Alarm für Cobra 11, the Avengers and the handling of short guys

Since summer is traditionally the TV doldrums over here, I recently found myself watching a repeat of two episodes of the long running German TV series Alarm für Cobra 11 (Alarm for Cobra 11). I’ve blogged about the show before, but the short version is that it’s a series chronicling the adventures and cases of two highway cops which generally lead to mass carnage on the highway and the most amazing car stunts you’ll see anywhere.

Since Alarm für Cobra 11 is not exactly cerebral television, it’s ideal viewing for a hot summer evening. Plus, the two episodes I watched perfectly encapsulated the mix of humour, banter, occasional emotional moments and absolutely breathtaking stuntwork that used to make Alarm für Cobra 11 good before the show decided to go all adult and grimdark from season 19 on. If you’re interested, you can watch the episodes in question, Turbo und Tacho (Turbo and Tacho) and Formel Zukunft (Future formula) online. The second episode, Formel Zukunft, is even science fiction – sort of.

The undisputed star of Alarm für Cobra 11 is Turkish-German actor Erdogan Atalay as Semir Gerkhan, since his partners – Tom Beck who stars in the episodes in question was one of the better ones IMO – keep changing every couple of seasons. Erdogan Atalay is not the first Turkish-German actor to play a lead role on German TV – that honour goes to Renan Demirkan in the late 1980s one season wonder Reporter – but his casting was a breakthrough for diversity in German television, for here was finally a Turkish-German actor playing a Turkish-German character who did not appear in a drama about discrimination, racism, xenophobia, fundamentalism or honour killings, which were the only contexts in which you saw Turkish-Germans on TV up to the mid 1990s (Nor have things changed all that much – Sibel Kekilli still gets honour-killed a lot, though she also gets to solve crimes and sleep with Tyrion Lannister). In this climate, Semir Gerkhan was a breath of fresh air, for he was simply a regular German guy who happened to be Turkish origin. His Turkishness occasionally plays a role, but it’s not a main plot point.

While watching Alarm für Cobra 11 a few days ago, one thing struck me. Now Erdogan Atalay is a rather short guy and will often be the shortest person in the scene. In fact, I used to think he would have made an excellent Wolverine some fifteen years ago, if Hugh Jackman hadn’t nabbed that particular role.

But what’s notable about Alarm für Cobra 11 is that the series makes absolutely no attempt to disguise the fact that Erdogan Atalay is a short guy. There are none of the hidden heels, thick-soled shoes and plain old orange crates that Hollywood uses to disguise height differences between actors, nor are there any of the less blatant tricks such as having the taller actor sit and the taller one stand. No, Semir simply happens to be short, just as he happens to be Turkish-German.

Now contrast this to the way Hollywood handles short male actors. The Iron Man and Avengers films are particularly blatant examples, because Robert Downey Jr. is another actor who happens to be short and yet the films take great pains to hide that fact by having him run-around in thick-soled shoes when he’s not in costume (when he is, CGI can do the trick) or having Gwynneth Paltrow walk around barefoot to even out the height difference. And in that scene in The Avengers, where Tony Stark gets into a shouting match with Steve Rogers about who is worthy of being a proper hero, Robert Downey Jr. is likely standing on a crate, because there’s no way otherwise that Tony and Steve can appear to be of the same height.

The practice is not confined to The Avengers either. For example, NCIS LA also goes to great pains to visually disguise the height differences between the actors to the point that the extremely tall actor who plays the psychologist Nate is always seen crouching and sitting to hide the fact that he towers above everybody else.

But looking at Alarm für Cobra 11 and the way that Semir is simply allowed to be short, I honestly wonder why Hollywood still feels the need to make male stars look tall, even if they’re not. Would it really matter if Tony Stark were shown to be a short guy, especially since Hawkeye, Phil Coulson and the untransformed Bruce Banner are actually allowed to be their natural not particularly impressive height? Short or not, Tony would still be a genius inventor, still be Iron Man, still be a hero. So really, what does it matter if he’s short?

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2 Responses to Alarm für Cobra 11, the Avengers and the handling of short guys

  1. Then again, the height perception might very well matter more to Robert Downey, Jr., than to Tony Stark or the producers. In Hollywood it’s often the actors who object to their real height being made evident on film.

    Really enjoyed the article.

    • Cora says:

      Good point. It might indeed be that Robert Downey Jr. is more bothered by the height perception than the filmmakers.

      I did notice when I watched a recording of an Avengers panel at San Diego Comic Con with the entire cast on stage that they were arranged like organ pipes according to height with the shorter actors on one side and the taller ones on the other, probably so the height differences wouldn’t be so notable.

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