Neurotic Cops Hunt Neurotic Killers

Tatort ("Crime Scene"), which shows every Sunday night at 8:15, is the flagship German TV crime series. 

There are a couple of interesting things about Tatort.  Every episode’s 90 minutes long, and has no commercial interruptions (Ahh, the glories of state-subsidized television).  Tatort is shot on-location in various different German cities, so we get to know teams of murder detectives in Berlin, Kiel, Munich, and Hamburg.  Germany can do this because it has a dense network of state-subsidized media production companies all over the country.  Because Tatorts are all made by different regional production companies and feature different sets of actors, they vary in quality.  Some become wildly implausible or flutter off into pseudo-intellectual la-la-land in the first 15 minutes, some are original, tautly-constructed thrillers that keep you guessing until the very end.

Last night’s was typical.  It played in Hamburg, where tall, bearded police commissioner Jan Casstorff (Robert Atzorn) is the main figure.  Jan wanted to be a psychiatrist, but quit school to care for his son Daniel.  This episode starts with a shooting in an underground parking garage.  The victim, a workaholic former Army major who served with the KFOR intervention force in Kosovo before becoming the personnel director of a private security firm.  Castorff and team begin looking into recent company firings and military connections, but don’t get very far before another, almost identical murder occurs, this time of a psychologist who treated KFOR soldiers in the field before going into private practice.

Castorff and team delve into the troubled underworld of traumatized former KFOR soldiers.  One of them breaks under Casstorff’s questioning and goes on a random shooting spree, but it’s a false alarm, he wasn’t the killer.  The killer turns out to be a former soldier who witnessed the grisly death of an abused Kosovar Albanian girl (presumably out of political correctness, we’re not told who did the abusing.  Although, of course, it’s not the German soldiers).  The army psychiatrist, though, didn’t think the soldier’s trauma was serious enough to warrant treatment, and his major taunted him for being a weenie. 

After the soldier returned, the trauma wouldn’t let him go.  He lost his family and job, and spent his days writing feverish letters to the editor about what he saw in Kosovo, and staring at the penguins in the zoo.  Eventually he begins writing letters to the penguins in the zoo.  [No he didn’t — ed.]  Until one day, he decides on deadly revenge against the shrink and the major who dismissed the problem that ruined his life.  Naturally, his plan includes leaving hidden clues to his identity…

A few observations about this and other Tatort shows, from someone who grew up on American crime series:

1.  The cops seem to have no power.  During the episode I just described, Casstorff visits a military hospital to try to get clues about a potential suspect.  At this point, the killer is still on the loose, and could well be preparing to strike again.  The military doctors tell him "The records are confidential.  Go away."  And…he does!  He doesn’t shove his way into the file room, hack into the computer system, or even try to convince the district attorney to get a court order, even though additional lives could be on the line.  Eventually, after several time-consuming visits, he convinces a nurse to give him the clue that leads to the killer.  And Casstorff’s not alone in his powerlessness.  In Tatort, suspects and other people constantly insult homicide detectives, tell them to "go away" or "get lost," slam doors in their faces, and walk out of examining rooms unhindered.  Hint for travelers: do not try this in any other country!

2.  The cops have the patience of saints.  As mentioned above, at one point a traumatized ex-soldier flips out and begins wandering through the streets, firing randomly, narrowly missing passers-by.  Even though the suspect points a loaded gun at Casstorff (who is, of course, armed), Casstorff never shoots him — not even in the knee or arm, just to disable him.  Eventually, after wandering around shooting randomly, the suspect puts the gun in his mouth and tries to blow his brains out.  Casstorff does nothing to try to stop him, simply averting his gaze from the horrible scene.  (Fortunately, the suspect is out of bullets.)  The point seems to be that Casstorff has some kind of sixth-sense psychological insight that the guy actually doesn’t intend to kill anybody (and, to be fair, the guy’s wife is standing next to Casstorff when all this happens).  But what if Casstorff’s wrong?  I am a card-carrying member of Human Rights Watch, but if a sweating, screaming madman is walking down my street with a loaded weapon firing randomly, and there just happens to be a cop nearby with a loaded gun and a clear shot, I’m afraid I must admit that I want the cop to shoot the guy.

3.  The criminals are frequently mentally ill. I was a criminal-defense attorney for a while, and in my experience, people usually kill each other out of greed, jealousy, lust, or revenge.  But that’s too one-sided for Tatort.  One of those basic reasons is usually involved, but there is almost always some delightfully Baroque quasi-Freudian "real" reason for the crime: sibling rivalry, delusions of grandeur, unresolved oedipal conflicts, torturing feelings of inferiority, desperate cry for help (very popular), etc.  It’s like fond look back to the Lady- Wootton style thinking of the 1950s, when the bien-pensant set still believed that the plaid-wearing psychologists with the mild German accents were on the verge of developing a therapy to end criminal behavior.

4.  The cops are almost as tortured, vulnerable and neurotic as the suspects.  According to Tatort, mental illness, neurosis, and maladjustment of various forms is the norm, not the exception, in society.  Among the cops, marriages and relationships melt down, family relationships are strained and routinely interrupt work life, the cops have to visit shrinks/drink to excess to deal with the stress, etc.  There is almost no moralizing condemnation of the suspects, especially those who committed the crime because they were damaged or deranged.  "There, but for the grace of God, go I," the cops opine wistfully.  At the end of last night’s Tatort, Casstorff disarms the real killer and then — sits down next to him for several minutes.  One of his buddies, monitoring the scene on video in a surveillance van, asks what he’s doing.  "Listening," the other says.

German Word of the Week: Schnecke auf Glatteis

Ok, it’s a phrase, not a word.  It means "like a snail on a sheet of ice."  I heard it this morning on the local radio call-in show, and was enchanted.  Here’s a real-world example which helpfully explains the phrase.  Plus, the example deals with the position of women in Bavarian public-service jobs, which I know has been on all our minds lately. 

Speaking of efforts to promote equality between the sexes in government bureaucracies, Ms. Christa Naaß, chairwoman of some comission or other, says: "The efforts to advance womens’ equality in Bavaria are proceeding like a snail on an ice-sheet, incredibly slowly and stubbornly, with lots of sliding to-and-fro!"  Isn’t that actually how government bureaucracies operate?

Enough snide quips.  Now to science.  I’m no malacologist, but I believe I am correct in saying that a snail is a mollusc, and molluscs are cold-blooded.  I’m also no iceometrist, but in my experience, ice is generally rather cold.  Therefore, I would imagine that a snail trying to move along on a sheet of ice would soon get very, very, sleepy.  He would probably curl up in his little shell and take a nap until Spring.  Goodbye, snail! 

Until we see you again in the Spring, let’s learn a little about your molluscy brother, the sea slug.

Wal-Mart and the Friendliness Academy

Wal-Mart came to Germany in 2001 and found out something a little odd.  Germans, apparently, didn’t necessarily want salespeople to be friendly:

The marriage of American hominess and German frostiness has been rocky so far for Wal-Mart…. With its first two custom-built "hypermarkets," or superstores, open in time for holiday shopping, Wal-Mart is under pressure to make its huge investment pay off in Europe’s largest economy. Much of its challenge lies in coaxing attitudinal changes in the country where the customer traditionally comes last.

Customer comes last?!  Wait a minute, says a Karl W. Schmidt, former head of the German-American chamber of commerce:

This is "totally incorrect," says Schmidt.

"The customer over there is still the person who pays the bill." But, because German consumers educate themselves about a product before they buy," he said. "The need for interaction between customer and salesperson is minimal."

Can Germans become friendlier? Can and should, says Tanja Baum of the Academy of Friendliness in Cologne. She describes the problem thus:

"We have a society problem, not a service problem," she said.

Germans sometimes hesitate to be too friendly because that could be perceived as hypocrisy or currying favor, friendliness coach Baum said. "That’s why they look down on American `synthetic friendliness.’ They accuse the United States of doing everything for a purpose — `They want to sell me something, that’s why they are so friendly,’ " Baum said.

Baum attributes the trouble to the social revolution of the late 1960s, when politeness was deemed "a bourgeois relic." This is the root, she said, of cashiers who scowl at customers who approach near closing, or clerks who ignore shoppers when they approach, even turning on their heels if they persist.

"We also have the customers from hell, so this is a vicious circle," Baum said. "Grumpiness breeds grumpiness. And we are teaching employees to try to break the circle. Someone has to make the first step."

Who’s right here?  Everybody’s a little right. [pretty weak — ed.]  I’ve gotten very helpful and competent advice from salespeople who weren’t particularly friendly. But it would’ve been nicer if they were friendly. I will go out of my way to buy in stores where people are really friendly to me, and I tell them that, which always shocks them.

Usually, no one is friendlier than the foreigners. Take Maria from Croatia, who runs the corner shop. She is always ready with a cheerful laugh and bubbly smile. We have litte conversations in broken German. She says "The people in this country are so lonely! They all come to shop and stay here for long time, even in cold, because I am only person who is talking to them! Is very sad!"

Maria’s son, by contrast, has shown his ability to integrate into German society by conducting all store translations unsmilingly, through monosyllabic grunts. Sounds like a case for the Academy…

Gordon Craig Dead at 92

Gordon A. Craig, the American historian and Germany specialist, died in Palo Alto, California on October 30.  With his passing we lose one of the most careful and sympathetic English-speaking commentators on Germany.

Craig was best-known for two works, German History 1866-1945, and The Germans (sold in German translation under the title Über die Deutschen). I haven’t read the first, but I have read the second book, which is often recommended to Americans who want to learn about Germany. It’s worth reading as a "psychogram" of Germans, although it is written from an academician’s perspective. You will learn plenty about Fontane and Morgenstern, but almost nothing about football or soap operas.

Die Zeit has a short appreciation of Craig by Volker Ullrich, which focusses on his career and his perceptions of Germany (my translation):

Craig praised Fontane’s novels for the skill with which Fontane brought to life the social reality and class conflicts of the times in the form of the novels’ figures. Craig emulated Fontane’s art not only by citing literary sources to bear witness to events, but also by practing the writing of history as a form of narrative literature. No wonder that his books were more popular here in Germany than the majority of his German colleagues’ works.

Craig felt quite a bit of affection for Germans, but they always remained a little strange to him, with their tendency to self-pity and their inclination to react over-fearfully to crisis situations. "Why do Germans always have to see the world so pessimistically?" he asked in a 1993 piece for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He also recommended a more relaxed attitude to the problems of German reunification — a recommendation that has lost nothing in pertinence in the meantime.

I wonder whether Craig’s question about pessimism was rhetorical, or whether he tried to explain German pessimism, which is one of the key distinguishing features of German society to all outsiders.  It would be interesting to see someone who’s made such a careful study of German society attempt this, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find the piece online.  If I do find it, I’ll be sure to post a nice crisp summary.  And add some thoughts of my own, since that’s the point of this blog.  Granted, I’m no award-winning historian, but…

German Words of the Week: Erklärungsnot, Sitzfleisch, and Mundtot

It’s been a while, but the GWOW is back.  To make up, I’m giving you three for the price of one: Erklärungsnot, Sitzfleisch, and Mundtot.

The words are unrelated, except in that they all highlight German’s extraordinary ability to weld together separate units of meaning to form unique and subtle new ideas.  The result says in one word what it would take English at least a phrase, and sometimes a sentence, to say.  To wit:

Erklärungsnot.  Erklärung ("Explanation") + Not ("Emergency").  Explanation-emergency.  The situation you’re in when, as we say it in English, you have a lot of explaining to do.  Such as when you’ve constructed a building of lies.  One sees the word Erklärungsnot frequently in recent discussions of the German Social Democratic Party, which very foolishly withdrew support for its own chairman in the middle of sensitive and demanding coalition negotations.  "We are in explanation-emergency!" say the party members, and what they mean is that half of Germany is saying "What the f%&$ were you thinking?"

SitzfleischSitz ("Sitting") + Fleisch ("Meat"). You need a few things to be able to appreciate Richard Wagner.  A refined sensibility (opinions vary), a tolerance for his faux-antique versification, some knowledge of German myth.   But most of all, you need Sitzfleisch, or the ability to sit patiently in an opera seat for about four hours, (of course, there are breaks).  Sitzfleisch also comes in handy when preparing for exams or enduring Germany’s famously dull academic conferences and official ceremonies.  In case you’re curious, I have kilos of Sitzfleisch for Wagner, but not a gram for these last two.

MundtotMund ("Mouth") + Tot ("Dead"). This is what autocratic rulers do to people whose opinions they don’t fancy; they "make them mouth-dead" with repressive measures and surveillance.  The closest English equivalent would be to "muzzle," which is pretty good in itself, but there’s a certain chilling quality to Mundtot that muzzle doesn’t quite capture.