Der Tatortreiniger: Learning German Through Dark Humour

I have been working at improving my German since the beginning of this year. Initially the goal was being able to express myself properly during a trip to Berlin in May, but then Covid-19 happened, and the plan got put on the back burner. With too much spare time on my hands during lockdown, however, I decided to continue to practice. I’m fluent in English and Dutch but it never hurts to add another string to one’s bow.

Once you get beyond beginner level, I soon discovered, it’s difficult to find effective ways to learn and practice. Sure, there are apps such as Tandem, which allow you to meet language buddies from across the globe, but I found that they’re simply not my thing. I dislike talking to strangers at the best of times and it turned out that a global pandemic made no difference to my reclusive tendencies.

So I use apps like Duolingo and DW Learn German instead, which offer plenty of exercises to get one’s teeth into. Last week I’ve been using DW Learn German to learn about the hospitality industry and I can now ask people what they would like to drink, whether they would like to pay cash, and if they have any allergies. Though I’m not planning to travel to a German-speaking country any time soon, let alone work as a waitress in one, learning something new and potentially useful has turned out to be one of the more effective ways to distract myself from the ongoing chaos in the world.

As my listening skills improve, I’m finding it easier to watch German TV without subtitles too. This has led to my current addiction to Der Tatortreiniger (incidentally, all episodes are on Youtube, so there’s nothing stopping you from having a look yourself). I normally lack the attention span to watch more than an episode or two of a TV series – a Netflix binger I am most definitely not. But I have found that this particular series has not only captured my attention, and helped me to improve my knowledge of a foreign language, I actively look forward to the next episode. Learning no longer feels like yet another item on my to do list because it has become something positive and entertaining.

Der Tatortreiniger is a comedy series about a man who cleans crime scenes for a living. This premise alone proves that one can truly joke about anything. Word of warning: the jokes do tend to be on the dark side, and though the amount of gore is limited, der Tatortreiniger is definitely not suitable for minors or those of a sensitive disposition.

That said, I have fallen hard for the show’s absurdist sense of fun. In an episode caller “Der Kopf”, for example, the show’s protagonist finds himself transported into the head of a paralysed man who is unable to communicate. Turns out the man is busy trying to repair his own damaged nerves while fending off the Grim Reaper. As you do.

At this point the show becomes both moving and philosophical, asking questions about the nature of death, quality of life, and power of memories. As the protagonist tries to distract the Grim Reaper with a game of football, the paralysed patient reminisces about his childhood, his desire to be able to walk and speak once again, and the long rehab journey that still lies ahead of him. Needless to say, this sort of talk will go over the heads of less experienced German speakers, but that’s what subtitles are for.

Der Tatortreiniger maintains its comedy focus by adding more absurdly flawed characters, such as the disinterested nurse who looks after the paralysed man and thinks nothing of leaving him in the care of an inexperienced stranger. The resulting atmosphere is not quite realistic, but realistic enough to be instantly recognizable, and often pleasantly uncomfortable.

Of course watching shows alone is not enough to learn a language and I do hope that one day I’ll be able to travel again to put my newly found skills into practice. In the meantime there are worse ways to spend one’s time. This week I’m planning to learn more about working as a mechanic, and while I have no plans for a career change, I’m already excited by the realization that I’ll finish this week knowing more than I know now.

Photo by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash

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