A Very Special Socialpedagogical Tatort Episode

ok, ok, i'll vote for the pirate party! i mean, couldn't you have just given me a freaking pamphlet?

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.'


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The Danube's Dumbest Detectives

I learned an important thing from yesterday's Tatort: the city of Vienna recruits its police by grabbing up a random group of high-school dropouts, providing them no training whatsoever, promising them a lifetime job with no accountability, giving them weapons and badges and uniforms, then shoving them out the door.

How else can you explain the mind-breaking incompetence displayed by last night's Tatort detectives? Here's how the episode starts: A former member of a bloodthirsty Serbian-nationalist paramilitary unit deserts and goes underground in Vienna. Years later, his former comrades discover his new identity, and send a team out to kill him. (They think he might spill the beans about the group's atrocities). The Serb deserter drives a van for a local cleaning company, and is supposed to be picking up a cleaning crew at a local mall. The killers shoot the van driver. They realize too late that they killed the wrong person -- the Serb called in sick, and a 23-year-old student was sent as his replacement.

The Vienna Tatort investigators, Moritz Eisner and Bibi Fellner, show up the next morning. A cleaning woman saw the entire crime. Do they conduct a formal debriefing and create sketches of the two killers? No, they extract a few generalities from the woman and let her go. Then they find out that the victim of the crime was a last-minute replacement for the regular driver, which obviously might mean that the regular driver was the intended victim of this carefully-planned attack.

So do they rush to the intended victim's apartment, radioing ahead for assistance?

No, they don't. They don't even call the potential victim to tell him of the mortal danger he is in. Instead, caring shiksa-yenta Bibi takes Moritz, who's sick with the flu, to her favorite cafe to force some sort of disgusting garlic-based home remedy on him. While they are thus sitting around with their thumbs up their arses, bantering about flu remedies, the killers in fact do go to the van driver's apartment and almost nail him.

But we are just at the beginning a barrage of idiocy. The van driver and his family are put into a heavily-guarded safe house. The Serbians find out where the house is, raid it, and murder 10 cops. Two of the Serbians escape in a black car. They are stopped at a traffic checkpoint. A female cop begins asking them questions, and just as she does, her male partner yells across to her that an all-points-bulletin has just been put out for two men. She realizes the two men fit the description. But, since the other cop yelled it out to her, so do the two men themselves. One of them shoots the female cop and they both drive away. The male cop fires a few ineffectual shots at the departing car, and then complains remorsefully that he got his partner killed. Arriving on the scene, the two Tatort detectives reassure the despondent traffic cop that's not true. But they're wrong -- he did, of course, just get his partner killed, by stupidly sharing extremely sensitive information with potential suspects. Presumably the clueless Tatort detectives are reassuring him because they would have made the same bone-headed move themselves.

A little while later, Bibi and Moritz, these two Kakanian Clouseaus, find out that the mastermind of the massacre at the safe house frequents a local Serbian hangout called Maxi. For some unknowable reason, the Serbian assassin visits this place shortly after the crime even though he knows it's on the police's radar screen, since they visited once before to search for suspects when he was there. (The only thing that rescues the cops is the equal stupidity of the suspects). Bibi and Moritz stake out the cafe, alone, and see the man go in.

Keep in mind that this man (1) has access to advanced weapons; (2) is a trained military assassin with hundreds of murders under his belt; (3) is entering a cafe filled with well-armed comrades and fellow travelers; and (4) has just committed the bloodiest massacre of Austrian law enforcement officers since 1945. Despite all this, the two Tatort chuckleheads decide to rush in after him by themselves, armed only with handguns! No reinforcements, no securing the perimeter, no surveillance, nothing! Are there are no other cops in Vienna? (Perhaps they were all killed at the safe house). The two detectives barge in, and ludicrously implausible hi-jinks ensue.

I could list many other howlers, but mercy bids me hold my tongue. What we saw yesterday is the first Tatort episode which is also inadvertently a Police Academy movie (Police Academy 9: Dipshits on the Danube). I can only conclude that the writers of this episode have a grudge against Austrian law enforcement. If I were the Austrian police, I would sue everyone involved in this episode for insult (Beleidigung, Section 115 of the Austrian Penal Code).

The Mystery of the Misunderstood Molester

It's never the child molester.
Yesterday's Tatort (g), "Kidnapped", was a creepy psychosexual affair which dealt with someone who kept little girls locked away in a basement for years, but never touched them sexually (which makes his behavior even creepier). Instead, he created a bizarre subterranean concentration-camp scenario, where the girls were forced to constantly wash and clean their bare-metal chambers in return for water and food. There were a number of nice touches, including the fact that the perpetrator's house had framed 'family' photos on the wall which were, in fact, pictures of himself, and some pretty breathtaking dolly-style shots vertically downward into the earth, to show us how far underground the secret chamber was. I've never been a huge fan of the Saarbrücken investigators as personalities, but they were pretty good in this one. And, of course, one can't overlook the enchanting Lale Yavas as the coroner, Dr. Rhea Singh.

This Tatort also marked the re-appearance of a stock Tatort staple every bit as familiar as a commedia dell'arte character*: the Misunderstood Molester. After one of the abducted girls escapes, triggering a girlhunt for the remaining abductees, suspicion immediately focuses on a middle-aged man, living along, who was fired from his job as a lifeguard for exposing himself to some of his young charges. The police pay him a visit, naturally, and yell at him a bit. Whenever the plot flags, we get more indications of his guilt: he smokes heavily (like the perp), he buttons his polo shirts to the top button like any self-respecting child molester, he lives near the scene of the abduction, his apartment overlooks a playground (and he has a pair of binoculars), his pet ferrets seem suspiciously high-strung, he's stopped taking the anti-testosterone medication prescribed by his therapist, and he even has a dress worn by one of the abducted children in his underground storage space.

But, of course, he's not the perp. It turns out there's an innocent explanation for all these factors. He is, after all, the Misunderstood Molester. Shortly after police focus on him, his therapist visits the cops to lecture them: his client deserves a second chance, therapy can prevent him from acting on his impulses, being scapegoated harms his chances of re-entering society, etc. The well-established pattern is followed:

  1. After crime against child, suspicion focuses on the released molester.
  2. Some clues point in his direction.
  3. The outraged/anguished parents of one of the victims target the molester by picketing him or attacking him.
  4. Someone (a skeptical cop, therapist, family member, girlfriend) begins to cast doubt on the molester's guilt and deliver edifying lectures about how everyone deserves a second chance.
  5. The Misunderstood Molester is finally cleared of all guilt -- often after being arrested, interrogated, and even attacked.

It's interesting how frequently the MM comes up in Tatort scripts. Recently, at a lecture about crime fiction in Germany, I met a man who had written some scripts for German TV, and who complained of the heavy interference by editors, who frequently returned scripts with suggestions intended to make them more politically-correct. Evidently, the German cultural elite believes that ordinary Germans have a dangerously low opinion of convicted child molesters, and that this is an important problem that must be remedied by public education. Why else would there be (seemingly) at least one Misunderstood Molester per every 5 Tatort episodes?

As far as changing Germans' opinions of child molesters, good luck with that! I'm not complaining, though. I find the constant recurrence of the Misunderstood Molester one of Tatort's most comforting qualities. You can spot him (and it's pretty much always him) coming a mile away, and then the suspenseful sub-plot begins: how much evidence of guilt can the script dump on the MM's head before the real killer is found?** Sometimes this sub-plot is lots more exciting than the main plot!

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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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Tatort No. 800: The Foul-Mouthed MILF and the Man With No Friends Investigate

So, last Sunday's Tatort was number 800, and introduced a new pair of investigators for Frankfurt, Connie Mey (Nina Kunzendorf) and Frank Steier (Joachim Król, not to be confused with Joachim Kroll).I'm not that up on Tatort, but I think these are completely new characters.

Overall, I thought it was quite a fine little episode. The female character, Connie Mey, is apparently mean to be an spry, earthy MILF who worked her way up from the lower echelons of the police service to become a detective. She parades around police headquarters in push-up bras and tight jeans, looking like a train station topsy, and demonstratively eats lunch 'with the guys'. I'm sure she has an quaint working-class regional accent of some sort, but I couldn't place it.*

Steier, on the other hand, is apparently mean to embody a certain sort of über-civil servant, living in the darkland of a brutally truncated, barely-human existence. He never talks about his private life, apparently has no friends or relatives, and always remains coolly formal when on duty -- unless he experiences an access of rage, which seems to be the only emotion he can feel. At night, he lurks around in his darkened office listening to jazz, apparently occasionally taking a nip from a flask. I have the feeling we are going to find out that his glaring social deficits were the result of a ghastly personal tragedy: He's the wreck he is because one day in 2005 his beautiful young wife and their freckled children exploded, perhaps, or were eaten. What I will secretly hope for is a more original explanation: he's just a born German civil servant, who has obediently pruned away every aspect of his personality (charm, humor, wit, lust, curiosity, etc.) that doesn't directly relate to fulfilling his duties.

This contrasting pair meet randomly, when a very odd man who talks to himself wanders into the Frankfurt main police station at night, wanting to report the 'murder' of his brain-damaged son, who is dying. The man has what seems to be an outlandish story of his son being 'murdered' by a staged traffic accident whose true nature is covered up by a cop in return for some kind of sexual blackmail. Mey, who is working late to finish a report, doesn't want to deal with this unstable guy alone, so she seeks out any other colleague, in this case Steier, who is lurking in his office for some unspecified reason. The crazy guy claims to know precisely who killed his son -- a young female postal carrier. He has been stalking her, and getting more and more violent. He wants her arrested for murder, and threatens to take the law into his own hands if she isn't.

It turns out that the weird stalker's story is not completely invented, and the plot revolves around figuring out why he's so angry at the postal carrier and whether he might make good on any of this threats, which in turn means figuring out how much truth there is to his account. The atmosphere of this Tatort was gloomy: the background was the impersonal grid of Frankfurt's anonymous new suburbs, and there was little music. The crazy guy was complex: filled with irrational hatred, but also with some legitimate complaints, yet with a nasty mean, cunning streak. It's wasn't edge-of-your seat entertainment -- Tatort rarely is -- but it held my interest, and was much less didactic than your average Tatort. In particular, the writer resisted the urge to make the unbalanced character a blameless victim of society.

I found it pretty amusing how foul-mouthed this show was. In a moment of frustration, Mey screams 'Fuck!' (yes, the English word, used exactly as an English speaker would use it), and the crazy guy uses the German work 'fickt' for good measure, and even squeezes off a 'terrible cunt' (beschissene Fotze)** at one point. I hope no children are watching, or they might grow up swearing like Anglo-Saxons!

* Maybe she's from Preungesheim, and her accent is the infamous Preungesheimer Plärre. Sorry, I just like saying the word Preungesheim. I even like typing it!

** Sure, it's not a precise translation, but since 'terrible cunt' has been etched into the collective consciousness by Withnail and I, I thought it made sense.

German Word of the Week -- Plus!: Moralin and Gulaschkanone

This week's German Words of the Week is not only a twofer but also -- an example the kind of fabulous positive-plus synergy which makes this blog world-famous -- coupled with What I Learned from Tatort. Wow! I can hardly wait to type the post!

Last week, I dutifully switched on my television to watch Tatort. Every Tatort plays in a different German city, and this one was in Kiel, a port city way up north on the Baltic sea. Unfortunately, the detective who features in the Kiel Tatorts is Borowski, who has all the charisma of a sea cucumber. Yes, I know, his waxen flesh and papery monotone are supposed to convey the legendary taciturnity of Germans from the north, renowned as the dullest, stuffiest, and most reserved of all Germans. Which, believe me, is saying a lot. My pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind entertains the heretical notion of whether these Ent-like humanoids should be the subject of televisions shows that purport to be "entertainment." The most brutal blow was the casting of gorgeous Turkish vixen Sibel Kekilli in a supporting role. She stole every scene she was in, and made the viewer desperately yearn for her to suddenly break into the other scenes, which mainly featured North Germans bitching and seething.

But I digress. I should have known I'd be in for something special this time, because the entire week, the main German public-television station had been highlighting proper nutrition with various specials and cooking shows. And that meant that this week's Tatort had to Teach us about Proper Nutrition. As Christina Sieben observed in her review, the "die Gulaschkanone" of high-minded educational public TV was set on "constant bombardment." Now, a Gulaschkanone is basically what it sounds like: a goulash cannon. The term originally referred to military field kitchens, for obvious reasons. But here, in context, the cannon is spouting edifying lessons like a Stalin's organ. In Sieben's summary:

Artificial colors have to be, because nobody will buy white energy drinks. Cows are always chained up in the dairy. "Research Institutes" are in the pocket of industry. Good food costs money, but people are too cheap to pay for it. The old organic farmer in the show knows all his cows by name. Everyone wants to earn money. And, at the end of the day, it's all our fault. Bon appetit! 

Sieben goes on to predict that with Public Television Nutrition Edification Week over, the next Tatort will contain slightly less Moralin. You know, Moraline (not to be confused with Betweenanene (Screwene)). Like Adenosine, Guanine, Cytosine, Adrenaline, or Methamphetamine. Moraline bonds with plot elements in public-television dramas, causing the narrative to coalesce in ways that offer edifying lessons to the benighted, easily corruptible audience.

Thanks to Moraline, we learned all those valuable things about food and nature from last week's Tatort (although strangely enough, the topic of lavish cow subsidies (g) was barely mentioned). Moraline additive also helps us understand, for example, that unemployed people want to work, alcoholics and drug addicts roll like they do because of childhood trauma, women can do everything men can, family-run firms are the only halfway-acceptable form of free enterprise, and that Scientology, nationalism, plastic toys, wars, lobbysists, and nuclear power are evil.

If you watch too much German public television, your moraline levels may reach toxicity: You may begin to use phrases like "our fellow-citizens of the Islamic faith" or "food-chain-renewability enhancing measures" in everyday speech. At this point, you'll need to spend a few hours in a secure, moraline-free environment. The most reliable place is Titanic Magazine (g), which, is 100% moraline-free and whose motto is "Ein klares Ja zum Nein!" (A clear Yes to No!).

What I Learned from Tatort Part I

It's time for the first in an occasional series I'll call 'What I learned from Tatort'. Tatort ('crime scene'), a weekly 90-minute crime drama aired by German public television, is one of the longest-running series in history and is perhaps the fundamental building-block of German popular culture. It is also an window into what The Germans are thinking about various social issues. Or, more accurately, what a certain group of upper-middle-class, university-educated public-television cultural bureaucrats want Germans to think about social issues.

There are certain fundamental didactic premises underlying all Tatort episodes. For instance: Anyone who drives an expensive car is morally dubious, unless that person is a member of the German civil service (otherwise known as Mankind's Noblest CallingTM), in which the expensive car is a harmless diversion from the excruciating ordeal of working for the German state. All civil servants, for that matter, are hopelessly überfordert (overburdened), which explains any mistakes they may make from time to time.

However, in addition to the general didactic premises, the moral 'background radiation' of Tatort's universe, there are more specific lessons in each episode. A few weeks ago, for instance, we learned that art is sacred, that the artist must be permitted to bend or break the rules, and that his vision must never be interfered with. And just before that, in an episode clearly modeled on a Scientology-like organization, we learned that Scientology-like organizations are sinister, profit-driven cults that prey on the weak of mind.

Last Sunday's Tatort revolved around the murder of a little girl at an amusement park. Several suspects appeared, including a Croatian lawyer, a possibly-reformed pedophile, and the girl's own mother. Among the lessons:

  1. People from the Balkans are a rather hot-tempered lot, with a tendency to get jealous, which makes them screamy and stabby. Nevertheless, just because fiery Balkan blood rages in their veins doesn't mean they're always good for the murder.
  2. Just because someone behaves unusually after one of their relatives dies doesn't mean she's guilty of murder.
  3. Child molesters who've served their time in prison and are cooperating with their therapists deserve a second chance, (but only/especially/even) if they are white and German.

I think that about covers it. Worthy sentiments, all! Let me know in comments if I missed anything.