Real life unexpectedly clashed with fiction in the making of German drama Sløborn, in which a virus ravages an island community. Showrunner Christian Alvart fills DQ in on the eight-part series.
When he pitched the idea for his latest series, Christian Alvart could have had no idea how prescient his fictional story would turn out to be. Sløborn, which launches on Germany’s ZDFneo tomorrow, brings together a disparate group of characters who are suddenly struck down by a deadly virus that sweeps across their island community.
The series, named after the show’s setting, introduces 15-year-old Evelin Kern (Emily Kusche), who does not yet know she is pregnant by her teacher Milan Gruber (Marc Benjamin); her classmate Herm (Adrian Grünewald), who is bullied by his fellow students, including Fiete (Tim Bülow); eccentric star author Nikolai Wagner (Alexander Scheer), who is broke, struggling with drug problems and writer’s block; and Magnus Fisker (Roland Møller), who is leading a rehabilitation project for young offenders.
During a beach party, Fiete and his friends find a capsized boat containing the mummified bodies of a couple who died from a mysterious virus, which the youths unknowingly carry back to the shore.
After developing the show for two years, Alvart pitched Sløborn to ZDF last February at Berlinale. With partners such as distributor ZDF Enterprises and financiers Tobis and Nordisk Film subsequently joining his Syrreal Entertainment Production label on the project, filming took place between September and November on the North Sea island of Norderney and at the Polish seaside resort of Sopot, among other locations. Then, as post-production began in December, news began to spread of a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China…
“It’s a freaky coincidence,” says Alvart, whose series focuses on an extremely deadly pigeon flu. “You’re leaving the set, shooting all these scenes with people wearing masks and people freaking out over the government telling them what to do. It gets very intense towards the end of the series, and then you leave the set and everything you’ve discussed for years – how would people behave, how much fear drives our society – then plays out in slow motion in real life while you’re editing it.
“Every time I talked to an actor or the editor, we spent the first 10 minutes getting over the fact this is now happening. It was bizarre for the whole world, but there was an extra level of weird for everyone involved in the show.”
Having spent so long researching and studying viruses for the series, Alvart says he quickly became aware that governments around the world were not doing enough to prepare for Covid-19. “When the real virus hit us, I was a little more scared than the average person because I know this is very serious and could mean a society-shaking event,” he says. “Corona is not harmless at all, but it is still not the most dangerous or lethal virus, and it’s a wake-up to the world about, with globalisation, how fast it travels and if it breaks out somewhere, we’re going to get it here.”
The writer and director admits that, during post-production, he was nervous about the possibility that a show depicting an epidemic and its effects on its characters might look silly compared with current events in real life. However, he’s confident the finished product avoids any such pitfalls, with many parallels running between the series and the Covid-19 world.
“What differentiates us from virus movies is that this is about personal responsibility in these times where you don’t know who to trust anymore,” Alvart says, pointing to real examples including the 2014 sinking of Korean ship Sewol, where many passengers died because they followed orders to stay in their cabins.
“It was my core belief in the past that you do what the doctor says in case you’re sick, or you do what the cops say. But there were several cases like the one in Korea, even in Europe, where I thought you can never give up personal responsibility for yourself. Now, with society not agreeing on facts anymore – and for every opinion, there’s a counter opinion – it’s getting increasingly difficult [to know who to believe].
“The idea for Sløborn was, ‘What if a society like ours now that doesn’t trust facts, each other or the authorities is hit by a virus? How does it play out on a personal level?’ That’s why we made the conscious decision not to be in the room with [people in positions of] power on this show. We’re only with regular people and families on an island [and not politicians]. The show is us. What happens to us when we are hit by something like this? If you come back to real life, it’s even more like the real world now because we are not in the room with power and 99% of people aren’t, so everybody will see themselves in this show.”
Alvart first began thinking about the themes behind Sløborn when he was living in LA following the success of his 2005 crime thriller Antikörper (Antibodies). He was receiving lots of offers from Hollywood and working with stars such as Renée Zellweger, Bradley Cooper and Dennis Quaid. He describes that period as “probably the most exciting time of my life,” which also coincided with a swine flu epidemic in Mexico in 2009.
“The news over there [in the US] was very dramatic,” he remembers. “It was predicting doom and gloom and that maybe this could be the apocalypse. I was like, ‘This is interesting because the news tells us this might be the apocalypse but I care about my career and I’m compartmentalising my own life.’ Then I saw everyone was basically doing that. I realised humanity will keep going. We’re just worrying about what’s close to us and keeping going as long as possible until it hits us in the face. This is a great metaphor for everything we’re facing in our society.
“Then when I was in the writers room, I set a goal that the storylines had to be interesting enough that the audience is invested in them, and even if there’s no virus hitting the story, we should still be able to write it to a satisfying, tense conclusion. The virus storyline is almost disrupting our other storylines. That’s where this whole thing started.”
Four years ago, Alvart partnered with writer Henner Schulte-Holtey to develop the story. And after working with Kusche on his 2018 movie Steig. Nicht. Aus! (Don’t. Get. Out!), Alvart came up with Sløborn’s main character, Evelin. Last year, ZDF came on board and the series quickly rolled into production.
Having built a reputation as a director who writes many of his own screenplays, Alvart honed his approach to television on his 2018 Netflix drama Dogs of Berlin, a crime series set in the Berlin underworld. First he sets up his vision for the series before taking it into a writers room, where it can be tested, pulled apart and rebuilt.
He worked with Schulte-Holtey to draft storylines for the whole season, before writers Erol Yesilkaya, Siegfried Kamml and Arend Remmers joined to pen individual episodes. “Then we go back to the room, we discuss the shortcomings and the successes of each episode and the writers get another crack,” he explains. Alvart subsequently takes a final pass at each script.
“Every episode or script is at least co-written by me because it has to fit. It’s one story and it has to feel consistent. Some characters talk slightly differently in every episode before I do my draft. The writer who arrives on the island, he has a very specific way of talking where every line I had to rewrite so it becomes this very specific tone he has. He’s a weird, intellectual, hipster writer who doesn’t talk like everyone else.”
Unlike on Dogs of Berlin, for which Alvart directed all 10 parts, this time he shares duties behind the camera with Adolfo Kolmerer (Snowflake, Abikalypse), who has also linked up with Alvart’s Syrreal. This also gave Alvart more time to focus on other areas of the project and fulfil the multiple demands of his role as showrunner.
“There’s a misconception, at least in Germany, where if people are head writers, they think they are already showrunners,” he says. “That’s weird because someone running the show should also be responsible for the show as the producer, and I am the producer along with my partners at Syrreal. I’m writing, I’m directing, I created it, I produce and I am the DOP on my episodes, so I think I’m not overreaching in taking that position.”
Large sections of filming took place in Poland to offer German viewers an unfamiliar landscape. More familiar to Alvart, meanwhile, were the key members of his crew, with whom he works on every project.
“I’ve been shooting so much lately. In any given year, I have several projects, sometimes a show and movie, or I had a year with three movies, and this is only possible because I work with the same core crew on every project, including the gaffer, first assistant camera and the grips,” he says.
“It’s not just heads of departments but the technical crew. They’re amazing, and really the whole set is a well-oiled machine. That’s why it wasn’t that challenging [making Sløborn], even when shooting on water or in the cold or in a different country. I always have the team with me and they’re super reliable, so I feel very comfortable taking on all these things like shooting with kids, on water or with animals. Everything that people tell you not to do is OK!”
While Alvart imagines Sløborn to run to multiple seasons, this self-contained first season poses the question ‘what would you do?’ if faced with a similar situation. It also puts the spotlight on the balance between accepting expert advice and taking personal responsibility for yourself and your family.
“You can’t go nuts or go full-on conspiracy theorist because then you’re not responsible anymore, but you also can’t go 100% ‘I’m doing what I’m being told.’ It’s a very interesting dilemma,” Alvart sums up. “It’s getting more and more difficult to trust your eyes and ears, and you need to trust your logical reasoning more. If there’s one thing that makes my heart bleed every day, it’s how you’re not able to reason anymore. That should be the number-one priority of our society.”