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Detective series ‘Tatort’: murders on Sundays

Some people like best of all to watch the programme on their sofa at home, while some watch it in the pub, and others organise events around the programmes. This happens not only in Germany, but all over the world. The ‘Tatort’ series on the German TV channel ARD at 8:15 pm on Sundays has become a ‘must see’ for fans of detective stories, ever since 1970 when Walter Richter became the first ‘Tatort’ detective inspector Paul Trimmel, taking a ‘Taxi to Leipzig’ (the title of the first episode).

Unlike many American crime stories with shootings every minute, today’s detectives on German TV always take things at a walking pace, talking constantly on their mobile phones. So the German series is calmer, but by no means less exciting. Since ‘Tatort’ was first broadcast, the producers have obviously oriented themselves more on the detective stories of successful English writers such as Agatha Christie – always with a restricted number of suspects, a single culprit and a lot of local atmosphere. Nowadays, however, even ‘Tatort’ on Sundays has more action, for example with the new Hamburg investigator Nick Tschiller, portrayed by the successful German actor Til Schweiger since March 2013.

Hard and fast rules for ‘Tatort’ on Sundays

As a rule, ‘Tatort’ has a team of investigators who track down criminals in a certain town or region. Sometimes members of the team also have private problems, and some of them are weird characters or have particular human faults or quirks. The team members often have a special relationship because they have been together for many years, but the relationship is not always one of friendship. For instance, the Tatort duo set in the German town of Münster consists of chief commissioner Frank Thiel and the pathologist Professor Karl-Friedrich Boerne, two personalities that could not be more different. Therefore they are constantly having ‘friendly digs’ at each other – and this special humour is very popular among viewers of the ‘Münster Tatort’.

An episode of ‘Tatort’ on Sunday has to last exactly 88 minutes – generally the first victim must die after five minutes, and there are rarely more than three deaths. The plots are up-to-date and realistic; the perpetrators and their victims are usually members of the lower to upper middle class. This is also the largest difference from the other German detective series – that is also very popular abroad – called ‘Derrick’: chief inspector Stephan Derrick, played by the actor Horst Tappert from 1973 to 1998, investigated almost exclusively in the smart suburbs of Munich and proved to the ‘better off’, in just under an hour, that crime simply doesn’t pay.

The German way, of getting closer and closer to the perpetrator rather quietly and almost imperceptibly, goes down especially well in Asian countries, but there are also dyed-in-the-wool ‘Tatort’ fans in Italy, France, Brazil and Africa. One factor enhancing the popularity of the detective series abroad is the Goethe-Institut, which regularly organises ‘Tatort’ evenings where the public join in guessing ‘who did it’ – and why.

Exceptions prove the rule

Of course, occaasionally there are exceptions to the golden rule. The actress Maria Furtwängler, for example, plays chief commissioner Charlotte Lindholm – but not in a team – she brings the criminals to justice single-handed in the German state of Lower Saxony. And the best known Tatort detective, Horst Schimanski (played by Götz George), has to be regarded as a separate phenomenon. The viewers always found Schimanski to be a rather rough-and-ready detective, hard on the outside and soft on the inside, and the character was so popular that he made it onto the cinema screen twice.

Several times the topic of a ‘Tatort’ episode was so explosive that the producers got their fingers burnt. In total there have been six episodes that were broadcast only once and then ‘locked away’ because they triggered a public outcry and in some cases even anonymous threats. One example was the episode entitled ‘Wem Ehre gebührt’ in 2007, in which the apparent suicide of a young Turkish woman growing up in the Alevi faith in Germany turns out to be a murder – perpetrated by her father. The Alevi community in Germany found this to be disparaging and publicly denounced the makers of ‘Tatort’ – with success.

‘Tatort’ detectives: who investigates where?

All the facts and figures about ‘Tatort’ on Sunday can be found on the ARD website (in German). The programme celebrated its 40th anniversary with its 781st episode ‘Wie einst Lilly’ on 28 November 2010. The detectives solving the most cases, i.e. over 60, are the Munich duo Ivo Batic und Franz Leitmayr (played by Miroslav Nemec and Udo Wachtveitl). In second place comes the ‘Tatort’ team from Ludwigshafen, and third place goes to ‘Tatort’ in Cologne.

A map of Germany of ‘who investigates where’ indicates precisely where the ‘Tatort’ detectives are hard at work. The overview of all current ‘Tatort’ commissioners shows that at present there are 21 teams (as of April 2013), including investigators in Berlin, Dortmund, Erfurt, Kiel, Leipzig, Münster, Stuttgart and Wiesbaden. Furthermore, ‘Tatort’ on Sundays is also occasionally set in Austria (chief inspector Moritz Eisner investigates in and around Vienna) or in Switzerland (with commissioner Reto Flückiger heading the ‘Leib und Leben’ department in Lucerne).

July 2013

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10 July 2013


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