08 November 2023

TATORT ("Crime Scene")

In my ongoing quest for something watchable, meaning a bingeable series – and preferably crime – I stumbled across Dresden Detectives, streaming on PBS Masterpiece.

Police procedural, of course, and (yes) German.  Not that much like an American or Brit show, though, even if the basic lineaments are familiar.  (I suspect that a goodly number of UK productions are made with an eye to export, to the US, or to Commonwealth countries, Australia and New Zealand, which return the favor.) In the case of Dresden Detectives, a crime occurs, and the cops show up, but after that, the rhythms shuffle and change pitch.  Not that it seems distinctly German, to my less-than-Europeanized ear and eye, but neither do they seem to be homogenizing it, or repackaging it for a different market. 

I noticed the same thing with Dahad, the Hindi cop show, and I liked the fact that it was unapologetically Indian in concept and execution.  These cross-cultural currents are interesting in and of themselves – although it obviously makes all the difference when the storyline, like Dahad, is compelling, as well.

Dresden Detectives is a team of two women, mid-thirties, working for Kripo, the equivalent of CID, who catch serious crime: the Murder Squad, essentially.  You get some domestic, single-mom stuff, but it’s mostly shop – more Barney Miller than Candice Renoir.  They work under an older, male supervisor, who’s stuck somewhere in the later Stone Age, which allows for some labored workplace chauvinism, played for laughs but unhappily unfunny, a trope that does feel German, to me.  My apologies, but I never got German cabaret humor; it always seemed underdone and overbearing, mockery at the expense of a captive audience.  On the other hand, the dynamic between the two women cops is quite genuine, sympathetic but competitive, a real sense of a work relationship that isn’t static.

As the series goes on, there’s thankfully less to the running joke that Schnabel, the senior cop, is a fool, or a Neanderthal.  The actor playing him was actually born in Dresden, in 1967, when it was still the DDR, East Germany.  The actresses who play the leads, in contrast, were both born in West Germany, but less than ten years before reunification.  Point being, that Schnabel, the character, would have spent his formative years – into his early twenties – under the East German regime of informers and toadies, and that’s when he would have joined the police.  This disconnect is a subtext to the show, any German viewer would realize it immediately and instinctively.

In other words, there’s a tension, here.  In spite of the lame office humor, and the more authentic shuck-and-jive going on between the two cops hitting the pavement, you can feel a kind of thickness in the air.  I don’t know how actually real the procedural stuff is.  I always thought German cops worked more hand-in-glove with prosecutors, and less independently, on the streets, but I could be wrong.  The cops also seem more diffident than I’d imagine they are in life, less sure of themselves.  Dramatic license?

Dresden Detectives is actually excerpted separate episodes from a larger, umbrella series called Tatort (or “Crime Scene,” in German), which has been running since 1970, if you can believe it.  This gives it longer legs by far than Law & Order, or even Gunsmoke, in this country.  Midsomer Murders, in the UK, has only been running since 1997, which makes it still in short pants. 

The overall conceit of Tatort is cop shows done on location in different German cities, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, West Berlin, Munich, and so on, produced by locals.  Everybody gets one, a dozen or more, and the locations themselves become a character in each story.  Austria and the German-language arm of Swiss TV got in on it, and it was a big enough hit that East Germany cloned it.  Now, since reunification, cities from the former East are part of the package, Dresden, Leipzig, and others.  At last count, there are some 1200 episodes of the show, and with a 90-minute runtime, they’re basically made-for-TV movies.

Dresden Detectives is running thirteen episodes on PBS Masterpiece, one of the Amazon Prime channels.  Tatort, the whole series, is available on MHz Choice, with Prime. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post, David! This is new to me. And I have to put this phrase of yours in my save file: "mockery at the expense of a captive audience" - this is how I've tried to explain where I see so much stand-up comedy going these days.


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