After watching the BBC comedy series The Cleaner staring Greg Davies, I was surprised to learn that it was actually a remake of a German comedy series called Der Tatortreiniger1. I don't think I've ever seen a German sitcom before, so I found the US DVDs (which is the only way to watch it with English subtitles) and gave it a go.
It is fantastisch! It veers between farce, satire, and slapstick effortlessly. Just the right amount of witty and grotesque. I thoroughly enjoyed having my schoolboy German lessons flung back in my face as I creased with laughter.
But what is really delightful, is noticing how the UK remake is similar to (and where it differs from) the original. The opening credits are largely identical - down to the Hula Girl. Schotty is a smoker while Wicky is a vaper. Schotty has a cool catchphrase "my work begins where others pass in horror" - whereas Wicky... well, he's just funnier.
Schotty - the German cleaner - is much less likeable than Greg Davies's Wicky. In the very first episode of Tatortreiniger, Schotty propositions a prostitute for oral sex in the middle of a crime scene. You don't get that on the BBC! Nor do you get Wicky reading a porn mag, being emotionally blackmailed into a visa-scam marriage, and being a bit sleazy.
The UK version has recognisable guest stars - Helena Bonham-Carter, David Mitchell, Asim Chaudhry - perhaps the German guest stars are equally big at home and I am just uncultured?
Either way, both series are great and act as a mirror to what different audiences find interesting, amusing, and offensive.
Here's a quick rundown of the differences - some a quite dramatic and other relatively subtle. (Spoilers ahead!)
The Cleaner is taken hostage by a murder who returns to the scene of the crime!
The main difference in the UK version is having the murder be a woman. Does that make the murderer more sympathetic? Probably not, but it shifts the tone considerably.
Wicky is unambiguously the good-guy here; tipping off the police. Whereas Schotty is, as always, a more morally flexible character.
The Cleaner is working next-door to a novelist.
Almost a shot-for-shot remake! Interesting to see how the actors attack the slapstick elements of the plot. To my mind the German one is funnier - but it's a close call.
Wicky / Schotty has an embarrassing encounter with a vegan woman who uses a wheelchair.
This is a tough one. Greg Davies is simply funnier as someone always putting his foot in his mouth. But the German version is brutal in how the rest of the characters treat the disabled woman. The heartbreaking cruelty is what elevates the subsequent comedy. The UK version also undermines the character by turning her into a hypocrite.
An old woman over-reacts to someone damaging her sofa.
Again, this is close to a shot-for-shot remake. Very little about the plot has changed - except for the very end. The UK version introduces a lovely Chekhov's gun with, of all things, a block of lard!
Wicky is much closer to Schotty's character in this episode. You can really see him struggling over whether to accept the bribe - something fairly out of character for him, but totally in keeping with Schotty.
(As an aside, the credits for the UK episode indicate that there was a substantial reshoot. I wonder what for? Perhaps this was shot as a pilot? One for DirtyFeed to cover in a few decades.)
A social media influencer wants The Cleaner to "put the blood back" so they can grieve on-screen.
This is the first UK one which has been totally rewritten. In the German version, Schotty has to contend with a faded reality-TV star desperate to promote her album. She's a tragic figure hoping for one last roll of the dice - but Schotty is much more interesting to the TV crew.
The UK version has a YouTube/Twitch/TikTok star as the main character. Wicky becomes a paternal figure - trying to help a young man find his place in the world. That has echoes of Angehörige in which Schotty reveals his longing to be a father - something the UK version tackles again in S01E06 The One.
As ever, the UK version is much sillier. But, for once, is equally tragic. Both show the pernicious influence of fame and how it drives people to become monsters.
Wicky / Schotty runs into an old lover. Only to discover she's now married with kids. But - shock horror - her husband has been unfaithful to her.
The sex in the German one is much more explicit (and a good deal funnier) than the UK version. But the UK version delves much deeper into Wicky's backstory. We get to see what a pathetic figure he is/was. Schotty, by contrast, was clearly a prat as a young man - but a well-meaning one.
Both cleaners have unresolved issues about being a father. The UK one really amps up the tragedy of Wicky's loneliness - and gives us flashbacks to the characters when they were younger. The German version makes do with exposition.
So the entire first season consists of remakes. The second season is a bit more original.
The Cleaner's attempts to clean an ice-cream parlour are interrupted by an autistic young man who wants his regular peach melba.
Literally the only difference between the two plots is that Schotty's freezer is broken and so is slowly cooking him to death, whereas Wicky's freezer is - well - freezing.
Both cleaners have sisters, both have unresolved father issues, both get increasingly irate at Robert Kündrick's / Kendrick's autistic behaviour, and both write him a letter. Even the freezers look the same!
The UK one softens the final blow with a weirdly tacked on coda about Wicky taking Robert home to meet his parents. It sometimes feels like some of the extra scenes are just there to slightly differentiate it from the original.
The Cleaner finds a stash of money while working in a bar.
Another word-for-word remake. Even the scary barman has the same name - Cuddle!
The differences seem mostly superficial - Wicky finds the cash under a pool table whereas Schotty finds it taped to a pinball machine. The UK version adds a bit of a pointless love-triangle and a bit more slapstick, but that's about it.
The Cleaner meets an unfunny clown playing to an audience of one.
This is the last episode of S06 of Tatortreiniger - and it ends with Schotty (perhaps) deciding to move on from being a cleaner. The UK version gives the clown a more tragic backstory, and a celebrity cameo, but is otherwise identical. The resolution of the German version is, to my mind, superior. Having a dog as Chekov's Gun is inspired.
While cleaning a bloodbath in an electronics shop, The Cleaner meets a man prepared for the end of the world.
The stories are basically identical - although the UK version introduces a strange B-plot about a corrupt store manager, which feels a little unnecessary.
The German version feels a little sadder and isn't quite so over the top.
The UK version goes intertextual by showing a clip of Über den Wolken on one of the TVs which, due to having been shot, can only display German programmes.
A new-age Shaman helps The Cleaner by performing a spiritual cleanse of a property.
The UK one takes the comedy much further than the German version. The UK's Shaman is an obvious scam artist and the "Keyser Söze" reveal is done splendidly. The final shot of him riding off in an expensive car is an excellent end compared to Schotty waving off a guy on a bike.
That said, we do get to see a bit more of Schotty's cruelty - encouraging a classmate to use superglue to stop him wetting himself would have perhaps been a step too far for Wicky.
This is the only original episode! And yet it is easy to see the inspiration from other German episodes. The animal blood is from S05E04's Anbieterwechsel. The petty bureaucracy is littered over the German series. The tension over racism from S06E02's Özgür. Schotty is always dealing with highly strung women. Nevertheless, I find it curious that they didn't pick any of the other episodes to remake.
Two psychopaths stalk The Cleaner and a pair of hapless undertakers.
OK, this is weird. Throughout Tatortreiniger, Schotty keeps encountering a pair of bumbling undertakers. They're a nice recurring bit of comic relief. So it is strange to see them suddenly appear here.
The main plot difference is that the Welsh undertakers are concerned for Wicky's soul - whereas the German ones are desperate to sell him funeral insurance.
The UK version finally resolves the will-they-won't-they of Wicky and Ruth. The German one is much more menacing.
Of course, it's also interesting to see which episodes didn't get a remake. Schottys Kampf sees the eponymous hero go to clean a crime scene which is full of Nationalsozialismus memorabilia. It is a powerhouse of an episode. But perhaps Wicky's cheeky-chappy persona would have been out of step with the tone of the episode?
Similarly, in Angehörige, Schotty has an uncomfortable, if not homophobic, encounter with the secret gay lover of a magician (it's complicated). The campness isn't the target of the humour, particularly, but - despite all his bluster - Wicky is a lot more open-minded and sensitive than Schotty.
Der Tatortreiniger also has more flights of fancy. In Geschmacksache Schotty is psychoanalysed by the ghost of a victim being cleaned up. It introduces a delightfully surreal element which is also present in "Kampf" - where his revenge fantasies are played out for us to see.
Carpe Diem is just bonkers. The closest thing to Monty Python you wish for. A truly bizarre office full of surreal encounters. Frankly, I'd watch a whole series set in that environment.
I'm particularly disappointed that they didn't remake Der Fluch where, due to a curse, the cast has to speak in rhyming couplets - or be sent back to the start of the episode.
Also, amazing work but the translators for the English subs!
There's always a little scene during the credits in the German version. For example, the "Shaman" episode is nicely capped off with some public urination (and the title music ebbs and flows with the strength of the stream. The UK version gets a rather boring black screen with white text.
Schotty is completely alone. He is the show. Wicky has a sidekick, Ruth (Zita Sattar), a police officer who introduces the scene to him and is a love interest. She's an excellent actor, but the character feels a little superfluous - she exists to humanise Wicky. I almost wish they'd written him to be as grim as Schotty sometimes is.
Both shows are excellent. The UK version is full of Davies' usual bombast, wit, and charm. While it occasionally becomes a little maudlin, it doesn't plumb the same depths of despair as the German version.
The original is a masterpiece. It's easy to see why it was remade. A strong central character, a different location each week, and a chance to bring in a range of guest stars.
I'm sure a few of the subtler jokes about German culture flew over my head. But, if you can find a copy of the original (I think it streams on Apple TV in the US) then it is worth watching.
The ending of S07 is just beautiful. And I hope that Greg Davies is allowed to do something that brave and dramatic if The Cleaner gets renewed.
- Which translates as "The crime scene cleaner" ↩