The opening moments of "Die Kinder" are of the most mundane variety -- a mother driving her two kids to their schools, then later walking with a friend as she comes back to pick one of them up.
It is a scene of almost cliched familiarity -- a group of mothers standing around a playground, chatting, watching the toddlers play, pushing babies in strollers, waiting for their children to come out of school.
Then, in an imperceptible instant, the comfortably commonplace turns into a parent's worst nightmare. The camera shows the playground from above. It's deserted -- only one mother remains. Her daughter has not come out from school. She has disappeared.
So begins tonight's opening episode of a six-hour, six-week "Mystery," one of PBS' Mobil-funded showcases for top-notch British television. "Die Kinder" airs Thursdays at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.
After a tedious time with the police, the mother, named Sidonie Reiger -- perfectly played by Miranda Richardson -- goes to fetch her other child. He is gone, too. But she learns that their father, Stefan, her divorced husband, picked the boy up.
Stefan is German and lives in Hamburg. Sidonie is certain that her children are already on their way to Germany. When she presses the police to pursue the case quickly and forcefully, they seem more interested in her past, and that of Stefan.
It turns out that Sidonie and Stefan met in Germany 20 years ago when he was involved in radical politics and she was something of a starry-eyed hanger-on. Just before that time, there had been a deadly terrorist bombing that remains unsolved.
"Die Kinder" tells in a compelling fashion how the search for the two children and for the still-active terrorists get inextricably intertwined. The title turns out to have two meanings. Literally, it's "The Children," but it's also the name the German police gave to the leftist organization that Stefan was affiliated with.
What you have to understand is that German radical politics in the '60s was quite unlike its counterpart in the United States. Though there were a few fringe elements in this country that resorted to violence, many leftist groups in Europe considered themselves serious revolutionaries. And only a few miles away were the countries of Eastern Europe that would provide them with ideological and financial support.
But the Germany that Sidonie travels to is a different world. The Berlin wall has come down. East and West are being united. Capitalism has won the day as leftists search for a new political identity, the true believers trying to explain why their message is still germane, why the fight is not over.
In the midst of this political turmoil, the crumbling of the wall does not mean forgive and forget, let's start over to build a new Germany. It means that many old scores can now be settled, among them the bombing of two decades ago.
And so as Sidonie finds herself tracking down her husband's old friends, wandering amid the remains of this crumbling political structure, she discovers that other people are following the same trail for their own reasons.
Indeed, in Germany she finds that the police are, if anything, even less cooperative, which is, of course, in keeping with the British view of the Germans. So she resorts to a private detective, a mysterious American known as Lomax.
Lomax, gruffly played by Frederic Forrest, also conforms to British stereotypes. He is gruff and uncultured. In the first scene he has with Sidonie, he's walking around without any clothes on, assuming that she's the prostitute he's ordered up for the afternoon.
There's something bothersome about Lomax's whole character. While he's drawn as an intriguing blend of a '30s-style private eye and John LeCarre international agent, it's not at all clear what he's doing there. He seems to be added on for dramatic reasons, not an organic outgrowth of the story and plot.
But in Lomax, there might be a clue as to what "Die Kinder" is all about. While Sidonie is searching for her children and the police are searching for these aging radicals, "Die Kinder" is trying to reveal the political complexities of the post-Cold War Europe.
Lomax seems to represent the worst of capitalism, seen from Europe as that in America. It's ruthless, it's opportunistic, it's free of ideology and thinks only of its own good. Lomax is a warning sign, a weatherman telling the viewers of "Die Kinder" which way the wind is blowing in Europe.
*** A mother's search for her missing children gets police interested in her radical past.
CAST: Miranda Richardson, Frederic Forrest
TIME: Thursdays at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: PBS channels 22 and 67