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German actors face backlash over ‘cynical’ Covid lockdown videos

For half a century, the police procedural Tatort (“Crime Scene”) has provided a rallying point for Germany’s culturally diverse regions, gathering viewers around their television sets every Sunday night to watch detectives from across the country solve gruesome murders over the course of 90 minutes.

But 13 months into living with a virus that can’t be put behind bars, Tatort has become the scene of a different kind of crime: a series of satirical videos making fun of coronavirus restrictions, recorded by TV actors associated with the crime drama, has plunged lockdown-fatigued Germany into a bitter culture war.

A website called #allesdichtmachen (“close it all down”), was launched on Thursday night, featuring 53 to-camera clips in which high-profile actors sarcastically boast of the lengths they have gone to restrict their social contacts and appeal to the government to lock down the country even harder.

“For a whole year I was scared but now I can feel my fear subside, and that makes me scared,” says Volker Bruch, who also stars in the Weimar Republic-set series Babylon Berlin, in one of the videos. “Don’t leave us alone, dear government, it’s so important that we become afraid again.”

In other videos, the TV detective Richy Müller demonstrates how he breathes in from one plastic bag and breathes out into another to avoid creating aerosols, while Heike Makatsch (Mia in Love Actually) refuses to open the door to her apartment to food delivery couriers “to show some responsibility”.

The videos, made by a Munich-based production company, have drawn a ferocious backlash not least from other actors, with the Austrian actor Elyas M’Barek commenting that “cynicism helps no one”. Tobias Schlegel, a TV presenter turned paramedic, said on Twitter the actors behind the initiative could “shove their irony up their ventilators”.

Critics say the campaign has made conspiracy theories peddled at Covid-denier rallies go mainstream. Jan Josef Liefers, one of 34 contributors to the campaign who have previously played parts in or directed episodes of Tatort, used his video to sarcastically praise the media for uncritically supporting the government’s measures and shutting out scientists who didn’t toe its line.

Following their release last Thursday, the videos initially drew praise from figures from the far ends of Germany’s political spectrum, with the former spy chief Hans-Georg Maaßen calling the initiative “fantastic” on social media and Die Linke’s parliamentary chairperson, Sahra Wagenknecht, saying it was a “great playlist”.

Twenty actors have withdrawn their videos from the campaign’s website after the backlash, with the Tatort detective Meret Becker saying “this being instrumentalised by the right wing is really the last thing I wanted”.

In a statement on their website, the campaign’s initiators distanced themselves from anti-vaxxers, Covid-deniers and the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland. Instead, the organisers claimed their videos were “about the question of how we as a society want to live”, and that “criticism of lockdown is a legitimate point of view that can be backed up with arguments and facts”.

Their campaign has already rippled beyond the world of TV entertainment, laying bare a divide on the current restrictions within Germany’s media landscape. The tabloid Bild, the country’s bestselling newspaper, and its sister broadsheet Die Welt, have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the nationwide “emergency brake” rules that came into effect this weekend, and shown at least partial sympathy for the actors’ campaign.

At the start of the pandemic Germany had high levels of compliance with social distancing measures introduced to curb the spread of the virus. Even when the government agreed on a second lockdown in the winter, 67% of those surveyed in polls showed their approval.

As the country is about to enter its sixth month of restrictions, with an ever-changing set of rules and a sense of the pandemic’s management slipping from the grasp of Angela Merkel’s government, however, public attitudes have begun to turn.

Surveys nonetheless suggest the #closeitalldown campaign still represents a minority view, and that a majority in Germany believes a hard lockdown to be inevitable before the country can return to normal. At the start of April, 48% of those questioned by the pollsters Infratest dimap wanted restrictions to go further, while only 24% thought they went too far.

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