Tatort – A Notably German TV Series

By Matthias Knobloch on Email

Do you already know where you will be next Sunday? Well, I do. My wife and I, while traveling to Germany for the holidays, were watching Germany’s long-running TV Series “Tatort” on a screen in a “Tatort” fan bar where watchers can vividly investigate the cases with like-minded people over a glass of wine or beer.  On average, eight to nine million watchers tune in each Sunday at 8:15pm to watch this TV crime drama. My wife and I are two of them. When not in Germany at a fan bar, streaming the latest episode from the ARD website in the U.S. has become a ritual for us.

When German TV Station ARD kicked of its 822nd episode of “Tatort” (translated “crime scene”) on New Year’s Day, the long-running investigation series had been around for more than 41 years. This is almost twice as long as America’s longest-running prime-time drama “Law and Order”.  The show, first aired in 1970, adopts the classic but solid formula of one or two determined detectives solving a murder – a markedly German murder. “Tatort” watchers won’t see any bad dudes pumping lead into one another. Violence is rare in the show and the detectives are visibly shaken each time that a gun is fired. Germany had 794 homicides in 2005, compared with 21 times as many in the United States, where the population is not quite four times as large. This may be one reason that “Tatort” downplays graphic violence in favor of character development and crime solving. You could say it’s a “CSI – Law and Order” hybrid, only with less blood, no over-illuminated crime labs, and all of the additional American fuss. The plot – instead of flashy camera work – is the focus of the show.

The opening credits begin with a pair of eyes caught in crosshairs and haven’t changed since the first broadcast. I’m sure that these credits are burned into the German psyche in the same way that Maggie Simpson’s cashier scan scene is anchored in young American minds. The “Tatort” is a German television institution and part of its success is the regional focus of each episode. There are 15 different versions of “Tatort” which are produced by various regional divisions of ARD, the German public broadcasting system. This means that there are “Tatort” episodes from Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Berlin, Ludwigshafen and many more – each with its -let’s say- personal touch. Investigators speak in local dialects and solve crimes based on local embroilments. Of course, after work they enjoy their local beer with a game of their favorite soccer team. Germans have favorite “Tatort Kommissare” (Tatort Detectives) and talk about them in the same way that they would talk about their favorite sports team.

The investigator characters are each unique. For instance, Charlotte Lindholm from the Hannover “Landeskriminalamt” (the State Investigation Bureau) is an ambitious single parent detective with an eye for facts who investigates murders in the wide open spaces of Lower Saxony. Her latest case unveiled a tragic and perverted crime of a murder victim in which the victim held young girls in a secret cellar for years, inspired by the kidnapping scandal of Natascha Kampusch. Other investigators, Thiel and Boerne in Muenster for example, work hand-in-hand in order to solve crimes. Karl-Friedrich Boerne is a professor and a medical examiner and Frank Thiel is the chief detective working on cases together with Boerne. Both are single and have totally different interests. One likes soccer and the other, the science of medical examination. These two unique examples are part of what makes watching the investigators interesting. “Tatort” investigators are either alone or in bad relationships, have crushes on colleagues, cry, and can be overweight or nerdy – in the end; the point is that “Tatort” investigators are ordinary people and this says something important about how Germany prefers its television stars.

If you ever have the chance to watch a “Tatort” episode online or on TV, do it. If you like crime shows, I’m sure you won’t regret it. You can visit www.daserste.de/tatort to find the latest episodes to watch for free.

Matthias Knobloch