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Tag: TV

You guys! Tatort is American (sort of)

There comes a point in the timeline of every ex-pat in Germany when they discover the TV crime series Tatort (crime scene) and think they’ve discovered a window into the Teutonic soul – some friends even do an English-language version.

For me, it was because television is culture in the U.S. and I made the false assumption that it is in Germany as well. But I’ve since realized that I hadn’t so much discovered a window into the German soul as a long lost cousin; The child of Aunt Doris who fell in love with a German philosophy student while doing her Fullbright at Cambridge and then moved to Bergisch Gladbach and got married.

You guys, Tatort has American roots.

Bear with me.

American Tatort
I have no idea where this pic came from.

Back when I first moved to Germany, there wasn’t even streaming video let alone Youtube and Netflix. Apps? What? So what you did in those dark days during moments of boredom was watch whatever was on TV.

Can you imagine? And not much was on TV because Germany thought it had cable TV but it didn’t really. We’re talking like 10 channels, maybe 12, one of which was NBC Europe, which was just Dateline re-runs.

One evening I stumbled into this goofy, black-and-white crime drama based in Hamburg. The caper itself seemed as oddly familiar as did the setup: Dry voiceovers alongside about 22 minutes of show. It was so familiar, I felt like that time I ran into my professor at a Bruce Springsteen concert — I couldn’t figure out where I knew that man from, or why I was at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

When the TV show ended I watched the credits and the title of the series and thought, “Stahlnetz (steel net)? I’ve never watched Stahlnetz.” A beat later I realized I’d just watched the German version of Dragnet, a childhood fave (back when the U.S. didn’t even have cable TV). They’d just translated the scripts.

The next time I caught it I discovered it even used the same theme music but lacked the subtle dry humor of lead character Joe Friday. Stahlnetz was huge in Germany, kind of like how Dragnet was in the U.S., and ran from 1958 to 1968 (and again briefly in the ‘90s) and it spawned additional crime shows.

When the series ended, regional public broadcaster WDR wanted a replacement and Tatort father Gunther Witte came up with the genius idea of basing each episode in a different German city – and allowing the regional broadcaster in that city to produce the episode. Tatort’s been on the air since 1970.

The constantly changing locations gives the series a varied texture and anthology feel but, more importantly, spreads out production costs.

The creative head behind Stahlnetz, Jürgen Roland, actually directed a number of Tatorts but died in 2007Tatort’s Witte is still around.

Tatort might not be the porthole to the German psyche I once believed it to be but I’ve since found a glimpse of the inner workings of my Teutonic friends (and family): Wetten, Dass …. (I bet …)

Perhaps in a sign of the complexity of the German soul, I’ve never been able to comprehend the show. And if it has American roots, I don’t want to know about them.

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Die Sendung mit der Maus

The death of German TV show star Peter Lustig this month got me thinking about German kids’ programming. Lustig’s show, Löwenzahn (Dandelion), was based around Peter’s character, an old man, living alone in a wagon without a bathroom. He seemed pretty clean for a guy who could never brush his teeth or go number two.

The show might have once explained how it worked. It’s Germany. They happily talk about things like that.

Die Sendung mit der Maus
Photo thanks Christliches Medienmagazin pro via Creative Commons

But Löwenzahn is Germany’s second-best kids show (there’s a new, younger guy living and not pooping in the wagon these days). Well, to me second-best but I only ever watched these shows as an adult. The best one is a show that actually has no name, just a description, which always leads to a who’s-on-first discussion in my head.

“What are you kids watching?”

“The show with the mouse.”

“Oh, Disney or Tom and Jerry?”

“No, the show with the mouse.”

“Disney or Tom and Jerry?”

“NO! THE SHOW WITH THE MOUSE!”

It’s true: Germany’s best kids show is called Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Show with the Mouse). I guess the producers were too busy making great TV to come up with a title. The show is exactly as old as my wife and has never changed, like Ron Swanson.

Die Sendung mit der Maus

The show is essentially about how things get made, like jeans, tea bags or nuclear reactors. You know, everyday items. It’s explained in several segments that are divided up so said mouse – an orange cartoon rodent – can appear between segments to do something goofy related to the day’s topic. He’s often joined by a hapless blue elephant.

Which brings up the quandary of why it’s not called the show with the mouse and the elephant.

It’s because the elephant has a crappy agent, that’s why. I would fire that agent if he were my agent

That simple formula has spawned a TV show that’s been on for over four decades. It’s great because you learn something and then, after learning it, you get to take a little pause and think about it while a blue elephant accidentally blows himself up or a mouse tries on a pair of jeans. Really!

Check it out! The Show with the Mouse in English!

It’s on every Sunday morning and maybe explains why religion and God are on their way out in Germany: Everyone is too busy watching the show with a description for a title rather than trying to figure out how Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God are all one god. Maybe the show with the mouse should tackle that one. I’d be a little nervous about the related mouse animations though.

The most tension in the Sendung mit der Maus comes at the beginning when they give a synopsis of the coming episode in German and an unknown language. Children (and adults) throughout Germany start screaming languages at the screen like insults –“Finnish! Japanese! Schwarzenegger-ish!” – until the language is announced.

“I knew it was Greek. I just didn’t feel like saying anything,” dads across the country then say.

I don’t know if Peter Lustig’s Löwenzahn and Sendung mit der Maus ever met. But it would be great if one Maus episode would explain to me how an old guy lived alone in a trailer without a bathroom.

I’ve wondered that my entire adult life.

 

 

 

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My Own Private Deutschland 83

Do you know what they call really good TV in America? TV.

Do you know what they call it in Germany? Qualitätsfernsehen. Quality TV. Already it sounds uninteresting. But don’t worry, there isn’t much of it, which is something worrying Germany’s television producers.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great German TV. Most of it Scandinavian: The Killing. The Bridge. And that tubby Wallander guy.

Foto thanks UFA Fiction.
Foto thanks UFA Fiction.

 

Part of it’s the country’s creatively stagnant public TV infrastructure, which skews toward retirees, but it’s also because of the country’s taste for character (Klaus Kinski anyone?) over story.

When The Wire got huge in the U.S., suddenly a mini-series called Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (The Face of the Crime) appeared and it was pretty great, if only because it showcased neighborhoods and a corner of Berlin rarely acknowledged.

But with the success of things like Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Girls, Germany’s TV production companies are trying to bring out more Qualitätsfernsehen – and snag some of that production $$$. And they’re succeeding, sort of. Im Angesicht des Verbrechens was a good start. Then there’s Weissensee, about a sometimes-ignored suburb of Berlin (and the former East Berlin). And now Deutschland 83.

What’s it about (for anyone who hasn’t seen it)? Germany in 1983, dummkopf. More specifically, an East German spy in Bonn for a couple of key days.

And it’s pretty great. We binge-watched it over Christmas and it’s got everything I love about Cold War Germany: the Stasi. American generals. Mean Russians and clownish East German officials. Deutschland 83 even picked up the American Qualitätsfernsehen habit of ending on a tune – usually some New Wave ditty.

But just like how much of the best German TV is Scandinavian, Deutschland 83 is conceived pretty much by an American: Berlin novelist Anna Winger and her German husband. Acquaintance and fellow American journalist Ralph Martin even wrote an episode (private to Ralph: nice job on the brothel!).

It’s like the executives at broadcaster RTL were so panicked by the American TV invasion they couldn’t even trust their local heroes. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The show is a hit abroad and a yawner at home.

I’m not surprised. RTL’s audience rarely has an attention span longer than the word Qualitätsfernsehen. And, anyway, everything us aging Americans and Brits love about Cold War Germany has been done more times than a Hasselhoff gag in Germany. They lived it. Some subtleties are bound to go missing.

But the question now is, will there be a Deutschland 1984? I hope so! And hats off to RTL for making it easy to watch the German-language version from rainy Portland, Oregon for a laughable $0.99 an episode (otherwise I would have just stolen it from some dodgy Russian site).

I’d love if Qualitätsfernsehen became Fernsehen.

 

 

 

 

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