Staying power

Series' popularity, standards hold up

Quick. Think of a TV show that's been running for most if not all of your life. It has to still be in production, and it has to command audience shares of about 30%.

No brainstorms? That's because you aren't German. If you were, you would answer: "Tatort," of course.

"The best way to illustrate 'Tatort' to an American audience is to hark back to the NBC Mystery Movie from the '70's," says Peter Lohner of Telefilm Saar, one of several "Tatort" producers. "It was 90 minutes long and it had rotating detectives and locations. That's the kind of showcase that 'Tatort' is."

"Tatort" (which means "Crime Scene" in German) was also meant to showcase federalism to the still-young German republic. From its beginnings in 1970, every episode — produced in rotation by one of the country's regional pubcasters — has featured the landscapes, dialects and problems typical of a particular area. "Tatort" forged a sense of national identity that celebrated the variety of the German character.

It also was the top career launch pad in Germany: Wolfgang Petersen earned his chops on "Tatort," directing a young Nastassia Kinski in her first major role. Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose "Downfall" was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005, directed episodes in the '90s. And Goetz George still plays his "Tatort" role of Commissioner Schimanski, though he has long since had a film career. "The Deathmaker" got him the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.

"Becoming a 'Tatort' commissioner is very dangerous," says Maximilian Brueckner, who at 28 and with only two episodes under his belt is the newest and youngest "Tatort" star. "You could end up doing it your whole life if you don't fight from the beginning to be able to do different things."

Brueckner, who was in the Oscar-nominated "Sophie Scholl — The Final Days" before going to the "Tatort" murder squad in Saarbruecken, says it is the only TV show he would consider doing.

"'Tatort' is the leader in terms of social-political subject matter," says Lohner, who cast Brueckner as a Southern rural detective in an industrial-area police force (imagine a rookie Alabaman coming to Detroit). "Because you know there is audience acceptance of the format, you can try to be authentic about the sources of evil."

It's that authenticity, the room for development that 90 minutes brings, and "Tatort's" continuing role in shaping Germans' image of themselves that is at the heart of its enduring popularity, believes TV critic Christopher Keil of the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

"It (has always been) groundbreaking," Keil says, "and it's still dealing with everything from child abuse to speed-dating to euthanasia. And it is always high-quality. I was socialized by 'Tatort' myself."

Of course, with 37 years of back catalog, there are plenty of old "Tatort's" to fill up late-night schedules and even primetime for some of the classic episodes.

"I keep worrying that they're going to overexpose it," Keil says. "But it hasn't happened yet."