My mother was from Austria, and it’s through her that I came to learn of the incredible Tatort TV series that has existed in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria since 1970. There’s nothing really comparable to Tatort in America, although CBS’s practice of setting up CSI franchises in different cities provides a starting point to an explanation, as does the revolving door of homicide detectives in Law & Order.
The basic idea of Tatort is that it’s a police procedural series that exists in roughly a dozen different German-speaking cities—all at the same time. So think of it as a dozen different series with different police protagonists, all of which use the same basic template. Berlin has its Kommissare (police detectives) who work for the Mordkommission (homicide department), and Hamburg has its Kommissare, and so do Munich and Cologne and Leipzig and Münster and Dortmund and on and on. If you shoot a handful of episodes every year in twelve different cities for 40 years in a row, eventually you’ll end up with quite a massive project, and sure enough, as of this writing they’re zeroing in on their thousandth episode.
Tatort means “scene of the crime,” and one of the central ideas of the series is to take that word Ort (place) very seriously. All episodes use a good deal of on-location shooting, so that viewers can really see the different cities in which the shows take place. In a more general way, it’s part of the series mandate for the shows of each city to have some regional spirit—as an example, the various regional accents one encounters in the different episodes are quite noticeable.
Every episode of Tatort is 90 minutes long, without commercial interruption, and a great many of them start with the discovery of a murder victim’s body and the associated crime scene/forensic palaver with which we’re all familiar. The running length is a mixed blessing: it allows the episodes to probe deeper than comparable American shows, but it’s a bit too long for what is ultimately a formulaic exercise, and I’m not the first to notice that many episodes tend to sag around the midway point. Still: if at its worst a Tatort episode would be on the level of any forgettable Kojak, at its best the episodes attain the same general excellence of something like The Silence of the Lambs.
For those who are interested in the series, Michael Kimmelman’s astute writeup, which appeared in The New York Times in 2009 is worth a read.
The 25th episode of Tatort aired on January 7, 1973: The episode was called Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße (“Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street”) The director was none other than that great American character Samuel Fuller, responsible for such masterworks as Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor, and the music was provided by a German outfit, credited as “The Can,” that just a few months before had released its fourth album, Ege Bamyasi.
The episode is set in Bonn and Cologne, mostly. I’ve watched the episode in full, and there’s no denying that it has a certain pulpy pizzazz—Fuller does know what he’s doing—but it’s not much more than a collection of espionage tropes jammed together without too much rhyme or reason. My knowledge of German didn’t enable me to follow the plot, so you shouldn’t worry too much about understanding it, either. A major character is named Charlie Umlaut, which is a tiny bit hilarious. Apparently the plot was inspired somewhat by the Profumo affair in the UK.
In the opening sequence viewers will hear the familiar strains of Can’s hit “Vitamin C,” which was also used to strong effect in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
More after the jump…