German TV series has been on air for 38 years

BERLIN Teutonic TV movie “Tatort” (Scene of Crime) will notch its 700th episode in a 38-year run when it airs on pubcaster ARD on May 25.

“Even after so many episodes, there’s nothing old about ‘Tatort,’ ” ARD program director Dr. Guenter Struve says. “Its investigators are as close to reality now as they were then.”

An average 7.1 million viewers (20.6% share) tune in each Sunday to watch a format that hasn’t changed since the first film, “Taxi to Leipzig,” aired Nov. 29, 1970. Someone winds up dead within the first few minutes, and the case is wrapped over the following 90, commercial-free, minutes.

For favorite episodes, viewing figures are even higher; some 9.12 million (24% share) tuned in to “Red Death” on Jan. 28, and 8.46 million (22.7% share) armchair sleuths watched “Rest Gently” on March 18.

What keeps viewers coming back, Struve says, “are the tense stories that tackle current, often explosive, themes, sometimes provoke and occasionally even dare to be politically incorrect.”

That explosiveness recently sparked protests in front of Cologne-based pubcaster WDR when several thousand Alevis, a Turkish liberal Muslim minority, felt they had been falsely depicted.

It wasn’t that the killer was an Alevi, but rather that the motive involved incest, an accusation that often has been used by Sunni Muslims to mount hate campaigns against the Alevis — an obscure fact that escaped the due diligence and research of the “Tatort” team.

In a country where familiarity breeds security, there is strong identification with the now very household characters.

With ARD made up of regional pubcasters, each one gets to make its own “Tatort,” featuring its own detectives. These range from the Berlin odd couple of Hauptkommissars (chief detectives) Til Ritter (Dominic Raacke) and Felix Stark (Boris Alijinovic) to WDR’s odder couple of Hauptkommissar Frank Thiel (Axel Prahl) and forensic expert Prof. Karl-Friedrich Boerne (Jan Josef Liefers).

Kommissarin (detective) Lena Odenthal (Ulrike Folkerts) has been investigating on behalf of pubcaster SWR for 19 years, while her colleagues, Ivo Batic (Miro Nemec) and Udo Wachtveitl (Franz Leitmayr), over at Bayerischer Rundfunk, have been crimebusting for 17.

Austrian pubcaster ORF also makes an occasional contribution to the series.

Local accents, dialects and foibles are played up. Sabine Tettenborn, topper of Maran Film, which produces SWR’s “Tatort,” credits “the various locations for giving the series its special kick. We have three formats and cover Lake Constance, Stuttgart and Ludwigshafen. That’s a very broad range of rural and urban settings that we use to full advantage; as soon as anyone recognizes one, there’s this instant ‘A-ha!’ effect.”

As the 700th episode, “Death Penalty,” readies to air, Tettenborn notes, it’s impossible to imagine German television without ‘Tatort.’ “

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