“Tatort” – A German Television Institution
But when you try to explain why that is so, you have to think long and hard. It can hardly be for the quality of the individual episodes – they are no better or worse than other German television films and, as detective films, they are usually not very exciting. The difficulties of describing Tatort begin with their unusual form – Tatort is not a series with an ongoing story, but a collection of self-contained episodes.
“Tatort” as a reflection of federalism
Tatort was created by ARD, Germany’s first television channel, in November 1970, in quick response to the success of Germany’s second public-service television channel, ZDF, in broadcasting its detective film series Der Kommissar. The ARD, the German consortium of public-law broadcasting corporations, has an unusual structure – it is not a centralist broadcaster, but an association consisting of nine regional broadcasting corporations. This structure stems from the redemocratisation of Germany after 1945.
The Western occupying powers (the USA, Great Britain and France) relied on strong federal structures to respond to the experience of Nazi dictatorship – since unification in 1990 there have been 16 Federal States – in order to make it impossible to return to a dictatorship like Hitler’s. And so the country’s political federalism was reflected in the way the first public-service television station was organised and, in turn, it was also reflected in Tatort. The special feature of the ARD’s newly-founded detective series was the variety resulting from the fact that each regional ARD station had its own superintendents carrying out their investigations in the respective broadcasting area. Later, Austria and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland joined in, as did the new Federal Länder after unification (there are now 15 different investigation teams in Germany, one in Switzerland and one in Austria). Since the nineties, the number of Tatort episodes produced has risen from an initial 11 per year to more than 30 now. Thus, some broadcasting corporations, such as the large station WDR (West German broadcasting corporation), show their films on several different channels.
“Tatort” is a civic duty
The way in which Tatort is made is one reason for its success. The principle on which the series is based is that the episodes are set in the context of the political structures of the region where they are filmed, promoting Tatort’s institutional character. When you watch Tatort, you are not watching any old television film, but are reminded of your role as a citizen. To exaggerate a little, one could say that watching Tatort is a kind of civic duty, like going to vote at elections. In addition, Tatort also often picks up on current social debates. Although people like to complain that Tatort often occupies itself more with such issues than with the respective criminal case, this political reference is what makes them significant. In the guise of a detective story, Tatort conveys messages on a wide range of subjects that are presented abstractly in the news, such as health care reforms, genetic engineering, corruption, neo-Nazi violence and dealing with minorities or religions.
Tatort provides a picture of society at another level too, however. The great advantage of self-contained episodes over a continuing series is that ongoing updates are possible. When the audience has had enough of a superintendent, or there is nothing more to say about a character, he or she can simply be replaced. In this way, Tatort keeps reinventing itself, since social developments can also be integrated through the choice of actors. In 1978, Nicole Heesters playing Marianne Buchmüller was the first female investigator. In 1989, Ivo Batic (Miro Nemec) was the first superintendent with a migration background to take up his work. In 2007, Mehmet Kurtuluş playing Cenk Batu was the first leading actor whose family, like so many others in Germany, had immigrated from Turkey.
So Tatort‘s secret is its open form in combination with a regular timeslot. On Sundays, which is also the day when elections are held in Germany, the audience learns in an entertaining way something about the state of their own country. Tatort is the narrative accompanying the Federal Republic of Germany on its democratic path. And that is why the Tatort films cannot be exported; classic series featuring the same actors in all the episodes are better suited to doing that. But taking the structure and filling it with one’s own stories is an attractive idea, particularly in a country like Nigeria, with its relatively young democracy, federal structure and many specific local features. Tatort could be able to carry out investigative work there because it picks up on special regional features, presenting them nationally, and perhaps also making them into an institution.
is cultural editor of the weekly newspaper “Der Freitag”. Each Sunday, he publishes a review on Freitag.de of the latest Tatort episode following its television screening, which is then discussed. In the summer, his book “Herrlich inkorrekt. Die Thiel-Boerne-Tatorte” will be published by Bertz + Fischer.
Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
Any questions about this article? Please write to us!