Out of the shadows
DQ heads to Prague to meet the cast and crew of Shadowplay, a crime drama set in post-war Berlin where characters with competing agendas battle for power in a lawless city.
Two weeks before filming wraps on Shadowplay, shooting has been paused because of a brief but torrential downpour that punctuates the baking Prague sunshine. To shelter from the rain, some of the cast and crew gather in a large white marquee on the outskirts of the historic Czech capital, where post-Second World War Berlin has been recreated in astonishing detail.
In Kladno, 30km from Prague, a 19th century coal mine has been turned into six sets, including a police station and a factory. A further 60km from the city, the rubble-strewn surroundings of a former sugar factory in Lenešice host 22 sets featuring bombed houses, apartments, cafes, a hotel, a bar and a checkpoint.
Walking over the dusty, uneven ground at Lenešice, the area has been transformed into a tangle of streets – signs point out Pekinger Place, Monumentstraße, Bremerstraße and Uhlandstraße – where windows and walls are strewn with bullet holes. Café Saga boasts a red and green neon sign, while newspapers hang on string lines outside a Tabak hut. Destroyed buildings appear around every corner, with real and fake rubble indistinguishable from one another.
At one end of the largest boulevard, Berlin Mitte, a green screen emerges that will later be substituted with vistas of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, while the Berninski Hotel has been constructed with towering columns outside and a revolving door that leads to the interior lobby.
When the sunshine returns, cast and crew reemerge on the set, with stars Taylor Kitsch and Nina Hoss sitting together in a military police car. “Point, shoot. Let’s get them,” Kitsch’s Max says as he hands a gun to a reluctant Hoss, playing Elsie, in a climactic scene.
New York police officer Max McLaughlin has arrived in post-war Berlin in the summer of 1946 on orders to help create a police force in the chaotic aftermath of the conflict. His primary mission is to take down Werner ‘Engelmacher’ Gladow (Sebastian Koch), a figure described as the city’s Al Capone. But Max has another agenda, undertaking a secret crusade to find his missing brother Moritz (Logan Marshall-Green), a US soldier-turned-Nazi hunter.
The series comes from writer-director Måns Mårlind (The Bridge, Midnight Sun), who initially wanted to explore the short period of time between the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.
“It began with the idea of having broken characters in a broken city,” he tells DQ on set in August 2019. “But that is not the plot. That is just an arena. A year later, I went to Berlin with my family and went to a restaurant called Max and Moritz that has been there since the First World War and is named after a comic book from the 19th century.
“They were these two brothers who played mischievous tricks on the little village they played in, and they’re really bad. There’s not a kid in Germany who doesn’t know about Max and Moritz, but I had no clue who they were. Then I got fascinated by it and said, ‘Why hasn’t anybody done a twisted version of these guys?’ And I realised maybe this was what I needed for my Berlin story. But I knew I wanted the main character to be American because I wanted someone to be a fish out of water.”
The timeless themes of the series are what make the show feel contemporary, Mårlind says, despite its setting. “The theme has always been ‘change begins in darkness.’ When you’re at rock bottom, it’s really interesting to see who changes how and why. That’s what interested me. Four or five years ago when I began talking about it, I was actually thinking, ‘Well, will somebody pick this up? Nazis – who the fuck cares?’ It’s a long time ago and nobody cares.
“Now we have a US president saying there are ‘fine people on both sides’ [of a demonstration led by white supremacist groups and opposition protestors] and suddenly it is really relevant, but that was never the idea. I never want to preach in the things I do – I like people to pick up things and learn things about the Holocaust and horrible things like that, but it’s all within this emotional murder chase.”
Best known for starring in US dramas Friday Night Lights, True Detective and Waco, Kitsch says Shadowplay’s complex filming schedule – scenes from episode one are still being filmed on day 80 – has been an eye-opening experience.
“That’s one of the tougher things on this one. I’ve never had to do that,” says the Canadian-born actor who has made his home in Austin, Texas. “It’s a lot tougher to juggle eight hours of story about your relationships with everyone and how they evolve. That’s been a battle sometimes.”
Having been given the script by his agent, who suggested he might “dig it,” Kitsch says he was fascinated by the show’s period setting in which his character Max aims to resolve some unfinished business with his brother while also partnering with Elsie to tackle injustices taking place in Berlin.
By the end of filming, Kitsch will have been on set for 85 out of 90 shooting days. “I’m gassed,” he admits. “My knee is angry, running through these ruins. It doesn’t want to do it. That’s probably been the biggest stuff. I love the gun work and I’m very lucky I’ve been trained by good people. Maybe my gun work is a little modern; I’d rather look badass. There are also some fucking huge action sequences. Logan and I have a good fight in episode six. It’s pretty stunt heavy.”
Max’s new partner, Elsie Garten, is a former university teacher who has chosen to become a police officer because it’s the job that provides the most food coupons. Her station is manned by women, teenagers and elderly men, who are referred to as ‘scarecrows’ because of their mismatched appearance. But after Elsie and Max initially clash, they soon come together to help build a new police force from scratch in a city that has seen thousands of rapes and murders since the end of the war.
“It was a really lawless city and she says, ‘We’ve got to make this place a better place.’ She’s quite a hopeful character,” Hoss says of Elsie. “At first they clash and she’s like, ‘Why do I get someone from America to tell us what to do?’ But very quickly a partnership arises. It’s full of humour and they have lots of respect for each other, but also no one can be trusted. Everyone has their own agenda. Her agenda is to help her husband. He’s in the Russian prisoners camp, and that puts pressure on Elsie because she has to do something she doesn’t necessarily want to do to give him the chance to get out.”
Hoss, an award-winning German film actor whose screen career also includes an appearance in US drama Homeland, says she was “blown away” by Mårlind’s scripts, which she describes as intricate and complicated.
“He doesn’t judge any of the characters. I wanted to play all of them,” she says. “All of these characters that lead you through this story, they are all fantastically intricate and there’s something to explore with them. They have surprising storylines. It’s brilliant writing.
“Germans don’t speak so much about what happened after the war. It’s like a time that no one can quite remember. I was fascinated, especially with my character Elsie, that women just had to do what men normally would do. They became builders, policewomen and shop owners. They just had to get this city back up, and they did with verve.
“This time in Berlin is a very special place, because it’s completely lawless but occupied by four main powers. The Berliners don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Will they be Russian or will they be American? And then it’s this daily fight for survival, literally. It’s just such an interesting moment in time.”
Other characters in Shadowplay include American vice-councillor Tom Franklin (played by Dexter’s Michael C Hall) and his British wife Claire (Tuppence Middleton), who both seem to have ulterior motives when it comes to dealing with Max. Mårlind says he wants every character to draw some sympathy from the audience, even the seemingly villainous characters behind the dark underbelly of Berlin society.
“One of the most interesting characters is Karin, who’s a German beermaid,” the writer says of the character played by Mala Emde. “At first, she’s like a little mouse. She’s been raped and she asks for help from a gynaecologist who turns out to be the evil villain Englemacher [literally Angel Maker in German], who controls girls because he helps them access abortions.
“She becomes a killer. She kills a lot of people because she’s under the thumb of this horrible guy but whatever she does, you always feel for her. And I think that’s terrific. You sympathise with characters because they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing or they don’t want to be doing. You don’t judge them. Hopefully people won’t judge the characters.”
Produced by Tandem Productions, Bron Studios and Germany’s ZDF, which will debut the series on October 30, Shadowplay will also air on Canal+ in France and Poland, Nordic streamer Viaplay and NPO Netherlands. StudioCanal is the international distributor.
David Davoli was first pitched the idea for Shadowplay – film producer Bron’s first in-house television series – by Tandem’s Jonas Bauer in October 2017.
“The scripts just leapt off the page,” says the executive producer and Bron’s chief creative officer for television. “You read a lot of stuff, a lot of bad scripts or a lot that don’t really excite you. This one, the characters come alive in your mind right away and the world is so descriptive.
“The setting, just after the war, is a fresh take on the Holocaust and what happened in the Second World War. It gave fresh insight into that time period and explores the themes of how we’re resilient as humans and that, despite one of the worst things that’s happened to humans in history, there are survivors that come out of it. The writing was really beautiful and lyrical, and the themes are ones I thought were topical, especially in today’s political climate.”
Fellow exec producer Rola Bauer, the former MD of StudioCanal TV, was launching Midnight Sun at the time she read the first scripts for Shadowplay. “Måns sent this script, which he had written it on spec. After reading it, it was like, where do we sign?” she says.
On the ground in Prague, the production and its 111 shooting locations were overseen by Film United, a prodco based in Prague and run by producers Veronika Lencová and Rick McCallum, the latter a former Lucasfilm exec who worked as producer on the Star Wars prequels. Directing the eight-part series with his Midnight Sun collaborator Björn Stein, Mårlind had completed all eight scripts before filming began, which gave him plenty of time to ponder his biggest worry: how he was going to film the series.
“I remember there was talk about building everything at the soundstage, and I didn’t believe in that because I really wanted to make a show that feels real and gritty, which is the opposite of a soundstage,” Mårlind says. “But then we found these huge ruins outside Prague. The idea is that we had huge real ruins and in and around them. We constructed houses and stuff and then around them we have green screens, so it’s three layers of production design.
“My biggest fear was to make it real, but it feels so real. It’s 360 degrees all the time so I’m very happy with that – to get that dusty, sunny Middle Eastern feeling that we wanted for Berlin. We wanted it to be really hot and sweaty and you always get dust in your eyes. There was no running water. It’s like hell.”
Hoss says the sets, created by production designers Martin Vackar and Niels Sejer, were extremely helpful for the actors. “When you walk through these streets they created and you see these famous streets in Berlin where I live, I immediately have a feeling this is how it must have looked like – just rubble, just nothingness,” she explains.
“That helps immensely. And Måns and Bjorn’s idea was that it’s hot, that we’re always sweating and dirty. Normally, especially in German television, we’re used to seeing period drama where everyone has nice hair and everything’s clean. Here it’s the opposite. We’re down in the nitty-gritty and it comes closest to the feeling of the time.”
Despite the odd police uniforms worn by Elsie’s unit, there was an additional element that provided some amusement on set. “We have table legs as our weapons because Germans were not allowed any guns after the war,” she notes. “We run around with our table legs, which is slightly funny when in front of me is an NYPD cop with a gun and I’m with a table leg. But it’s better than nothing. At least we have something like that. It helps a lot. The whole craft around this really helps a lot to get into that character.”
Mårlind believes Shadowplay – designed as a series of two eight-episode chapters – has all the ingredients for a compelling drama that plays out on remarkably authentic and realistic sets. “Everything always come down to the perfect mix of a good plot that keeps you guessing and characters that touch you,” he says.
“And if you have that and an interesting arena, I think you’re good.”