Tatort as After-School Special

There's an English phrase that always comes to my mind when I watch a particularly preachy episode of Tatort ("crime scene"), the weekly crime show that is a German institution. The phrase is "after-school special". An after-school special, was a TV show, usually a drama, that played at 4 pm or so, just as kids would come home from school. The scripts taught us kids to to tolerate all races; be proud of who we were; accept people who are different; be kind to the handicapped; avoid drugs, smoking, alcohol, and sex; not let strangers touch us "there"; and so on. The clip above gives you an idea of what we're dealing with (and, as an extra bonus, it features the title "The Boy who Drank Too Much"!).*

German publicly-financed television has a so-called Bildungsauftrag, roughly, "duty to educate". Now there's nothing wrong with requiring broadcasters who are financed by TV fees to provide educational programming. The talk shows and documentaries you see on regular German television -- as much as we might mock them -- are streets ahead of anything on American TV. The show Titel Thesen Temperamente (g) which runs every Sunday on the main German broadcast station, shows a fantastic dog's breakfast of 8-10 minute long clips about everything from jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani to discrimination against homosexuals in Turkey to Tiken Jah Fakoly (including a tour of his home and studio in Bamako, Mali), to anti-right-wing activists to Werner Herzog's new films to the Nazi past of the Alpine climbing group. Just about every one of these segments would have been deemed too controversial/hifalutin/boring/full of non-Americans for any of the 500 channels of American television. Except the stuff about Nazis, of course. Nazis always sell.

The problem is that this duty to educate often seeps into the dramas. Tatort, nominally a crime thriller, often reeks of after-school special. Frank Junghänel provides an example (g) in the Frankfurter Rundschau (my translation):

The problem is often the stories...they always have to be relevant. If there's a case from the 'beekeeper milieu', we're guaranteed to find out that the bees ate some genetically-modified rapeseed. Then the detectives will spontaneously discuss the dangers of adulterated honey, [Detective] Freddy Schenk will wring his hands over his granddaughter's future, and, at the end, the pharmaceutical industry will be outed as the villain, having sponsored experiments with rapeseed...

These after-school-special theme episodes are rarely highlights. But Tatort produders want to remain true to their mission to educate the public. "I'm trying to motivate the screenwriters to be more flexible with their narrative structures", says Tönsmann. "The theme should develop from the story, not be imposed beforehand." Screenwriters tend to want to explain too much. "We want to reduce the didactic element." At home, he likes to watch DVD series such as "The Wire." It plays in Baltimore, and shows police mostly at work.

The article goes through an entire laundry list of weaknesses in Tatort scripts: the sensitive would-be literati who write them have no idea about real police work, the situations are often ludicrously exaggerated, the characters make implausibly long and well-organized speeches, didacticism makes things boring and predictable, the same targets get whacked again and again. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the after-school special in the USA was designed for teenagers, while Tatort, broadcast on Sunday night, is watched (mostly) by adults.

Which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the people who write for German public TV stations think of their audience as largish children still in need of moral instruction. According to Tatort, adult Germans need to be taught that neo-fascists are bad, asylum seekers/transvestites/nonconformist teenagers are misunderstood and unjustly persecuted, corporations (especially pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations) are evil, sexual abuse destroys lives, yet even pedophiles deserve a second chance, vengeance is always an wrong, Eastern European crime gangs and their rich German customers exploit women, your cheap clothes come from stinking sweatshops, etc.*

As Junghänel's article shows, there are some producers and writers for Tatort who are aware of the after-school special problem. The mention of The Wire is promising: High-end American TV has recently gotten very good indeed at Balzacian realism, and The Wire is among the best shows ever made. It's based on careful observation of reality, and its writers generally let the chips fall where they may: if a scene was logical and right, it got shot, regardless of whether it might have happened to confound or confirm a stereotype.

An example: one character, Kima Greggs, is a detective who -- even though she's a a gay black woman -- is not shown to be unusually noble, self-sacrificing, or wise. She's out on patrol when a bunch of mostly-white officers are arresting some black men, and one of them turns around and assaults a cop. Big mistake. A cluster of uniforms surrounds the hapless arrestee, beating the living crap out of him. Greggs runs over to the scene. Does she deliver a lecture on racial tolerance or police brutality to the beefy white cops? No, she joins in -- because a good cop always protects fellow officers, and that includes making sure anybody who attacks a cop lives to regret it. And of course there's no disciplinary proceeding, because (a) the guy really was resisting arrest, and (b) nobody's going to snitch. This would be the point at which a robot programmed with politically-correct Tatort episodes would begin shrieking "does not compute" and finally explode in a shower of sparks. Good riddance.

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Germany as Elegant Senior Residence for Forgotten Anglo Pop Stars, Part XVI

Remember Kim Wilde? I didn't think so.

But I do! Granted, it's not much of a memory, really nothing more than a hazy recollection of hearing one of her last pop hits on the FM radio of my Toyota Corolla in 1985. Since then, nobody in the English-speaking world has paid the slightest attention to Wilde. Allmusic devotes precisely one sentence to her later career: "Wilde continued to record in the '90s, scoring the occasional hit, either in the dance or adult contemporary field." You can almost hear the author filing his fingernails and yawning.

Needless to say, if the Anglo world has forgotten about a pop star, this is the cue for Germans -- with their charming loyalty to faded relics of pop-music history -- to step in and save the day. And lo, Wilde just played a concert in a large venue in Frankfurt, Germany, and the concert was actually reviewed in one of Germany's leading newspapers (g)! And Wilde was joined on stage by members of -- wait for it -- Kajagoogoo and Alphaville!

The Irony Gap

Yes, yes, there are many Germans who are quick-witted and attuned to the joys of absurd, free-floating irony. And more with every passing generation!

Yet the awkward fact fact remains that the standard normal distribution of irony appreciation among the entirety of German society peaks significantly to the left of where it peaks in the Anglosphere. You have your functioning social welfare system, your quality newspapers, your hundreds of museums and opera houses, and your world-famous consumer products. But we are, on average, more entertaining. The evidence is all around you. The most popular German comedians (no, not the cabaret people, we're talking Paul Panzer, Mario Barth, Ätze Schröder, Hape Kekerling) still feel the need to wear "WACKY COSTUMES!" to elicit laughs. The German imitation of The Office features a boss who is just an asshole -- entirely missing the point of the original series. A comment which would be immediately understood as a harmless jape by even the dullest Englishman often elicits, in Germany, a confused look and the slightly menacing response: "Willste mich damit verarschen, oder was?" (Are you making fun of me?).

I hate to have to pour salt in this would yet again, but it was just brought home to me by the reviews of these public telephones on Immobilienscout.de. Immobilienscout is a website that allows people to review apartments and buildings and such. For some reason, it has an entry for two public telephones near where I live:

There are only two reviews of these public telephones. One, from 2007, notes: "These telephones are located to the left of the post office." The other, from 2010, observes: "good for people who want to make a call but don't have a mobile phone." The second reviewer also notes that he "recommends" this place.

Pitiful. The opportunity for a Tuscan Whole Milk-style orgy of webby jouissance goes completely unrealized.

We could start one, of course, but does anyone doubt that if that happened, Immobilienscout.de would immediately erase the page?

ZDF's Pathetic Lowbrow Cultural Vandalism

A while ago, I posted this ad for Mad Men that I saw at a local train station:

Mad Men Ad
The tag line translates: "Behind Every Successful Woman Stands a Man Who's Staring at her Ass." It's the ad campaign for the American television series Mad Men, which has been bought by ZDF Neo (g), a branch of one of Germany's two main public-broadcasting channels.

Now, back when I saw this poster, I hadn't watched Mad Men, although it had been recommended to me by people whose taste I trusted. Cohu, in comments, pointed out that the entire premise of the ad campaign was wrong. Boy, was she right.

The two characters shown in the poster are Don Draper, the series' main figure and creative director of a Madison Avenue advertising firm, and Rachel Menken, the owner of a New York department store. They have a brief romance during the show's first season, while Don's firm is wooing her as a client.

Let me count the ways in which this ad is cultural vandalism:

  1. It completely distorts the relation between the two characters. First of all, Don Draper although a womanizer of the highest order, doesn't "stare" at women's "asses". His manners are too refined for that. This is not to say that he's an enlightened, sensitive 90s man (Thank God) -- the series is set in the early 60s. But he generally treats women with respect. In fact, Draper punishes underlings for stupid sexist comments, perhaps more for the stupidity than the sexism, and recognizes talent in female subordinates. Menken, for that matter, is Don's equal in all things, and he treats her as such.
  2. The pointless vulgarity. One of the intriguing things about Mad Men is the fact that its past is a different country. There are no cute, winking anachronisms. Although the characters' attitudes toward women and minorities are more cliched than they would be today, their manners are more polished. People dress formally, use the subjunctive, help the ladies with their coats, speak in complete sentences, and use appropriate greetings and goodbyes. This is what makes the alcohol-fueled lapses in decorum so pleasantly shocking: when one character says "fuck" (which happens a grand total of once in the series), the other characters react as if they'd just been slapped. So the whole snarky talk of staring at asses -- doubtless conceived by some insufferable young German ad-man who sprinkles his business-jargon with the English word "edgy" -- is completely out of place.
  3. It sells the series as lowbrow for no reason. God knows, the German television landscape is full of lowbrow (g) shtick complete with ass-staring jokes. But Mad Men isn't lowbrow, it's high-middlebrow. (This is, by the way, the level of brow that Germany seems to be incapable of producing itself). People who tune in looking for crude humor are going to be quickly disappointed, and will tune out after 20 minutes. Why is attracting a blip of attention from fans of fart jokes worth vulgarizing and caricaturing the very artistic product you're promoting?
  4. It's worse than a crime, it's a mistake. The ad shows the condescending amateurism that you so often see in the German media. As Cohu pointed out, nobody who had watched even one episode of the series would have approved this marketing approach. Unless, of course, they just didn't care. Which, obviously, they didn't. I mean, why bother actually coming up with a stylish, witty ad campaign for the series? It'll just go over the heads of the stupid couch potatoes we "serve"...

Now, don't get me wrong. Sponsoring this stupid ad for Mad Men is not taking a hammer to the Pieta. Mad Men is not a timeless masterpiece, it's more like a Trollope novel. But it is damn good television, and this ad completely disrespects that fact. Perhaps if Germans began actually taking well-made high-middlebrow television seriously, they'd finally be able to create some of their own...

All the 'Tatort' Cliches...

...in one handy list here (g), from secretaries with funny regional accents to fat men eating sausage in front of a river to boarding schools full of scheming scions of wealth neglected by their rich parents. As with so many aspects of German life, the appeal of Tatort lies not in the fact that it's entertaining and original, but precisely in that it's comforting and familiar.

This cultural trait also makes the writer's job much easier. Coming up with original ideas (especially in a decades-old series) is risky, and beyond the capacity of many people. But churning out familiar variations on well-worn themes is child's play. Come to think of it, I'm sure you could take this list and program a computer to write perfectly serviceable Tatort scripts. Hmm, that gives me an idea...

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Falco's Grave, by Popular Demand

To us in the Anglo-Saxonsphere, Falco (Johann Hölzel) is but a footnote. He created some catchy,  original hits in the 1980s, but then seemed to fade away, like an Austrian 'Flock of Seagulls'.

But when you visit Austria, you're on the other side of the cultural telescope. Falco is still, twelve years after his death, a beloved icon. One reason is that he was one of the few German speakers capable of performing pop music that people in other countries voluntarily paid money to listen to in their private homes. Another reason is that he made the rest of the world notice Austria for benign reasons (unlike the controversial twentieth-century statesmen* or surgically-retouched crypto-homosexual neo-fascist).

So it will come as no surprise that Falco is buried in the 'Grove of Honor' (Ehrenhain) of Vienna's Central Cemetery, next to renowned composers, professors, and scientists. Here's what it looks like:

Grave of Falco

The grave is a place of pilgrimage -- in fact, you see the shadows of two Falco admirers in the picture. Here are some of the offerings:

Offerings at Falco's Grave

A bonus grave, György Ligeti:

Grave of Ligeti

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Firing Someone's Easier in Latin

One of the quainter sides to life in Germany is the fact that large numbers of schoolchildren (about 10%, according to recent figures) learn Latin in school. But what's even quainter is the reaction foreigners get when they praise this adorable throwback of German educational culture: "No, no, it's not impractical at all! It teaches you logical thinking and helps you learn Romance languages. It helps you in the real world!"

The FAZ decided to test this argument by surveying German companies (g). No, really -- they did! The results (my translation):

A survey by this newspaper to which 22 of 30 DAX-listed businesses responded showed: 95 percent of the firms no longer see Latin as a formal selection criterion for applicants. In only one firm -- Bayer -- were we told that knowledge of Latin might be advantageous for certain selected positions. None of the HR departments said that knowledge of Latin would be the decisive factor in not picking an applicant. In some firms, the question of how useful Latin would be for employees gave rise to a certain amount of amusement.

Well, I suppose that's hardly unexpected. But I hope this doesn't mean kids will stop learning Latin. It's one of the adorable sleepy-village/1950s aspects of Germany that makes life here so charming!

Finnish national radio's Nuntii Latini (news in Latin) page is here, a recent 5-minute audio podcast in Latin is here.

Italy's Doughnut Hole

Perry Anderson, one of the most astute commenters on Italy, on the emergence of that country's doughnut-hole cultural landscape:

The case of the cinema, where Italy had above all excelled after the war, can be taken as emblematic. There was no relay of the generation of great directors – Rossellini, Visconti, Antonioni – who had made their debut in the 1940s or early 1950s, and whose last important works cluster in the early 1960s. Missing thereafter was any combustible crossing of avant-garde with popular forms to compare with Godard in France or Fassbinder in Germany; later on, only the weak brew of Nanni Moretti. The result was a gap so large between educated and popular sensibilities that the country was left more or less defenceless against the cultural counter-revolution of Berlusconi’s television empire, saturating the popular imaginary with a tidal wave of the crassest idiocies and fantasies – schlock so wretched the very term would be too kind for them.

Tomorrow's Commentary Today

Over at the American monthly magazine The Atlantic, resident blogger Marc Ambinder noticed something a little familiar about the cover of this week's Der Spiegel


Namely, that it's rather reminiscent of the cover of an Atlantic magazine cover from a few months ago:


The Atlantic, for those of you who don't already know, is an American monthly magazine of centrist news and commentary. They also have plenty of online features, including political and policy blogs that are usually worth reading.

A German Joys reader who also follows The Atlantic's website closely has repeatedly pointed me to German mainstream-media commentary and analysis that seems, shall we say, to have been influenced by The Atlantic. This reader's theory is that German journalists who are staring deadlines in the face know they can safely crib ideas from The Atlantic, since (1) it's non-controversial and has a solid reputation; and (2) the risk of being discovered is minimal, since The Atlantic is less well-known in Europe than, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post. This reader continues:

During the primary campaign, I noticed that the German columnists Pitzke, Schmitz and Steingart (even though he’s so sour, he would only refer to things from a lofty perch of European condescension and ate his words, sort of, when Obama ended up as the winner) almost always picked up on Atlantic themes about two days after any particular event of significance (primary, speech, absurd scandal, etc.) had taken place.

First, the Spiegel had the “this is what happened” coverage, then a day later, the sometimes thoughtful analysis. In preparing that, they more consistently relied on consensus established by the Atlantic than any other magazine of that nature that I read. Maybe they’ve pinned the Atlantic as commentary that is most on message for their readership. Maybe they just think it’s a reliable bet, seeing as only a few thousand people in this country have ever heard of the site.

To forestall tiresome discussions, let me make clear that I am not accusing anyone or any organization of wrongdoing. This sort of thing goes on in journalism all the time, and is not necessarily a problem, as long as it's acknowledged and credit is given where due. I'm just pointing out an interesting pattern...

Georg Diez on Provincial German Books and Movies

Georg Diez (g), in an article called "Be Popular!" endorses a version of the doughnut-hole theory in the literature section of this week's Die Zeit.  It's not online, so you'll just have to trust my summary and translated excerpts.  Diez begins by noting that Clemens Meyer just won the German Book Prize at the Leipzig book fair. "German literature," Diez begins sarcastically, "how nice! How wonderful!" Everyone's praising each other after the book fair, but, Diez observes, nobody seems to have noticed "how small, how narrow, how provincial is the country that they're talking about -- and, unfortunately, often also the stories that are told here."

Nobody seems to want to film these boring German books. Things are different in the U.S.  Diez points to No Country for Old Men (based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy) and There Will Be Blood (Upton Sinclair) as examples. (I'd add to his list Into the Wild, Sean Penn's fine film of a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer).  On the surface, these movies might deal with life in the provinces or suburbs, but they also contain fierce and uncomfortable truths -- "the whole cosmos," in Diez's words. 

Why, he asks, "doesn't one find in German books this power, this reality, these depths, this consistency and toughness and truth, that could tempt filmmakers -- and, conversely, why don't German filmmakers search for these epic worlds[?]" He continues:

Something's missing, still today. Something that's only approximately described by the word 'reality.' On the one hand, there's the will toward popular success, to telling stories, to being understood; and on the other hand the energy that's released when differing realities collide with one another, twist each other, when injuries result, comfortable truths are torn apart, and the way down to the bottom of the abyss is laid bare, the bottom that, if you follow McCarthy, is dark and heavy -- the stuff of myths. There has to be an end to the constant 'small-small'* in our heads.

Instead of filming epic stories, Diez complains, Germans are "seriously discussing Clemens Meyer's new hairstyle."

I'm with Diez on this one.  You don't have to like all these movies, or admire everything about Hollywood (note that none of the movies Diez praises was a straight Hollywood production), to notice the difference in ambition Diez is talking about here.  I've seen plenty of recent German movies and reviewed quite a few in these pages.  Some of them were just plain dull, some of them were reasonably interesting, but none really stuck with me, except for The Lives of Others and On the Other Side.

I think there's something else at work here, besides the lack of exciting novels.  Note that the category Diez accuses Germany of underperforming in is movies that are both artsy and exciting.  Germany produces plenty of mass-market comedies and dramas for just plain folks.  The problem is that movies that are supposed to tackle 'ambitious' themes often turn out so dreary.

People in the German film industry tell me there's a norming process that controls access to German film subsidies.  Directors have to convince committees of tastemakers to fund their projects.  The filmmakers themselves, and the tastemakers, have strong preferences and prejudices.  They consider themselves proudly allergic to "Hollywood" -- which they associate with Ken and Barbie actors, canned happy endings, staged dramatic confrontations, stereotyped confrontations between good and evil, unnecessary explosions, action-movie cliches, etc.  They're looking for interpersonal drama, for social commentary, for moral ambiguity -- "anti-Hollywood" qualities.  In fact, I've personally seen film scripts that have come back to aspiring directors with passages marked "too Hollywood."

The problem, according to my sources, is that a lot of these tastemakers and directors eventually come to stamp the dreaded "Hollywood" label on any enhanced storytelling technique -- such as suspense, or a happy ending, or a voice-over.  Endings in which everything turns out basically OK will be choppped and replaced with ambiguous fade-outs.  Pleasant, likable characters who we're supposed to identify with will be criticized as too "one-sided" or "subjective."  Humor that's considered too broad (by stuffy Bildungsbuerger) will be squelched.  The end result of this process is films that end up bland and wishy-washy even when they're supposed to be provocative.

And which play in art-house theatres for 5 weeks, get polite and respectful reviews, and disappear forever.

* The original is "Es geht um ein Ende des ewigen Klein-Klein in den Koepfen."  I've translated it pretty much literally, but I get the idea I'm missing some allusion here.  Little help?