Back in 2012 James Wolcott told Vanity Fair readers “the action has left the Cineplex and headed for broadcast and cable.” In making the case for television, Wolcott offered up “Downtown Abbey” and “Mad Men” as fare that trounces Cineplex flicks geared to the 14-year-old comic book fan. With all due respect to Wolcott, my preference would have been for the European TV series that I have covered for CounterPunch in the past starting with Swedish Marxist detective stories such as Wallander and more recently Danish shows such as Dicte, which by no means Marxist were certainly superior to anything coming out of Hollywood, including the typical Oscar honoree.
Now moving southerly into Europe, I am once more struck by the artistic superiority of a couple of TV series that thankfully are freely available on the Internet. Hailing from Germany, “Cenk Batu, Undercover Agent” is a police procedural that can be seen on Youtube while “Salamander”—a tale of the Belgian Deep State that should appeal to Stieg Larsson fans—is available on DailyMotion, a video sharing website that was launched by a couple of Parisians in 2005.
Cenk Batu is an undercover agent of Turkish descent in the Hamburg police department. Like many second-generation Turks in Germany, there is very little that is Turkish about him. He is a rootless and secular cosmopolitan with a taste for alcohol and beautiful women. He bears a certain similarity to the lone wolf undercover cops found in Korean and Chinese detective movies. A bachelor, he dotes on his tropical fish and for diversion, when he is not in some nightclub tossing down some beers, he is playing chess over the phone with his father in Turkey.
Batu is played by Mehmet Kurtulus, whose life was not that much different than the character he plays. Now 43, he came to Germany with his mother when he was 18 months old, grew up following a German lifestyle, and studied acting in Hamburg, the backdrop for the six episodes that appeared on German television as part of the ongoing Tatort series.
‘Tatort’ is what German cops call a crime scene. The show began in 1970 and was based in each city where the German PBS had a station. For the Cenk Batu series based in Hamburg, there was a concession to diversity by featuring a Turk for the first time in German television history. However, the character was only nominally Turkish since he had no strong ties to the Turkish community except insofar as his undercover work put him in touch with it. For example, in the first episode he goes undercover to penetrate a gang run by a Turkish businessman that is selling cheap knockoff electronic circuits for use in passenger jets that risked bringing them down in midair if they fail.
The brilliant conceit in each episode is that Cenk Batu is prepped just like an actor learning how to play a character. Each show begins with his supervising officer Uwe Kohnau (Peter Jordan) telling him that he is expected to play a disaffected Muslim, a banking junior executive, an ex-con of various nationalities depending on the case being cracked. In many ways, there is not that much difference between being an actor and an undercover agent—or a con man for that matter. It involves becoming someone you are not. That, of course, is probably one of the reasons that Orson Welles was inspired to make “F is for Fake”, his last major film about a master art forger and directed by an actor who never typecast himself.
Each episode of “Cenk Batu: Undercover Agent” has a somewhat different flavor, sometimes evoking the Jason Bourne series in an obvious bid to appeal to an audience’s taste for Hollywood action films but was at its best in an episode titled “Forget Me Not” that outdid John Le Carre. Batu has been hired as a numbers cruncher for a jet-engine manufacturer in Hamburg in order to track down a company employee who has been selling top-secret high technology designs to Germany’s enemies, which in this case turns out (spoiler alert) to be a Swedish undercover agent—a beautiful woman who seduces Batu in order to gain access to the company’s closely guarded secret Silicon III compound. Until the very end, Batu cannot accept that the woman he loves is an undercover agent—apparently more skilled than him in the art of deception. The teleplay was daring enough to defy conventional expectations and make the “enemy” a Swede rather than a Russian or a Chinese. Of course, when it comes to industrial espionage, all’s fair in love and war. Just ask Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on NSA spying on German corporations. Perhaps if the show had been made after Snowden’s revelations, the agent would have been an American instead.
The twelve episodes of “Salamander” appeared on Belgian television in 2012 and came to Netflix the following year when I first saw it. Salamander is the name of a top-secret cabal made up of sixty-six members of the haut bourgeoisie, the officer corps, and career politicians whose safe-deposit boxes filled with highly compromising material are looted in the very first episode from a bank that has served as its headquarters since the 1930s. The bank’s CEO is one Raymond Jonkhere (Mike Verdrengh) who is about as malevolent as anybody you are likely to run into in the Dragon Tattoo series.
When Jonkhere learns that is only the safe-deposit boxes of the Salamander group that has been looted, he realizes that someone has information that can expose their filthy schemes to the world. It is obvious that they have victimized someone in the past that is just as capable as them of carrying out a bold criminal deed but outside the law rather than within it, as generally the case with members in good standing of the Deep State.
Detective Paul Gerardi (Filip Peeters) is assigned the case and like all cops in police procedurals is determined to put all bad guys behind bars, whether they are rich or poor. (This is fiction after all.) When eventually the Salamander group uses its influence to squash his investigation, he presses on no matter how much this threatens his career.
To be quite honest, “Salamander” does not aspire to be social or political commentary. It is an old-fashioned revenge story that in some ways evokes ABC television’s “Revenge” that I considered network prime time melodrama at its best. Or for that matter, the Dragon Tattoo novels that Stieg Larsson mainly wrote to provide some income for his common-law wife rather than precipitate a revolution. It is superbly plotted, deftly acted and will keep you wishing that it would go on forever. There’s not much more to expect from television, is there?