My dad likes to Skype on Sunday. He’s in New York, six hours behind me, so this often puts our call into the early evening. This week I replied to his email of the subject line “Wanna Skype?” with a brief reply: “Anytime before 8:15pm my time.” So there we were, on Skype on Sunday evening when I said, “Ok, Dad. It’s 8:10. We are in the last five minutes of this conversation. ‘Cause Tatort starts in five. And now you’re going to ask me, ‘What is Tatort?'”
“What is Tatort?” my dad obligingly asked. So where shall I begin?
I told my dad that Tatort is like the German version of Law and Order, only better. But I said that because by now it was 8:11 and things were getting tense. The first rule of Tatort is that if you miss the beginning you will never, ever get caught up. But the fact is that Tatort is not like Law and Order, except in the sense that it is a Krimi, and that it often has rather famous actors. It is unlike Law and Order in all of the following ways, which essentially constitute its peculiar appeal:
1. Tatort is only on on Sunday night. Nothing else of any importance is on on Sunday night. It is on everywhere in Germany and Austria, on Sunday night, at 8:15pm, without fail. It is never pre-empted. It is never not there. It is an institution. It even still uses its opening music and graphic from the 1970s (and you can really tell).
2. Tatort does not have commercials and is an hour and a half long, making it more of a movie than a TV show. The crimes are complex, as are the characters, and the longer timeframe means that the narrative twists several times in the course of an episode. It is truly unpredictable, every week something entirely new.
3. Each week’s Tatort is set in a different city, with a different pair of Ermittler (investigators). There are around a dozen different teams, and they come from places ranging from Berlin to Dortmund to Frankfurt to (proud to say) Vienna. Each team has its own peculiar dynamic and range; some are male-female teams, some old-young teams, some male-male teams. The investigation unfolds according in part to the character of the team — but since you don’t see them every week, or even every month, you don’t get sick of them. And when your favorite team shows up in the previews for the next week, you jump up and down a little. If you’re that sort.
4. Importantly, because Tatort is not dubbed from English (unlike the ubiquitous episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds and Law and Order and The Mentalist and Life and….you get the idea), it is extraordinarily difficult for a person learning German to understand . The pace is different, the phrasing, the rhythm of the conversations — I can’t explain it, but Tatort is just much harder to follow than a dubbed American show. It is therefore my personal goal to get to the point where I can watch an entire Tatort through from beginning to end without needing help. Currently, watching it is more like wrestling a snake than watching TV. After every exchange I have to hurriedly demand that my spouse tell me what the hell they just said even as more talking is going on — because there are no commercials, and so no chance to catch up. It leaves me utterly exhausted. But it’s that good.
5. In Catholic Austria, where everything is closed on Sunday, Tatort is folded into the pace of life. There’s no shopping to be done, no hurrying around, nowhere to be. Sunday is a slow day. You go for a walk. You tidy up the house. You cook dinner early, and settle down to watch Tatort at 8:15. It’s like the America of my childhood. But in German. And with better dinner.
Next week’s Tatort will feature Til Schweiger, who is like the German version of Tom Cruise in that he’s very famous and very, very short, but not like Tom Cruise in that he’s a good actor and not insane. Christoph Waltz was even supposed to be a Tatort Kommissar at one time (he did one episode). (He also did an episode of Kommissar Rex, by the way.) But these all pale in comparison to what I consider to be, listed here in hierarchical order, the very best Tatort investigative teams:
#1 Team Vienna (Eisner and Fellner): This team combines a hilarious middle-aged female investigator with a grumpy old male one; they crack a lot of jokes and have a companionable relationship. He, Moritz Eisner, is totally deadpan. His partner, Bibi Fellner, has this long, incredibly expressive face. They’re adorable, and they go all over Austria, meaning they offer plenty of opportunity to hear dialects from Viennese to Tyrolean.
#2 Team Ludwigshafen (Odenthal and Kopper): To be honest, were it not for patriotism, I would make this my #1 team, entirely because of Ulrike Folkerts who plays Lena Odenthal. She’s fabulous. She’s gorgeous, gay in real life, and a terrific actress, with a loose-limbed physicality that’s very appealing. I like her German, too. Her partner, Kopper, speaks Italian, which is a bonus, and is a sort of greasy, hardened cop. They also have a great relationship — like Team Vienna, they’re both single, and buddies who occasionally crash at each other’s places. They’re adorable. Though none of this helps me understand where the hell Ludwigshafen might be, nor why they have so much crime there.
#3 Team Berlin (Ritter and Stark): Technically, it’s not a list until there are at least three things on it. So I’ll pick a third here — Ritter and Stark — entirely because it is so entertaining that they are men of similar age but around three feet apart in height. Stark is tiny, and Ritter is a lanky, slightly older guy who spends the entire episode looming above his partner. As far as I can tell this inherently comical element is never mentioned, which is refreshing. You would literally never see casting like this played this way on American television. Ever.
You there in America. Yes, you. You too can watch Tatort, on YouTube! But, um, it’s not dubbed into English. Best of luck with the German. It kicks my ass every week.