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The phenomenon that is Tatort

Into its fifth decade, Germany’s most successful ‘Krimi’ is still going strong, says Susanne Pleines.

When I was little, I witnessed a crime: I saw a man shielding his eyes from the glaring headlights of a car, I saw his legs running in a dark alleyway, I even saw the rifle scope zero in on the victim. All of this was over in a flash but I just cannot forget it. It took me weeks to be able to sleep through the night again,  months to feel safe in our house and years to realise that all I had seen was the opening credits to one of Germany’s most successful television crime series: Tatort!

Tatort is now in its 5th decade and as popular as ever. Part of that success is down to its localisation, for each episode is set in a different part of the country, as each of the  regional TV channels of Germany’s ARD make stand-alones with their own resident investigators. Even Austria’s ORF and Switzerland’s  SF pitch in every now and again, with their own versions. It is this local colour – the chance to see your own neighbourhood in lights – that gives each broadcast its individual character.

The storylines are incredibly realistic and transcend social classes and conflicts, never shy of covering contentious issues such as migration, organised crime, sex trafficking, slum landlords or child pornography. In fact, Tatort has given rise to a new genre, informing the public about simmering social problems in an entertaining and gripping way.

Some of the investigators have become cult, too. Leading the ranks is the much loved Götz George as Kommissar Schimanski. He was definitely working class and made no bones about it: nobody will ever forget him eating two raw eggs for breakfast because there were no clean cooking utensils in his kitchen… A messy policeman, what a scandal! Still, it didn’t do his popularity any harm: aged 75, he was hauled out of retirement recently to solve his 30th case.

The series has been the launchpad for many an international career, too. Not least Nastassja Kinski (Paris, Texas) who shot to stardom in Reifezeugnis, a 1977 Tatort about the sexual relationship between a teacher and his pupil. Some of Tatort’s title songs also became overnight hit sensations in Germany and I remember humming Against the Wind by our very own Bonnie Tyler for months.

Tatort is one of the most successful series on German television, ever. Whilst audience ratings of up to 25 million viewers are a thing of the past, it still packs quite a punch with an average of seven million every Sunday night. And the opening credits? Fifty years and more than 880 episodes on, the sequence has only changed minimally and it still scares me to death…


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