All posts by Nick Edwards

A new crossing

Der Pass (Pagan Peak) is latest drama to take inspiration from Scandinavian hit The Bridge, putting a German/Austrian spin on the cross-border crime format. But, as the producers tell DQ on set at its mountainside filming location, this is a completely new story.

Despite becoming a global hit in its original form, Scandinavian crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) has spawned several local adaptations. First there was The Bridge, set on the border between the US and Mexico; then The Tunnel, pairing the UK and France. There is also another version set between Russia and Estonia. So a new German/Austrian adaptation may not seem the most original contribution to the golden age of TV drama we are currently enjoying.

But when you find out the producers of Der Pass (or Pagan Peak, as it will be known in English) are Max Wiedemann and Quirin Berg, responsible for Netflix’s cult genre-bending hit Dark, as well as the hugely respected Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, it’s hard to be so flippant.

“We didn’t want to just remake a series that’s already been remade twice,” says Philipp Stennert, one half of the directing/writing team, the other being his long-term collaborator Cyrill Boss. Together, they recently made Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle for ARD, a miniseries about the two brothers who separately created the Adidas and Puma brands during Nazi-era Germany.

Der Pass stars Nicholas Ofczarek and Julia Jentsch

“Apart from the premise of two countries working together and finding a body on the border, everything else is pretty much a completely new story,” he says of Sky Germany’s new eight-part series, which is distributed globally by Beta Film.

In keeping with the original format, the story centres on the discovery of a murder victim on a snowy mountain pass between Austria and Germany. But the most striking difference from the original is the role of the serial killer in Der Pass. Broen was a ‘whodunnit,’ with the detectives from either side of the Swedish/Danish border spending season one trying to find out who is culpable for the atrocious and often spectacular deaths. But in Der Pass, we find out the killer’s identity early on, and thus he plays a far larger role in the series as a whole. “We’re so interested in this evil that we wanted to follow it – how do they work and what drives them?” says Stennert.

The creative team spent a lot of time researching serial killers (slightly disturbingly, hundreds of interviews with the most notorious of them, such as Charles Manson, are available online) and they worked closely with Germany’s top criminal profiler to develop the character. Franz Hartwig, the actor who plays Gregor Ansbach, Der Pass’s serial-killing IT expert, was profoundly affected by playing the character.

“It’s really weird. I came to a point that I actually understood him and liked him,” says Hartwig. “His ideas totally make sense but unfortunately he choses completely the wrong means of achieving them.”

The show is the latest adaptation of hit Scandi format Bron/Broen (The Bridge), pictured

Indeed, on the set of the series, DQ is confronted by the aftermath of one of Ansbach’s most devastating crimes. With sirens wailing and hundreds of extras playing members of the public, the police and ambulances services are all covered in a horrible grey dust as they flee an explosion in a fictionalised mall on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria. Out of this apocalyptic scene, on a brief but apparently much needed espresso break, emerges Nicholas Ofczarek, who plays Austrian police officer Gedeon Winter.

“Gedeon’s given up, he’s cynical,” he says of his character. “He’s addicted to everything – alcohol, uppers and downers – and to pay for these addictions, he’s got involved in organised crime. He’s a good cop but he’s wasted.”

However, the case sparks something in Gedeon that gives him a desire to atone for his former failings, as does his relationship with his German counterpart, Ellie Stocker, played by Julia Jentsch. “She gives my character a perspective in his life and in his job, a faith in humanity,” says Ofczarek.

But unlike the heroine of Broen – Saga Noren, who is socially awkward to the point of showing traits of Asperger syndrome – Ellie is “very in touch with herself and the humans around her,” says Ofczarek. In Broen, the male detective Martin was the happy-go-lucky one. In Der Pass, everything is reversed. Ellie presented the biggest writing challenges. “It was very hard to write a character who is truly good but also interesting,” says Stennert. But over the course of the investigation, Ellie and Gedeon’s roles switch.

The show’s creators are keen to stress its differences from the format, including swapping the personalities of its key characters

Then there is the scenery. The Alpine border between Austria and Germany is, by any standards, one of the most beautiful locations in the world. But working 2,600 metres up the side of a mountain in up to half a metre of fresh snow every day was not without its difficulties. “The snow and the mountains are 40% of the show,” says Stennert. “Part of you thinks, ‘Oh no, we have to shoot in that again, it’s going to be really tough,’ but the other half is thinking, ‘This is going to look so good.’”

Following Deutschland 83/86, Ku’damm 56/59, Berlin Babylon and Dark, Germany is now enjoying a newly earned reputation as a contributor to the best TV drama coming out of Europe. In this new, exciting industry you have to take risks and be bold – and go against Germany’s stereotypically risk-averse nature. “Sky’s drama department felt that something, between the producers, the authors and the cast, came together,” says Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Germany. Then it was time to “make sure high production values are available, put confidence in it and not question it.”

Producers Wiedemann and Berg have played no small part in raising the bar for the German industry, not only with Dark but also other highly respected recent productions such as TNT’s gangster drama 4 Blocks and neo-Nazi-focused miniseries Mitten in Deutschland: NSU (NSU: German History X). But interestingly the super-producing duo also make episodes of the show that most symbolises Germany’s traditional TV drama output: Tartot. To many, the hour-long crime series, which has been running for decades, and which features a new, neatly wrapped-up storyline each week, sums up everything the German industry should be trying to get away from.

“Tatort is like coming home; it gets the family together, it’s a great German icon. We’re very proud to be a part of Tatort,” says Berg. “Some shows attract a broad audience, some are niche. You shouldn’t compare disciplines that are very different. I love that, in TV today, there are so many different things going on.”

It seems that one of the keys to the success of Wiedemann and Berg lies in their questioning of accepted norms. Likewise for viewers sceptical about another remake of The Bridge, it may well turn out that Der Pass is the series they most eagerly binge-watch in 2018.

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Changing shades of noir

Ten years after Forbrydelsen (The Killing) first aired and with the final season of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) starting next month, Nordic crime drama has dominated the international landscape for a decade. But what does the future hold for the genre and where will those who make it go next?

The impact of Nordic noir has changed the landscape of television drama forever. It gave audiences around the world a taste for serialised TV beyond what comes out of the US, and spawned thousands of imitations, including high-profile Hollywood remakes such as AMC’s version of The Killing (based on Denmark’s Forbrydelsen) and FX’s version of The Bridge (originally Swedish/Danish drama Bron/Broen).

But in an industry that prides itself on ingenuity, the region does not want to be seen as resting on its laurels. In the small town of Lubeck, northern Germany, the film festival Nordic Film Days recently showcased the latest attempts to reboot the crime genre.

“We were nervous about the reviews,” says Bjorn Ekeberg, writer of Grenseland, TV2 Norway’s new series about an Oslo cop who goes to visit his home town only to find his family is implicated in a local murder. But much to Ekeberg’s delight, the reviews were very positive. One newspaper gave it a top rating, though the title of the review read: “Makes you forget you’re watching Nordic noir,” underlining the point not only that audiences at home are sometimes harder to please than foreign ones, but also that the backlash against genre is significant

Swedish/Danish drama The Bridge has proved hugely influential

Ekeberg, who had worked on Valkyrien, another hit from Norway, believes audiences and reviewers received Grenseland well because they were not merely watching a crime series. It’s a “family drama at its core,” he says. “The crime story is the ‘wrapping,’ so to speak.” This twist on the genre was noticed by Sky Deutschland and Netflix, which have bought the rights to air the eight-part series.

Innan vi dör (Before We Die) experiments with a different narrative style from what viewers are used to in Nordic crime. In the series from Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT, detective Hanna Svensson discovers a new threat from a restructuring of power in Stockholm’s underworld.

But the story does not start with a spectacular murder that is then investigated over 10 episodes, a structure familiar to many crime drama viewers. “This is different,” says director Simon Kaijser. “It’s not relying one on question – who did it? – It’s relying on constant tension.”

“The fast pace is different to much of Scandi noir,” adds the show’s writer, Niklas Rockström. “Every scene is moving the story forward. In Wallander [a show for which Rockström also wrote episodes], the audience is always told how you get the information that then leads to the next scene. In Before We Die, we’re trying to jump to the next plot point. The Americans are good at that; we’re trying to use their way.”

Óskar Thór Axelsson

Stella Blómkvist (pictured top) is the first original Icelandic show ordered by regional SVoD service Viaplay and was the most dramatic move away from the world of Nordic noir to be shown at Lubeck. “It’s noir,” says director Oskar Thor Axelsson, “but it’s not Scandi noir.”

The femme fatale character of Stella (who is based upon the heroine of a series of books by a mysterious and anonymous author rumoured to be part of Iceland’s political establishment), electronica soundtrack and neon visual style of the show give it an air of film noir on steroids rather than nordic noir’s naturalism. The world has its own rules that are not our reality. “You can get a crazy idea and throw it into the world and it will be fine, because that’s the world,” says Axelsson, a successful feature film director who also directed episodes of 2016 Icelandic hit Trapped.

Grenseland uses some of the familiar visual tropes of Nordic noir, such as beautiful shots of the forest on the border between Sweden and Norway, and thus eases the viewer into a world they are familiar with – but then gives them something different. Other shows, meanwhile, actively shun these tropes.

Before We Die does not make use of the famous aerial shots of lush Nordic landscapes or impressive settings (the classic example being the bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen in The Bridge) that have come to define Nordic noir.

“We did not want to do that. The story is told from the point of view of the mother and son, shot on the ground, from their point of view,” says Kaijser, who is also a feature film director. Kaijser made the acclaimed film Stockholm East with producer Maria Nordenberg, who collaborated with him again on Before We Die.

Hassel stars Ola Rapace as a hard-boiled cop

Hassel, a Swedish series (also from Viaplay), is based on as series of pulp-fiction novels about a cop investigating serious crime in Stockholm. The books were adapted for the small screen in the 1980s and the recently rebooted version is very much in the trend of moving away from the visual style of Nordic noir.

“We have used a warmer colour palette, using reds instead of blues that form the colder world of Nordic noir,” says the show’s writer, Henrik Jansson-Schweizer. “Much of Hassel is shot on location, in particular around the bridges that connect the famous, beautiful old town of Stockholm to the less wealthy suburbs. Again, this is a statement that we are in a different world with different characters.”

“Hassel is not at home drinking scotch and listening to opera,” says director Amir Chamdin, a former musician and music video and feature film director. “He came from the streets, from the same neighbourhood as the bad guys. He’s not a desk cop, he’s a street cop. He’s going to be even badder than the bad guys to get the job done.” This also reflects Chamdin and Jansson-Schweizer’s influences, which include classic 70s films such as The French Connection and Mean Streets as well as the TV cop shows they fondly recall from their childhoods, such as Baretta and Kojak.

Chamdin’s musical background provides an exhilarating operatic rhythm to the show that is in obvious contrast to the moody, brooding and ethereal soundscapes of Nordic noir. Hassel’s hard-boiled titular character, played by Ola Rapace, is certainly taking cops in a new direction from the heroes and heroines of the genre. Symbolical of the changing of the guard, one of Rapace’s early career breaks was playing Wallander’s junior officers in the Swedish series, in which Krister Henriksson played the grouchy detective.

New NRK drama Monster is unmistakably Nordic noir

Ironically, however, the show is similar to traditional Nordic noir in that it reflects social issues in Sweden right now. “There’s a big debate going on that the police don’t get enough pay, so we tried to reflect that,” says Jansson-Schweizer. Chamdin adds: “They are not wealthy people. It’s not a fancy lifestyle, it’s a commitment. Cops are struggling, man.”

But not all crime shows screened at Lubeck were trying to escape the Nordic noir tradition. NRK’s Monster is instantly recognisable as pure Nordic noir – the atmospheric and beautiful Norwegian Tundra landscape, the missing girl, a lone female detective. Even the cinematography is done by Jørgen Johansson, who worked on the genre’s most iconic series, The Bridge and The Killing. But somehow the combined storytelling skills of writer Hans Christian Storroston and director Anne Sewitsky have created something completely new.

“We have to keep the strengths but also see where can we push the archetypes, push the conventions, push this art form into something new and figure out where we can go next,” says Storroston. International broadcasters were quick to snap up the rights to air Monster, with buyers including US cable channel Starz.

Crime drama from the Nordic region is certainly going through a transitional period. Some writers and directors are pushing at the familiar tropes of Nordic noir to come up with something new, whie others reject them completely. The level of creativity and experimentation on show at Lubeck makes it clear the Nordic industry is in rude health. It seems Scandi crime drama is on a thrilling journey that viewers from around the world will no doubt be keen to watch.

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Parental guidance

Swedish comedy-drama Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family) became an instant hit when it debuted on SVT this year. With a third season already commissioned, co-creators Clara and Felix Herngren reveal how the series was inspired by their own relationship and why they think it can repeat its success overseas.

In Sweden – surely one of the most politically correct countries in the world – it’s no longer appropriate to say ‘step dad’ or ‘step mum’ because the phrases are seen to have negative connotations. So the term ‘bonus dad’ or ‘bonus mum’ has become common parlance.

Bonusfamiljen collaborators (L to R) Clara, Felix and Moa Herngren

Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family) is a Swedish comedy-drama that follows four characters who have gone through separations as they start new relationships with new partners and all the challenges this entails, from moving in together, coping with exes, raising each other’s kids, having new kids and so on.

Clara Herngren had the idea for the show, which launched earlier this year, when she found herself in this situation with husband and co-creator Felix Herngren, a famous Swedish comedian, actor and director, whose company, FLX, also produced the series.

Finding the pressures of sharing two families immensely challenging, Clara went to see a therapist and this eventually inspired her to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition: to become a therapist herself.

Overwhelmed by the number of people in bonus families who came to see her with the same problems she had faced, she soon realised it was a subject that resonated. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to do a TV series about this,” she recalls, speaking at the Berlin Prix Europa festival, where The Bonus Family was nominated in the best drama series category. “I’d spent so long looking for the perfect drama and here it was, right in front of me.”

With Felix directing and collaborating with Calle Marthin and Moa Herngren (his sister), who is also in a bonus family, they formed a writers’ room and set to work. The result is a beautifully executed bitter-sweet comedy that opens a window on modern family life.

At the centre are Lisa and Patrik (played by Vera Vitali and Erik Johansson), a couple who both have children from previous relationships and now live together to create their own family. Viewers also meet their exes, played by Petra Mede and Fredrik Hallgren, and Lisa and Patrick’s therapists, played by Johan Ulveson and Ann Petrén.

Bonusfamiljen looks at the complexities of modern family life post divorce

It has proved very popular on Sweden’s public broadcaster, SVT. Such shows usually get between 700,000 to 800,000 viewers but Bonusfamiljen drew around a million, closer to the expected ratings of crime shows that traditionally are more popular in Sweden. Netflix distributes the series, which returns for a second season in January, to more than 100 countries outside of Scandinavia.

Making Bonusfamiljen, which is filmed in Sundbyberg, just outside of Stockholm, created a new set of issues for the husband-and-wife team. “We tried to work together once and we fought immediately, so we promised each other not to work together again,” admits Felix, but this time the process was different and turned out to be therapeutic. “This had a healing effect, because we could talk about someone else’s relationship that was exactly like ours, but not ours,” he continues. “From being a bit horrifying at first, it went to being something we talked about every minute; when we were waking up, eating breakfast, until late at night.”

“We get into character, we scream, we cry,” says Clara. “Felix was almost crying sometimes when he directed as it was so close to our real lives. Talking about these characters and asking, ‘Why did you feel like that?’ or ‘Why did you do that?’ I think gave both of us a better understanding of each other.”

Bonusfamiljen is set to be adapted in the US by NBC

Like all great ideas in the TV industry, Bonusfamiljen will get the remake treatment. NBC, which aired Welcome to Sweden (another FLX production, from US comedian Greg Poehler, about his experiences of moving to his Swedish girlfriend’s homeland) is developing an English-language version. It will be written and executive produced by David Walpert, (who has worked on series such as New Girl and Will & Grace). In Europe, the remake rights have also been sold into Germany and France.

The success of Bonusfamiljen abroad will also be interesting in the context of the region’s most famous export, Scandi noir. Can Swedish comedy travel in the same way that crime shows such as Wallander, Beck and Arne Dahl have?

“Not pure Swedish comedy,” says Felix, “because it’s too local, but a mixture between the two, drama and comedy, could work abroad I think.” He certainly knows this area, as he is very well known in Sweden for Solsidan (The Sunny Side), a series he starred in and co-created that revolves around Alex (played by Felix) and his partner who are expecting their first child as they move to Alex’s childhood home.

He has also had success with the film The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window & Disappeared, which he directed, and its sequel. Both were coproduced by Netflix, which streams the films outside of Scandinavia and Germany.

His next directing project, Enkelstöten (The Simple Heist), about two middle-aged women who pull off a bank raid, is in the vein of Breaking Bad, where the most unlikely of heroes enters the crime world.

Swapping the male leads of the original 80s Swedish series and an earlier book on which it is based, The Simple Heist taps into how gender roles have changed over the years, in the same way Bonusfamiljen explores how family life is changing.

The show brought an impressive one million views to SVT

“Comedy that circles around how humans are, how families and relationships work, can travel quite well,” Felix believes.

Clara, meanwhile, is too busy with her real bonus family and the upcoming third season of the series, which will begin filming in April and air in 2019, to worry about success overseas. “I have no time and fall asleep by nine o’clock immediately,” she says. Besides, she was never a big fan of Scandi noir: “You don’t need murders and stuff like that; everyday life between people is so interesting.”

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