TV Cop Dramas – Actresses can do more than play victims
German television is known to be quite crime-oriented. More and more formats, series and individual films of this genre are being produced, and it‘s increasingly rare that they get by without staging brutal murders and corpses in close-ups. However, it is possible to tell a thrilling and entertaining crime drama in a different way, and this is why I want to give the example of a Swedish mini-series, as counterbalance to the films that begin with a brutal rape or the discovery of a young, pretty, abused, dead woman. Actresses can do more than play victims.
Two Female Criminals and Two Corpses Off-Screen
By coincidence – because the films and series on arte tv are unfortunately not advertised enough – I discovered JUST A BANKROBBERY / ENKELSTÖTEN shortly before its term in the media library expired. The 6-part Swedish series (44 min. each) by Felix Herngren is based on the novel ENKELSTÖTEN: PSYKOLOGISK THRILLER by Swedish author Tomas Arvidsson (*1941), which does not seem to have been published in German nor in English. I rang the Swedish embassy in Berlin and a friendly employee – whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch – told me that Engelstöten means ‘single thrust’. Arvidsson also wrote the crime novels DUBBELSTÖTEN and TRIPPELSTÖTEN (and others).
The employee was very pleased after he‘d quickly read through a Swedish description of the series, he said Felix Herngren was very humorous and the two leading actresses Lotta Tejle and Sissela Kyle were really brilliant. He also told that the story had already been turned into a TV series in the 1980s. What is also remarkable about JUST A BANKROBBERY 2017 is that the main characters in the novel were male. In 2017 they were turned into two women:
The two friends Cecilia (Sissela Kyle) and Jenny (Lotta Telje) are in their prime, have never done anything wrong and yet are both in deep trouble: Jenny find sout in the divorce war with her ex-husband that she gets off extremely badly in their old marriage contract. Cecilia, on the other hand, has invested in Chinese stocks – and lost practically everything after a stock market crash. Then one of her patients, Stellan (Peter Carlberg), who is suffering from cancer, makes Cecilia a daring proposal: He has a watertight plan for a bank robbery, but won’t live long enough to carry it out himself. The idea seems perfect – but do the peace-loving ladies really have enough criminal energy for that?
Source: arte press kit. German first broadcast April 2019 (translated from German by me)
The other characters and their storylines are also quite distinct (without turning them into stereotypes): the older commissioner (woman), her younger assistant (man), the provincial policewoman, the two husbands, the daughter, the boss at the hospital (woman) the biker gang (all male) and many more.
Unfortunately, the series (directed by Felix Herngren episodes 1 to 3, and Emma Bucht episodes 4 to 6) is no longer available in the arte online library and I haven’t found a DVD version yet either. But I hope there is one because the German dubbing voices for the protagonists are very different from the Swedish original (have a listen to the trailer from Swedish TV4). But this is a topic for another day. And hopefully arte takes the series into their program again soon!
Why am I talking about ENKELSTÖTEN? Firstly, because I really liked the series, it‘s full of suspense, wit, depth, surprising twists and yes, also crimes. Also, two people are murdered, but neither do we see the murders, nor the corpses. Secondly, because there is a – still relevant – quote from the author Arvidsson (quoted on the website tomelius.se by Bertil Tomelius, subpage Svenska deckare / Swedish crime novels):
Jag vill berätta en historia som är spännande och förhoppningsvis rolig. Jag vill försöka visa att spänning inte alls kräver våld och att humor kan inbegripa stråk av allvar för den som vill se dem. Om man vill kan man kanske se mitt berättande som en stilla protest mot det spekulativa underhållningsvåld som ibland tar sig groteska uttryck i TV, film och böcker.
I want to tell a story that is exciting and hopefully entertaining. I try to show that creating tension does not require violence and that humour can have seriousness for those who want to see it. If you like, my stories can perhaps be seen as a kind of silent protest against the speculative entertainment violence that sometimes takes on grotesque features in television, film and books.
We know this “entertainment violence” only too well from German television. I sometimes have the feeling that, for example in the TATORTs (Germany‘s top cop drama), the regions are in some sort of competition where A says “We have ten murder victims!”. and B: “But we have the more violent crime!” and C: “And we the younger victim!” and D: “And we…
female, young, dead
One day last October I read several press releases which were similar in a ways:
- The plot: The body of a young woman is found in the forest of Göttingen.
- The body of a missing young woman is found in a mountain lake.
- Nathan loves Maggie Dunne, a young ambitious woman, also a Tinker like him, who secretly studies psychology. Both are dreaming of a different, better future. But then Maggie is found dead, murdered and dressed up like a doll.
- After a 16-year-old female runaway is found dead in Rostock, the commissioners come across (similar) unsolved murder cases: The victim was disfigured with her shoes lying next to the corpse.
If I lived on television I would be safe, because I am over 40 and apparently only young women get murdered. An online search for “tv crime body of a young woman” – delivers further hits, e.g.:
- An emergency call is received by the Bremen police, cries for help are heard. A short time later the body of a young woman is found in a park. The massive injuries on the neck of the dead woman pose a particular mystery to the Bremen chief inspectors Inga Lürsen and Stedefreund.
- A car is recovered from a lake, in it the body of a strangled young woman. The body of a young woman is found in a bog area. She is wearing a bright red dress, appears to be unharmed on the outside and was apparently placed there by her murderer with great care.
- After a red-haired woman is found lifeless in the sea, a fatal encounter occurs in the apartment of the dead woman.
(Note: the woman was of course young, they just left that out in the description)
This is not a new trend, but it sems to be increasing. Here are the opening sentences of two descriptions from 2007 and 1985 respectively:
- When the body of a young woman is found, the investigations lead to Anne Kempf, who at 18 ss the single mother of 4-year-old Tim.
- The crushed body of a young woman, Jutta Starck, is found in front of an apartment block. A farewell letter found in her apartment by Schimanski and Thanner indicates suicide.
The last description is a bit the odd one out, because the name of the dead woman is mentioned. This doesn‘t happen a lot nowadays – unless it is not a man who got murdered. And he on the other hand is ntroduced without any reference to his age:
- The body of Marcel Richter is found on a mountain plateau just outside Stuttgart.
Yes, crime stories may also begin with the murder of a man, but the murdered young woman seems to occur much more frequently and is almost a subgenre in itself. Just like the plot twist ‘it turns out that the woman – whether dead or alive – worked as a prostitute on the side’, but that is a different story. If a (young) dead woman is not already shown half-naked in close-up, there is often a scene later that shows her naked on a table for a post mortem. I wonder why.
A Question of Dramaturgy?
Some time ago, in the article Taking a Shower, I wrote about camera angles and perspectives in scenes of violence against women and I would very much like to see the cinematic staging of violent crimes in connection with the gender of the dead person also being addressed in camera classes at film schools.
A vivid example of the different, often sexualised treatment of dead women opposed to men can be found in the second season of the international serial crime production THE TEAM (B, DK, D, AU, CH). There is a scene in which several corpses lie laid out in a room, all covered with white sheets. All except one young woman, who lies there completely naked. There is no trace of the sheet, the detectives who are working on the case and are standing at the corpses and talking endlessly seem not to have folded one back to look at the face or even the whole naked body of the woman. Logically, when they move on she is not covered up again, since there is no sheet. Afterwards they focus on a shot man, go to his corpse and pull back the sheet, but only down to the waist where a wound can be seen. Doesn’t anyone in production notice something like this?
Criticizing the Dortmund TATORT (crime scene) TV movie MONSTER in the Berliner Zeitung (1.2.20) titled The ,crime scene‘ as an Impertinence – among other things it was about organized sexual abuse of children – Frank Junghänel speaks of “dramaturgical abuse“:
All this will clear up, but what makes this Dortmund “Tatort” at least doubtful is its handling of the – unfortunately, it has to be said – popular subject of child abuse. Again and again the frightened Mia, who is to be auctioned off via a paedophile site in Darknet, is shown in a large picture. The multi-award-winning director Torsten C. Fischer forces the viewer to look her in the eyes and imagine what is in store for her.
It is an unreasonable demand that the viewer does not need in order to comprehend the repulsiveness of such a crime. Simply because one knows that the criminal reality is much worse. There is a scene in the movie in which a boy is rescued half-naked and trembling from his tormentor. Of course, this will all have been staged very sensitively and carefully. That’s not the question. Children should also be protected from dramatic abuse.
I have to say that I did not see the movie, but I find these thoughts worthy of consideration beyond it.
It is only eight years ago that the television movie OPERATION ZUCKER (directed by Rainer Kaufmann) about child trafficking and child prostitution was broadcast on ARD. You may remember that an edited version without the end was shown at 8:15 p.m. on the broadcasting station. Only after midnight did they show the complete film with the original ending, which, as I recall, consisted of a little girl, who had already been supposedly rescued, was caught again by the child traffickers. Today’s crime scenes are no less violent, and they are broadcast at 8:15 pm. So the FSK standards seem to be shifting. At least on German television. In UK crime dramas (or should we say DQ crime dramas?), for example, violence is shown less explicitly, instead the audience is warned of disturbing content, and telephone numbers of advice organisations are provided on the channel’s website.
Is There Any Other Way?
Yes. There are crime dramas that do without murders, and others in which the violence, the murders, the rapes are not explicitly shown, and the surviving or dead victims are not shown half-naked.
There are films that deal with the murdered persons in a more pictorially sensitive way and do not show them dead, bloody, mutilated, – without trivializing or softening the crimes.
The 2019 film NUR EINE FRAU / A REGULAR WOMAN (directed by Sherry Hormann, screenplay by Florian Oeller) deals with the life of the Berlin-based Hatun Aynur Sürücü until she is murdered by one of her brothers, and the subsequent trial. This true story is told from an unusual perspective, the first-person narrator is Hatun Sürücü (played by Almila Bağrıaçık). The camera perspective is also unusual for a German film. We don’t see the murder, just the face of the murderer while he shoots his sister. The dead body of Hatun Sürücü is only shown covered up. Her feet in shoes, one hand. Nothing more. (DoP: Judith Kaufmann).
Other examples can be found in the British crime series SCOTT & BAILEY (developed by Diane Taylor and Sally Wainwright), violent crime, murder, rape, child abuse, modern slavery – and the violence and the victims are not always shown. The first case in the series is about the alleged suicide of young pregnant Emel Yilmaz. The dead woman can only be seen through a photo of the crime scene, which is shown for two seconds in the hand of an investigator. The autopsy is only talked about. Later, her husband can be seen sitting at her laid out body in a funeral parlor, she lies under a thick sheet or blanket. No voyeuristic view of the murdered woman, neither dressed nor naked during the autopsy.
The second episode begins with the discovery of a brutally raped, mutilated and murdered woman. Neither the crime nor the body are shown. Instead we see the investigating police team, DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore) presents the case saying “Story so far: Susan Metcalfe, 43, wife, mother, primary school teacher” – cut to policewomen Janet Scott (Leslie Sharp) and Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) in the car, on their way to the Metcalfe family to deliver the death notice. Scott, alternating with Murray, tells the suspected course of events and how the body was found. Does that result in less thrills, less suspense, less excitement? The crimes less brutal or bloody? Doesn‘t it go under your skin as much as the average German crime drama would, where either the brutal crime against Susan Metcalfe would have been shown, or her destroyed body in close-ups, in the trunk of the car where she was found, or completely naked during the autopsy? I don‘t think so.
Years ago, there was a poster campaign against female genital mutilation. The poster showed a razor blade. Nothing more. I can’t remember if it was covered in blood or not. But the combination of the subject and the picture got you. And not just women, I’m sure men as well. Even without the ‘removal’ of the clitoral hood, clitoris, inner or outer labia on display.
But back to the dramaturgical abuse of the young, dead women.
As you have probably noticed, I have not yet done any statistical analysis of the described phenomenon. Since I don’t watch that many crime and cop dramas and an internet research doesn’t give me everything I surely missed movies in which older women or young men were killed in a staged way. And still more with young, female murder victims. Maybe there is actually something to this pattern, this sub-genre, the image of the young murdered woman, – this short role for an actress. Or an extra.
Please help make this phenomenon visible, start a discussion by using the hashtags #mehralsLeichen or #morethanCorpses on the social networks when writing about corresponding films. You are also welcome to write in the commentary shis ection below this article, give the film titles and, if you wish, the broadcast slots that you noticed in this context, with this kind of opening. Thanks a lot!
Talk about “entertainment violence” and “dramaturgical abuse”.
If you are an actress and they offer you the role of a dead young woman ask how it will be directed. If you have to lie completely naked on the autopsy table, find out the motivation for the scene and perhaps ask for a partially covering sheet. If the role has nothing to offer except your early violent death and an open coffin setting, consider whether you really have to accept it. You can always say no.
If you are a crime drama celebrity and are offered such material, check if you can and want to use your influence. Another case with a dead, young, half-naked woman as the opening scene? Without flashbacks that shows the character as a living individual? Does your cop character really need such a case?
If you have a really good connection to director and DoP, ask them about the visual language, the planned settings. Does the violence and its effects on a person have to be shown explicitly and in close-ups? How about showing less instead, and stimulating the audience‘s imagination instead?
If you are a producer or commissioning editor: think about it three times, do you really need a thriller that starts just like this?
If you are a director: consider whether you want to tell the story like this or in a different way?
If you are a writer: invent a new story, new entrances to stories, refuse to accept the almost obligatory ritual discovery of the young female corpse at the beginning.
If you’re a DoP, think about the ‘common images’, does the look of the perpetrator have to be used in violent crimes, does the audience have to see what gives a perpetrator the kick? Or can you find new pictures, that are less flat?
If you’re the audience of a crime thriller – potentially all of us – and if you find this pattern as negative as I do: write about it, write to the production company, write to the TV channels. Let them know if you don’t want to see such images and such stories anymore. And use the hashtag #morethanCorpses.
Female characters of crime dramas should be told in a different way.