The Murder on Sunday: 40 Years of Scene of the Crime
Paul Trimmel has to get to Leipzig. After a corpse with West German footwear has been found at an East German highway rest area, the Attorney General of the German Democratic Republic asks for the help of the Hamburg chief inspector. When shortly thereafter the request is revoked, Trimmel carries on his investigation in the GRD illegally – and gets caught up in a case that leads deep into the German-German division.
Taxi to Leipzig, produced by North German Broadcasting, had everything that at bottom was to be characteristic of later episodes of Scene of the Crime: the corpse at the beginning, the murderer at the end, and in-between, at the centre of the story, the headstrong inspector with regional roots. And along with a realistic narrative and current relevance, “no flashbacks, no wild camera action”. Solid crime suspense at a high level.
“I pretty much had the wind up”
It was exactly 40 years ago that Scene of the Crime creator Gunther Witte set up “the basic arrangements” to which the participating ARD state broadcasters had to agree for their joint crime series. With few exceptions, they still hold today – and that after over 780 episodes. Witte, an editor for the West German Broadcasting, was by no means certain of the series’ success when he was commissioned to compete against Der Kommissar, the Second German Television Programme’s (ZDF) blockbuster.
“I knew that nowhere in the world was there a detective series with ten different inspectors”, remembers Witte. “Sometimes I thought: This won’t work, people won’t accept it. I pretty much had the wind up”.
A mirror of Germany
The fear was unwarranted: forty years later, Scene of the Crime appears to be as lively as ever. ARD still broadcasts the series on Sundays at prime time at quarter past eight; the third programme constantly shows re-runs. Fans meet at public viewings, crime cities tours take them to the scenes of the fictionalised crimes.
In 2011 alone, thirty inspectors throughout Germany will maintain law and order; a Germany whose mirror the series has always rather been. For example, the dissertation Tatort. Ein populäres Medium als kultureller Speicher (2010) (i.e., Scene of the Crime. A Popular Medium as Cultural Memory) demonstrates how much the series, oriented to social discourses, has changed since the 1970s: if then the orderly middle classes took centre stage, the series latter took up current problems such as unemployment, AIDS, child trafficking, sub-cultures and international phenomena such as the Bosnian war and the Russian mafia. Like the mood in Germany, Scene of the Crime too became more menacing – even down to its visual aesthetics.
A striking expression of this change was the still most popular inspector of the series, who succeeded in 1981 the clever Inspector Haverkamp (Hansjörg Felmy) from Essen: Goetz George, alias Horst Schimanski, a brawny working-class boy with a criminal past and a propensity to booze and gambling who moved through Duisburg in 29 episodes – and in 1997 even got his own, lavishly produced spin-off series. The teasers of Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, repeatedly included his swear words.
Tendency to comedy
George called the Schminaski episodes “detective comedies”: today again a popular Scene of the Crime trend, especially with the younger audience, which the episodes with Chief Inspector Frank Thiel (Axel Prahl) and forensic pathologist Professor Karl-Friedrich Boerne (Jan Josef Liefers) from Münster have followed since 2002 more than ever. 10.49 million viewer tuned into the recent episode Asparagus Season (2010), in which the favouring of the comic muse nearly tipped the balance against the detective story.
In general, the more recent series rely, in addition to a focus on the private life of the inspectors, increasingly on duos – and on strong female characters as investigators. What failed in 1978 with Nicole Heesters after three episodes led to success eleven years later with the now senior inspector Ulrike Folkerts, alias Lena Odenthal of the Ludwigshafen homicide squad. Folkerts has hitherto solved over 50 cases. And she now has other women colleagues, including Maria Furtwängler as the single mother Charlotte Lindholm of State Office of Criminal Investigation in Hanover, since late 2010 Sibel Kekilli as Sarah Brandt (Kiel) and, beginning in 2011, Nina Kunzendorf as Anja Amberger (Frankfurt am Main).
Fassbinder banned from filming
In addition to strong actors, outstanding directors and scriptwriters have also always been a guarantee of success for the series. An excellent example is Wolfgang Petersen, who, with the legendary episode School Leaving Certificate (1977), starring Natasha Kinski, Christian Quadflieg and Judy Winter, paved the way to his later Hollywood career.
Only Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in spite of his express wish to film a Scene of the Crime episode, was given the cold shoulder: not because of his wild narrative style but because of his crude treatment of a football league scandal in the exposé he submitted. To this day, Scene of the Crime creator Witte talks only reluctantly about this incident.
In the poison cupboard of the ARD
The makers of Scene of the Crime do not always work with deadly accuracy. Ironically, the script Asta Scheib and Martin Walsers wrote for the episode Poor Nanosh 1989), with the “singing inspectors” Paul Stöver (Manfred Krug) and Peter Brockmöller (Charles Brauer), was accused of being full of resentment against Sinti and Roma. And the episode The Yellow Petticoat (1979), which takes place in the milieu of the Mainz carnival celebrations, is considered the low point of the series. It is locked away in the poison cupboard of ARD.
But since the series’ beginning in 1970, many shelves in the poison cupboard have remained empty. And the most recent Scene of the Crime case, My Own Lilly, which was broadcast on the series’ fortieth anniversary at the end of November, did not come under fire – and so also not under lock and key. In this episode Ulrich Tukur plays the 102nd inspector, Felix Murot, making enquiries in the milieu of investigative journalism and the Red Army Faction.
A tumour named “Lilly”
“Lilly” is the name not only of the gruff and cynical Murot’s first love, but also the name the detective has given his brain tumour. As long as Scene of the Crime actors can credibly cover up even such gimmicks as this, there will also be no stopping Germany’s most popular crime series in future.
is one of two directors of an editorial office and works as a literary critic, culture and science journalist (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NZZ am Sonntag, Westdeutscher Rundfunk) in Cologne.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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