Viewers will be transported to Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in epic German period drama Babylon Berlin.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, the story follows Gereon Rath, a police officer from Cologne investigating in the capital with his own agenda. Yet the story only serves as a way into a city overrun by organised crime and political extremism. Berlin is a metropolis for those with talent and ambition but a dead end for the impoverished masses striving for a better life.
Writers and directors Tom Tykwer, Henrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries discuss how they used to books as the basis of the 16-episode series, which they say also asks questions about German society during the emergence of the Nazis.
They also reveal how they shared responsibilities in pre-production, during shooting and in the editing process, on a production that ran to 185 shooting days and filmed on a backlot built at Studio Babelsberg, complete with four streets and squares.
Babylon Berlin is produced by X Filme, ARD Degeto, Sky and distributor Beta Film.
Nothing is as it seems in the sleepy town of Pregau, which lends its name to a German/Austrian crime drama. Writer/director Nils Willbrandt introduces DQ to some of the challenges of piecing the thriller together.
At a glance, Pregau appears to be an ordinary Austrian town. Scratch the surface, however, and therein lies a terrifying underbelly of lies, corruption and violence.
It’s this premise that sits at the centre of the simply named Pregau, an eight-part German-language drama written and directed by Nils Willbrandt.
The story centres on police officer Hannes Bucher, who finds no end of trouble, particularly as he has married into the Hartmann family, which unofficially controls the town.
One night, after a momentary lapse in judgement, Hannes sparks a chain reaction of events that threatens to tear apart his family and the once quiet world of Pregau. With the bodies starting to pile up around him, Hannes desperately tries to cover up his crimes, but finds himself spiralling deeper into trouble.
With no one to trust, the more Hannes tries to conceal his secrets, the more he uncovers the extent of the Hartmanns’ criminal operation — from high-level corruption and coercion to prostitution and human trafficking. The family control the town, and Hannes is beginning to realise just how far they will go to ensure it stays that way.
The series stars Maximilian Brückner as Hannes, alongside Ursula Strauss, Antonia Jung, Patricia Aulitzky, Thomas Schubert, Nikolai Gemel, Zoe Straub, Wolfgang Bock and Karl Fischer.
It is produced by Mona Film and Tivoli Film, in coproduction with Germany’s ARD Degeto and Austrian public broadcaster ORF, which aired the series in September and December 2016 respectively. It is distributed by Red Arrow International.
Here, creator Willbrandt tells DQ about one of the pivotal scenes in the four-part drama and the opportunity to work with a German and Austrian cast.
What is the standout scene of the series?
For me it’s the starting point of our story: police officer Hannes Bucher works in a sleepy Austrian town. When he stops a car one night, he finds his niece behind the wheel, drunk and without a licence, and with her boyfriend by her side.
Hannes makes a momentary lapse of judgment with his niece, which sets off a frightening chain of events. We call this scene ‘the blowjob scene!’
In the scene, it is very difficult to condemn either Hannes or his niece. The power of the scene is in the subtext: for a brief moment he confuses her behaviour for real affection — affection he is not getting from anywhere else — and Rosa (played by Straub) just doesn’t know what else to do to rescue the situation. However, underneath it all, there is some real emotional affection between them.
It’s a fateful moment that changes everything for both of them. Hannes realises he is not quite as good a person as he thought he was; that there is a person inside of him that he didn’t know existed until this point, but has been unleashed. And just 300 minutes later, this new person will drive him to his end.
Where and how was this scene shot logistically?
It was shot over several, thankfully very still, nights in a big field near Vienna, and was lit by moon balloons. It was hot and some of the team got ticks during filming. We filmed until sunrise, which always came too early and always caused panic on set. The area lit up at night was more or less an entire valley.
Were there any script or practical challenges you had to overcome?
In a project as big as Pregau, you learn to live with the constant feeling of a writing crisis. ‘When did this or that person do what again and when? Oh yes, right, that was 206 pages earlier in front of the shop.’ There are so many thousands of small details that it doesn’t make sense to capture them all on cue cards. So you are forced to follow your intuition or else you’ll be driven mad by tiny details, which is both exciting and frightening.
What was it like working with the cast?
Being a German is not the same as being an Austrian and vice versa. Nuances of language and culture are only partly accessible to you and so you have to delve into the collaboration through the creative people around you and their backgrounds. On this show we were especially reliant on the help of the actors to do justice to the text and the intended subtext. The long shooting time brought everyone together, and you come to feel as though you know each other inside and out. In this profession, there’s nothing better than being able to work with actors so extensively over such a long period.
What is it like filming in Austria?
Austria is a very accommodating country. The people are positive, vibrant and, above all, artistic. They also love the bizarre, the deep and, for some, even the thrill of risk-taking. Through the filming of Pregau I have made some life-long friends.
Is Pregau based on any real-life cases?
Yes, it is. I knew the family, the place, the circumstances, the feelings. I have exaggerated them and fictitiously distorted them but at the core is truth, even though this is perhaps a really frightening thought.
The rivalry between two brothers that led to the creation of sportswear giants Adidas and Puma is brought to life in a new German miniseries. DQ speaks to its creators.
They’re two of the biggest rivals in the world of sport – but this battle doesn’t take place in a stadium or arena. Instead, the origins of the conflict between sportswear giants Adidas and Puma can be found within a single German family as the story of two brothers is retold in miniseries Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle.
Set in the early 20th century, the show follows the Dassler brothers as their initial partnership sees them launch the sports shoe to international fame. But long-standing differences lead to mistrust and when they fall out, their relationship unravels and the business they founded together is split into companies that become two of the world’s biggest sports labels – Adidas, led by Adi Dassler, and Puma, run by Rudi Dassler.
Written by Christoph Silber and produced by Quirin Berg, Rivals Forever stars Hanno Koffler, Christian Friedel, Alina Levshin and Hannah Herzsprung. It comes from Wiedemann & Berg Television (The Lives of Others) in coproduction with ARD Degeto for German broadcaster ARD, and is distributed internationally by Global Screen.
“As producers, we’re always looking for strong topics and headlines that draw attention and create a reaction,” Berg explains. “The Dassler story is certainly one of the biggest family sagas recent German history has to offer, besides the fact we’re dealing with two extremely well-known brands that are loved around the globe.
“Most people in Germany have heard about the story without really knowing too much about it. That creates a perfect level of mystery and interest for a TV project. The true story itself is thrilling, dramatic and truly tragic – two brothers who share a vision and drive that vision almost to extremes but fail big time when it comes to keeping their family together. They change an industry but at the same time create a war within their family.”
In contrast with other biopics, where real-life stories are often fictionalised to inject extra drama or tension, Berg says the story of the Adidas-Puma battle needed no extra excitement as the Dasslers’ story is retold over a 50-year period.
Silber picks up: “The advantage we get from the brothers’ conflict is twofold: on the one hand, there’s an element of surprise because hardly anybody knows that behind these huge brands are two brothers who fought pretty much all their lives; and on the other is the narrative gain, because rather than having a typical biopic, you know from minute one to the end there’s always one element that holds everything together, the brothers, and that’s perfect for me as a writer.”
Berg says he was also fascinated by the story on a personal level, as he could relate to the central relationship: “I have a business partner who co-owns my company and he is my oldest friend as well. We went to school together and started to do films 20 years ago. So I could really relate to the brothers sharing one vision and fighting for it, building a company – and I was wondering what could happen to tear them apart? We’re sure it won’t happen to us and that’s something we definitely take from the story. The Dasslers paid a high price for being so competitive and successful. They sacrificed their brotherhood, their family.”
In terms of research for the three-hour series, Silber says there was already a lot of material concerning the brothers’ relationship in the public domain, adding that Adidas and Puma were very welcoming of the project.
“Those companies are no longer owned by the family, they’re owned by investors and shareholders,” Berg says, “so they are still competitors but today the big enemy is Nike. They were very open, collaborative and fair. The families are no longer involved and all the material is out there. There are hundreds of interviews and documentaries, so there’s a rich pool of information available for anybody who is interested.
“But, from a writer’s perspective, it’s always rewarding to meet people who are actually part of the story and it provides the benefit of adding details you wouldn’t find on the internet. Within the companies, we were lucky to find people who knew the brothers personally and had worked with them for years. That was very helpful – we wanted to find out as much as possible about the real characters.”
Silber’s television credits include crime series Tatort and Der Kriminalist. He also won an International Emmy for 2011 German-Austrian TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle). Describing himself as a history and sports buff, he admits he doesn’t like “typical” period dramas, despite frequently working in the genre.
“I always want to peel away the veil of history and get close to the characters, which is why a sports-themed period film with the brothers aspect was so appealing. It already looks like you can’t have that veil over it,” he explains. “I did a lot of reading and talked to a few people, but it was a very collaborative process with Quirin. We’ve worked together for many years, we’re very hands-on with our work on stories. I need to be writing to get into a story so I do a lot of drafts. We work very well together.”
Directors Cyrill Boss and Philipp Stennert then joined the production, into which the creative team sought to inject a sense of speed and urgency, as if the brothers are racing each other against a backdrop of 50 years of history.
Berg says: “There are many examples of movies that have a great character and depict one crucial year or focus on a short episode in their life, and that has many advantages. But we wanted to tell the whole story, to give the big picture – so we decided to cover 50 years. And it’s so great to see not only the characters change over time but German society as well.
“Politics, fashion, quality of life – all those things that make and define a country changed over those years. We start shortly after World War One and end in the mid-1970s. That’s an interesting USP and not many German TV series offer that range. It’s not only about the brothers, it’s a ride through several Olympics and soccer World Cups, through German history, and we feel it’s something people will love.”
As such, one of the challenges faced by Berg and his production partner Max Wiedemann – who are behind Netflix’s first original German production, the supernatural thriller Dark – was to get every euro in the budget on screen while recreating half a century of time periods.
“There are several very crucial and budget-intensive sequences but our focus is on the family,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges was changing the production design and sets across the years. And obviously we have actors playing the same role over 50 years, so we had a great make-up team to make that happen. You want to stick with the same actor for all those decades so when it comes to make-up, it’s a tricky task but it worked well. You follow the same person and you almost feel part of the family at the end because they shared so many moments of their lives with you.”
Rivals Forever is the latest German drama set to warrant international attention, following in the footsteps of Deutschland 83, Generation War and Naked Among Wolves. Coincidentally, another German broadcaster, RTL, also ordered its own version the Dasslers’ story, with TV movie Duel of the Brothers – The story of Adidas and Puma. It premiered in March this year.
Berg says the self-financing German market is now opening up to seek investment from other territories, increasing the opportunity for German stories to be made for an international audience. “The whole industry is globalising more,” he notes. “In every country you will find amazing local stories that have a global scale. That certainly applies to the true story of Adidas and Puma and I’m glad we were able to pull this project off for ARD and an audience all around the world.”
Silber adds that 10 or 20 years ago, plans to tell the origin story of the two sportswear labels might have run into hostility, but those tensions have now cooled: “There’s been a generational change and the heat of that conflict isn’t so high any more. They’ve pretty much made peace and they can co-exist as two strong brands. Today it’s easier to tell the story, but the market has also changed. Germany is more eager to tell stories that reach out to an international market and don’t just focus on one audience. This story is ideal for that.”
And those successes are spreading confidence across the industry.
One of the most ambitious new series coming out of Germany is Babylon Berlin, which starts filming next month.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, it centres on police inspector Gereon Rath in 1920s Berlin – a hotbed of drugs and politics, murder and art, emancipation and extremism.
It was created by showrunner Tom Tykwer (Sense 8) and his writer/director team Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, and stars Volker Bruch (Generation War) and Liv Lisa Fries.
Babylon Berlin is particularly groundbreaking as it’s a collaboration between pay TV platform Sky, X-Filme, public broadcast group ARD and Beta Film, which is distributing the series worldwide. Sky will broadcast the series in 2017 and ARD in 2018.
Furthermore, the parties have all signed on for two seasons of the series. X-Filme producer Stefan Arndt says: “We’re particularly happy that we’ll be able to complete two seasons of eight episodes each during the first shooting. This shows how enthusiastic and confident all of the partners are in our joint project.”
That Sky and ARD have come together on the project is particularly unique, signalling both Sky’s ambitions to break into original German drama and the unique financing strategy in place to bring the series to life.
Volker Herres, programme director at ARD-owned Das Erste, which will air the series, says: “We would like to build on the incredible success of Volker Kutscher’s novels. These are exciting stories with a historical background, and we want to present them to German television audiences in a serial production that holds up to international standards. With this goal, we benefit from a collaboration between three strong partners so X Filme and Tom Tykwer can implement the detective series in grand style.”
Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto continues: “Due to the subject, the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, the first international reactions to the project have been very positive. Babylon Berlin doesn’t need to take second stage to any of the major international series.”
For Sky, Babylon Berlin is just the start of its original drama strategy, which is being built on top of exclusive acquisition deals for content from US premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime.
Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Deutschland, says the series “is an exceptional project and a perfect match for Sky – bold storytelling, an outstanding cast and Tom Tykwer’s incredibly creative team.
“The co-operation between X Filme, ARD Degeto and Beta Film is an impressive example of a fruitful and fair collaboration where all the partners are striking a unique path for Germany and Austria. With Babylon Berlin, we are adding an in-house German production segment to our exclusive international agreements with such major partners as HBO and Showtime – a direction we will be moving in even more in the future.”
Christine Strobl, MD of producer ARD Degeto, adds: “Babylon Berlin is a special project and very important for ARD. With this series, ARD Degeto will be offering Das Erste audiences a real treat that can stand up to international comparison from both narrative and visual points of view. With regard to co-operation and financing, such an exceptional project deserves an exceptional approach. I am looking forward to the upcoming start of filming – judging from the screenplays, we can expect some outstanding television.”
For Tykwer and his colleagues von Borries and Handloegten, the project marks the end of a search for a unique story to tell on Germany television.
“For a long time, we were searching for subject matter that could tell the story of this era in all its facets,” he explains. “We finally found it in Kutscher’s novels. And after Achim, Hendrik and I spent three years working intensively on the screenplay, I can hardly wait to get started.”
Von Borries picks up: “The final years of the Weimar Republic were a time of continual crisis and constant attacks from political extremists. A rapidly growing city with immigrants from all over the world was in the middle of it all – Berlin, the international melting pot, with the pressure constantly mounting. This was a source of inexhaustible material for us as authors. And to finally have the opportunity to portray the atmosphere of the late 1920s is a challenge to us as directors – absolutely huge and incredibly exciting.”
Of course, one of the central characters in the series is the city itself, which Handloegten says was characterised at the time by its fast pace, freedom and diversity.
“But soon it was too much speed, too much freedom, too much diversity,” he adds. “It was a city that was always becoming but never was. In Babylon Berlin, the city is the protagonist. And Berlin in 1929 is a bestial, monstrous, famished and satiated, exalted and down-to-earth, elegant and degenerate, perverse and chaste… and mysterious protagonist. It is the best thing that could happen to an author and director.”
German drama is also set to receive a boost from Netflix and Amazon, which have both ordered their first original German-language series.
Matthias Schweighofer will star in, direct and produce Amazon series Wanted, about a man who becomes the target of a mysterious hacking attack that puts him and his family in danger.
Dark, described as a family saga with a supernatural twist, comes to Netflix from producers Widermann & Berg (The Lives of Others) and is directed by Baran bo Odar. It is due to air in 2017.
The story is set in a German town in the present day where the disappearance of two young children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. It goes on to take a supernatural twist that ties back to the same town in 1986.
“Dark is a milestone for the German market and for us as a company,” says producer Quirin Berg. “Baran bo Odar and (writer) Jantje Friese are outstanding talents and we are glad they shared this amazing idea with us. We feel privileged to continue our collaboration with both of them and we are all thrilled to join forces with a great team at Netflix to create something truly unique.”
By pushing the boundaries of its homegrown series, both in terms of story and where they can be found, German drama is going from strength to strength at a time when there is a growing demand to see its stories played out on the international stage.