge and understandig of US culture I gained from 30 years of american crime series beginning with Charlie’s Angels and A-Team to Columbo and to CSI.

    I found it always fascinating that in the US police capatins are alway hyper-cholerics, hispanic-americans are always poor victims or villains, killing of random bystanders or destroying their property never has any consequences and the black cop never has a white wife.

    Fascinating!

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  2. Martin brings up a pretty interesting point. You go far enough back in Tatort, you’ll eventually get a non-PC Schimanski.

    However, the 1970s in the U.S. was actually the very high point of politically-correct programming in the U.S. Back then, the detectives on ‘Barney Miller’ were from all different races yet got along with each other splendidly (with a quickly-solved misunderstandings along the way), and some of them even came out as gay.

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  3. Andrew makes a valid point – Tatort episodes show society the way middle- and upper class left-wing intellectuals and programming directors would like it to be.

    That said, Tatort has in an often very positive way always been good at raising questions and issues about society in general. How criminals should be dealt with, what motivates them and makes them tick, and how should society perceive and judge certain crimes or moral transgressions. And every now and then, despite its mentioned idealistic ambitions, it offers very tantalizing “Milieustudien”.

    If you want to see really socially dogmatic crime drama, however, try to catch one of the older pre-1989 “Polizeiruf 110” episodes. “Polizeiruf 110” used to be the rival project to Tatort in East Germany, in response to Tatort’s secret popularity among viewers in the GDR. Getting their orders directly from the Socialist party, its makers showed criminals as betrayers of society, as corrupters of communist solidarity. I remember seeing one episode which ended with a petty lady-thief being confronted by a half dozen of her victims at the police station, all of whom looked at her sternly as if to say “you have failed us… you have failed society!”

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  4. The thesis about civil servants is surely wrong. The only hard-working ones in Tatort are the police officers themselves. The bureaucrat with the big car is very often corrupt or involved in some other scandal, even if he isn’t the murderer.
    There are quite a few Tatort episodes where some superior guy in the judicial system or the prosecutor or someone from the Bundeskriminalamt (meddling with or taking away the case from the main Kommissare) is the culprit in the end.

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