How to be German: Long-running cop drama 'Tatort'

Do you want to know how to be German?

Psychologist Sven Rudloff will be joining us each month - this time round, how one crime drama can trace the recent history of Germany and the impact it's had on the country’s culture!

Hello, my name is Sven, and I am a German psychologist. Long-time listeners may remember me from the first-ever “This Week in Germany” Extra interview. Normally I produce “Viva Britannia”, a German language podcast where I explain all things British to German listeners. From now on, I will also regularly contribute to “This Week in Germany” and explain some German things to you English-speaking listeners.

This time I want to delve into one of Germany’s cultural institutions, the television programme “Tatort”.

“Tatort” simply means “crime scene” - one of the rare occasions where the German word is actually shorter than the English one. The “Tatort” is the longest-running German language police procedural. It started in 1970, and this very Sunday episode number 932 airs on public television.

The “Tatort” owes its unique production concept to the setup of public broadcasting in West Germany after the Second World War. Almost every federal state in Germany has their own broadcasting institution that produces regional radio and TV programmes. In 1950, the ARD was formed: By name literally a consortium of these regional public broadcasters of Germany. Since then, the consortium together is responsible for the programming of Germany’s national TV Channel No. 1, called “Das Erste”. In 1963, a second public TV broadcaster was formed, called “The Second German TV”, or “Das Zweite”. You see, Germans are not very subtle with naming things after all.

In 1970, Channel 2 was quite successful with a new police procedural, so Channel 1 had to come up with some kind of counter-offer. TV producer Gunther Witte suggested a series of Sunday night crime movies, to air at a quarter past eight right after the main evening news. The criminal cases had to be realistic and believable, and the series should focus on the police detectives as the main characters. Every episode had to be self-contained and the case to be resolved at the end, at least in some way.

In order to spread the financial burden of such an undertaking, every regional broadcaster in the ARD consortium should contribute their own productions to this series. In turn, they got the opportunity to put a regional twist on their productions, so every federal broadcaster got their own team of police inspectors that investigates crimes in one of the region’s cities, and often with a local flair. Larger broadcasters even got the opportunity to contribute more than just one police team.

At first, the consortium was not convinced, but eventually they signed off on this concept. And it should prove very popular - before private broadcasters entered the German scene, some “Tatort” episodes reached 25 million people or 70% of Western German viewers at the time. Even today, the “Tatort” still accounts for some of the most-seen TV programs in any year.

Sure, over the past 45 years, there were quite some changes. In 1971, Austria joined the “Tatort”, and in 1990 the first Swiss detective entered the scene. Due to the German reunification, the landscape of regional public broadcasters changed, and new teams from the East of Germany started to work on their own local “Tatort” cases.

Still, all the elements of the basic concept that I mentioned earlier hold to this very day. About 35 “Tatort” episodes are produced every year, and are usually broadcasted on a Sunday evening. During longer public holidays like Easter or Christmas, the broadcast sometimes moves to a different day of the week, but it’s always on the evening of a work-free day. The opening and closing titles and the title music of the “Tatort” have remained essentially unchanged in all these years. You can indeed call it a German cultural institution.

The “Tatort” is one of these TV programmes you simply grow up with. Some Germans watch it every time, but many simply have their favourite police teams they follow. In total, about 80 different teams have been active so far, some for many years, and some only for a few episodes. I, for example, have known the “Tatort” police teams from Munich and Cologne for about two decades, and even the quirky team working in my former university town Münster has been around for more than ten years now. This specific team, by the way, is the most successful at the moment in terms of viewership.

Traditionally, well known TV actors take up the role of a “Tatort” detective, but sometimes both future film stars are made in “Tatort”, and sometimes quite successful film actors are tempted to return to TV by this series. Even for them the working time that the “Tatort” demands is manageable - as there are only about 35 episodes every year, and there are almost 20 different teams at work at the moment, this means that you only get one or two episodes per team in every given year.

Especially in the early years, the “Tatort” detectives were often lone wolves who may have had a support team but were still the sole protagonist in the story. Over time and especially since the 1990s, it’s usually two similar-ranking police officers working together. In case of the much loved Münster team that I mentioned, it’s scruffy police inspector Frank Thiel one one hand, and his accidental partner-in-crime-solving, the stuck-up forensic scientist Karl-Friedrich Boerne - who also happens to be Thiel’s landlord. They don’t really like each other, but they always end up hunting murderers in the picturesque surroundings of Westphalia.

The “Tatort” cases should be realistic, and so over the years many hot topics of the time found their way into the series. Already the very first episode - called “A taxi to Leipzig” - covered a case spanning both West and East Germany. The first scandal occured in 1977 when the series depicted the relationship between a school girl and her teacher, including nude scenes of actress Natassja Kinski, who was only 16 years old at the time. For her, the daughter of infamous Klaus Kinski, it was the start of an international career, and today this episode is one of the classics and no longer seen as scandalous. Similarly, social topics like homosexuality and transgender, political topics like the wars on the Balkans or the Middle East, or simply the impact of the German reunification on the country - they all have influenced and been depicted in “Tatort” cases.

So if you are interested in a piece of enduring German TV history, start watching. You don’t have to know the history of the different regional police teams, as each episode is self-contained. You need however to understand German - individual episodes have been exported to up to 50 countries, but to my knowledge, there is no translation for every single episode. After all, the “Tatort” is more a lose collection of 90-minute-long crime movies, and not a continuing TV series. But for Germans, it’s simply one of those things.

Sven Rudloff is a psychologist and producer of the German-language podcast about the United Kingdom, Viva Britannia.