For the first time in a while, I had the time and leisure to watch Tatort last Sunday. From a dramatic perspective, The Forest is Black and Silent (a line from a German folk song) was OK, but from a sociological perspective, it was gripping. Mild spoiler alert!
The plot: Detective Lena Odenthal (Ulrike Folkerts) is called to the Palatinate Forest, Germany's largest national forest, to investigate a body found at the foot of a cliff. By the time she gets there, the body's mysteriously vanished. She descends the cliff to investigate, and is whacked on the head and taken hostage by a group of five young men. They're hiking around in the forest, wearing cheap outdoor gear, and don't seem to have much idea what they're doing. Things gets serious, though, when they steal Odenthal's service weapon and threaten her with it. At the same time as they're burying a corpse in a shallow grave.
The five young men are all juvenile delinquents with long records for theft, robbery, drugs or sexual abuse. They've been sent to a forest camp with military-style discipline for a last-ditch attempt at 'resocialization.' The camping trip they were on was a so-called AZOK exercise, the German acronym for 'everyone together or no-one'. It was supposed to teach them lessons about trust and solidarity, but Everything Went Horribly Wrong, and a few people died. However, as we later find out, one of the deaths was from natural causes, and the other was, perhaps, provoked.
Eventually, Odenthal's partner realizes she must have been kidnaped, finds out there was a troupe of juvenile delinquents in the area, and puts two and two together. He visits the group home and learns about the kidnapers' backgrounds: they all come from broken and/or violent homes, and lived in crumbling housing projects, surrounded by scenes of social decay. Some were beaten or sexually abused by relatives. As the kidnaping progresses, we also see that the five boys are not the dangerous psychopaths they seemed to be at first. One is a skeletal junkie, desperate for a high, who almost kills himself eating what he thinks are 'magic mushrooms'. Another suffers from night terrors and wets his pants. At the end, when the whole group is trying to cross a river to freedom, it emerges that most of them can't swim, so they have to be rescued by the very cops from whom they're fleeing. It turns out that the young hoodlums weren't the cold-blooded killers we were led to believe after all.
This Tatort was an unusually rich source of sociopedagogical (to directly translate a German word) edification. We learned, as an audience, that (1) social deprivation is a serious problem in Germany; (2) (apologies to Auden) those to whom violence is done do violence in return; (3) first impressions of dangerous-looking juvenile delinquents can be misleading; (4) even the most hardened-seeming thug is capable of acts of kindness or remorse; and (5) that nobody is permanently beyond redemption, and a humane state devotes considerable resources even to seemingly-hopeless cases.
So, a fine example of what I call pro-social propaganda. The world is not portrayed as it empirically is, but as it aspirationally ought to be. The desirability of the humane values that underlie the script is continuously signposted, so that even the less-sophisticated viewers will understand what to think. At the same time, though, the message isn't so blunt that it will completely turn off more sophisticated viewers. At least that was my verdict, and that of some German media (g). It is easy -- very easy -- to mock this sort of Gutmenschentum (roughly, bien-pensant tendentiousness), but at the same time, I can't help preferring it to the orgasms of mindless violent-crime voyeurism, torture, and gore* that splatter across American television screens on a nightly basis.
In America, this plot would have played out as follows: Odenthal is slowly raped to death by the sneering, soulless young superpredators while she begs for her life. Eventually, her professional and personal partner, Mario Kopper, finds her mangled remains. He drops to his knees, screams 'NEEEINNN'! (birds scatter from nearby trees), and vows vengeance. Kopper is forced to give up badge and gun because of obvious personal stake in investigation, runs off into forest, now being pursued by police himself. The hunters are now the hunted. For the remaining 80 minutes, Kopper tracks down each of the 5 juvenile criminals, killing them in a variety of creative ways: a brain-splattering crossbow bolt through the eye, slow strangulation, a spike-filled trap, giant rockslide. Many long, loving, suspiciously erotic shots of gurgling, twitching bodies in death throes. The final confrontation is on a precipice, where Kopper and the lone survivor fight a 10-minute duel before Kopper finally throws evil miscreant off the cliff. We watch as he falls, screaming in fear, then his body explodes into crimson goo on the rocks far below. 'You messed with the wrong Kopper, punk.'