The first German original drama commissioned by Netflix, Dark is a family saga with a supernatural twist, set in a town where the disappearance of two children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships of four families.
A success on its launch in 2017, the show’s second season landed on Netflix in June this year.
In this DQTV interview, co-creator, writer and director Boran bo Odar talks about the journey he and his showrunning partner Jantje Friese took to bring the series to television.
He also discusses the creative process behind the show, his surprise at Dark’s popularity and how they overcame writers’ block during development of season two.
Bo Odar also touches on the changing role of directors in television and explains why he’s happy the small screen puts writers into focus.
The showrunners behind Netflix’s first original German production, supernatural thriller Dark, tell DQ why auteur filmmakers are migrating from big screen to small.
When Netflix commissioners were looking for creatives to helm what would become the global streaming giant’s first original German series production, they turned to the film festival circuit.
As with previous Netflix shows such as The OA and Dear White People, which came from the minds of Britt Marling and Justin Simian respectively, the subscription service sought out indie auteur filmmakers – specifically, the director-writer duo of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese.
The husband-and-wife pair had scored a hit at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with their hacker thriller Who Am I – No System is Safe, and Netflix approached them to see if they would be keen to adapt the movie into a series. “We said no,” Odar recalls, “because we don’t like to repeat ourselves. We get bored easily and we like to live in a world for a couple of months and then leave it and go into another world.”
Nevertheless, he and Friese had other ideas in mind, including a missing-teen thriller that blended elements of Nordic noir (think shows such as The Killing and Trapped) with a supernatural twist (à la Stranger Things and Les Revenants).
“Dark was an idea we’d had for a very long time, in different forms,” Odar says. “The title always stayed the same, like a good band, but the music changed. It was once a feature film, which was more like a Stephen King, It kind of story and then it morphed into a very typical crime story for the UK market.”
After shelving the idea for a period and later returning to it, the pair finally decided “to combine it with another idea we had, which was a supernatural twist idea, and all of a sudden a new world opened up for us,” Odar explains. “That’s what we pitched Netflix and they immediately loved the idea – that combination of family drama TV show meets supernatural phenomena.”
Dark takes place in a small German town that’s living in the shadow of a soon-to-close nuclear power plant. The disappearance of a teenage boy marks the start of a series of eerie events, putting the show’s large cast (consisting of some 72 characters) increasingly on edge.
“We both come from a small town and we’ve always been interested in the secrets and sins of people living in small towns,” says Friese, the show’s writer and co-creator. “What really happens with your neighbours and what dark avarices can you find behind their front door?”
After previewing Dark’s first two episodes at TIFF in September, Netflix launched the 10-part German-language series globally in December. The show was produced by German indie Wiedemann & Berg Film (Who Am I, Welcome to Germany), with Justyna Muesch, Quirin Berg and Max Wiedemann as executive producers alongside Friese and Odar. Amanda Krentzman, Netflix senior manager for international originals, is the exec producer for the streamer.
Friese says making the move from the world of feature films to TV was a liberating experience “because basically you have someone who says, ‘OK, this is your idea, this is how you want to make it, go ahead and make it.’ And then you just start right into it.”
She adds: “In Germany, you have so many people who have their own agenda, and when they put money into a project you get lots of notes; you kind of lose your train of thought with what you wanted to do. But it was very different with Netflix.”
Netflix’s first German series commission marks just one of a series of international initiatives to be unveiled by the streaming giant in recent months. The company made headlines in September when it unveiled a controversial, five-year original production strategy in Canada, worth some C$500m (US$398.85m). The move, announced in partnership with the Canadian government, represents Netflix’s first commissioning hub outside the US and will result in original titles in both English and French.
The same month, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Spoor, Europa Europa) signed up to direct the SVoD service’s first original Polish series. The as-yet-untitled, eight-episode show will be a Cold War spy thriller, shot in cities in Poland. Written and created by Joshua Long, it promises to deliver an alternative reality in which the Iron Curtain never fell.
And a month later, Netflix detailed its first Middle Eastern production: a comedy special starring Lebanese comedian and actor Adel Karam, which is expected to launch this year.
Despite Dark being touted as Netflix’s flagship German production, with a second season recently confirmed, Odar and Friese say they did not set out to create a particularly German-feeling show. “We always try to create stories that work internationally because we watch movies and series from all over the world and want the same with our stories,” Odar explains. “We like genre mixes. We’re influenced a lot by South Korean movies, which do that a lot, such as Bong Joon-Ho’s movies like The Host or Mother. He always combines comedy with horror, or comedy with crime, and we like that. For us, a typical thriller gets pretty boring.
“So we didn’t approach this project trying to make just a German show or just an international show; it should be for everyone.”
As for Dark’s distinct visual style, Friese says the team worked with director of photography Nikolaus Summerer to craft an offbeat suburban landscape that was partly inspired by the work of New York-based photographer Gregory Crewdson.
“He does this photography of suburbia where you have these really wide shots where, for example, you have a person standing naked with a suitcase, and you have no idea what’s happening. It’s like mystery photography. It creates this suspense. That was actually a starting point to find the look we were searching for.”
Odar adds that the creative freedom afforded by Netflix, combined with the flexibility to create something of scale and scope, came in stark contrast to the typical constraints of feature cinema. “Most filmmakers right now feel that creating a series, or a limited series, is much more intriguing or interesting, because you actually tell stories that studios don’t tell anymore on the big screen,” he says. “Nowadays it’s all superheroes, sequels, reboots and stuff like that, and that’s pretty boring for a filmmaker.
“We like some of the Marvel movies, but you can’t just wash away the market with superhero movies. It’s very boring. A cheeseburger is great, especially when you have a hangover, but you can’t have a cheeseburger every day.
“That’s the new future for filmmakers right now,” Odar adds, “something like Netflix or Amazon, where you can actually go and tell a drama. No one is making drama for the [movie] theatre anymore, or, if they are, it’s so small and low budget that no one watches it, which is also very frustrating for a filmmaker.”
Germany’s leading broadcasters have always spent heavily on TV drama. But until recently there was a feeling that their work was too domestic in character to travel.
Shows like Generation War and Deutschland 83 have changed that perception. This week, we shine a light on the writers who are driving Germany’s TV exports.
Stefan Kolditz studied theatre in Berlin then taught in universities until 2002. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote numerous projects for theatre, film and television. After honing his TV skills with classic German dramas such as Tatort and Polizeiruf 110, he had a major breakthrough in 2014 with the UFA/ZDF miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (Generation War). He followed this with an acclaimed adaptation of Bruno Aptiz’s classic novel Naked among Wolves, which aired on ARD and is distributed internationally by Global Screen. More recent projects include the film biopic Paula and TV movies for pubcasters ZDF (Ein Mann Unter Verdacht) and ARD (Mutter Reicht’s Jetzt). He has also managed to fit in two new episodes of Tatort.
Annette Hess studied playwriting in the 1990s in Berlin and then worked at ARD in various executive roles. Her life as a screenwriter began in earnest at the start of the last decade, with TV movie credits for her previous employer. Like Kolditz, she cut her teeth on long-running scripted franchises like SOKO (Cologne) and Polizeiruf 110. However, the big turning point came in 2010 with the acclaimed drama series Weissensee, which has now run for three seasons (one every two years). Since then, she has had another big hit with Ku’damm 56, a ZDF series about female emancipation in the 1950s. The UFA-produced show was good enough to secure a follow up called Ku’damm 59, which is now in the works. In 2016, Hess also wrote episodes of Der Kommissar Und Das Meer, a ZDF crime series that has been running since 2007.
Philipp Jessen is a new voice to TV having previously worked as the editor of online newspaper service Stern.de. His TV debut came in 2016 with Giftschrank, which has been described as a cross between House of Cards and Kir Royal. The series, which in English translates roughly as Poison Cabinet, goes behind the scenes at a glossy tabloid-style magazine. Joachim Kosack, producer and MD at UFA Fiction, said of the show: “I have rarely seen a script that is so captivating from the first to the last page. Giftschrank gives a fascinating insight into tabloid journalism. High tension is not only the inner view, but also the ever-recurring question of morality in journalism. You get a sense of how editorial works. It is sharp, entertaining and wise.”
Joerg & Anna Winger burst onto the scene with Deutschland 83, a Cold War drama that aired on RTL in Germany and has attracted a lot of attention internationally. The two are now working on a sequel called Deutschland 86, which will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018 before airing on RTL. Anna Winger is actually from the US, making her part of a growing trend for foreign writers to get involved in German series (others include Paula Milne and Rachael Turk). She is also developing a series for BBC America set in contemporary Berlin.
Dorothee Schön grew up in Bonn then studied film in Munich. She has written a number of TV movies and is another to have contributed to the Tatort juggernaut. After two decades working on TV movies, her next big project is a UFA-produced miniseries for ARD called Charité. A six-parter, the show tells the story of Berlin’s legendary Charité hospital, which many credit with inventing modern medical research. Schon is also lined up to write a miniseries for UFA called The Porsche Saga, which is based on a book about the car manufacturer by Stefan Aust and Thomas Ammann.
Tom Tykwer is writing Babylon Berlin with Hendrik Handleoegten and Achim Von Borries for a 2017 launch on Sky Deutschland. The lavish period piece will focus on life in 1920s Berlin. Writer/director Tykwer is best known for his movies, which include Run Lola Run, Perfume and Cloud Atlas. It’s not clear yet whether this is the start of a career in TV or a one-off project.
Christoph Silber wrote Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, a period piece about the rivalry between Adi and Rudi Dassler, the founders of Adidas and Puma. A British-German producer, director and writer based in LA, Silber has been working across film and TV since the start of the last decade. Like many of his counterparts, he has written episodes of Tatort. Among his better-known TV movies is Das Wunder von Kärnten (written with Thorsten Wettcke), which tells the true story of a three-year-old girl from Austria, who fell into the lake behind her parents’ house in 1998 and had been underwater for 30 minutes before being found. A young cardiovascular surgeon takes up the seemingly hopeless fight for the young girl’s life, and remarkably saves her. More recently, Silber has been working on the miniseries Honigfrauen, which will see the light of day on ZDF in 2017. Set in 1986, it tells the story of two young women who go on holiday to Hungary’s Lake Balaton from East Germany.
Rolf Basedow is one of a team of writers who scripted Beta Film’s NSU Germany History X, a series about far-right German nationalists produced this year. Active in the TV business since the 1970s, he has contributed to dramas like Tatort and has also written series such as Sperling and the acclaimed 10-part series Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (2010), which looked at the interplay of police and gangsters in Berlin. Following NSU, he is back to writing TV movies including Zielfahnder: Flucht in die Karpaten.
Jan Berger had a major international hit with The Physician, which was directed by Philipp Stolzl. The Berger/Stolzl combination has subsequently come to be regarded as something of a dream ticket. The pair reteamed for Beta Film’s updated version of western adventure Winnetou and are also working with UFA Fiction on a TV biopic of magicians Siegfried and Roy.
Niki Stein and Hark Bohm are writing Hitler, a high-end drama series from Beta Film that will air on RTL and has been sold to French broadcaster TF1. The 10-hour event series is based on the biography Hitler’s First War by the internationally renowned historian Thomas Weber and will “shed an unprecedented light on the most closely examined figure of modern history,” according to Beta Film. Stein (pictured), another Tatort alumnus, has written numerous TV movies. One of his best-known works is the 2012 TV movie Rommel, about the famed Second World War general. The film attracted controversy, so it will be interesting to see how Stein handles this subject.
Marc Terjung and Benedikt Gollhardt created the hit Sat1 comedy series Danni Lowinski, about a hairdresser who becomes an unconventional lawyer. The German series ran for five seasons and spawned a Dutch adaptation. Terjung (pictured) also created comedy series Edel & Starck and has written for SOKO. After working on legal dramedy Danni Lowinski, he wrote Josephine Klick – Allein Unter Cops, about a female police officer who moves from a small town to Berlin, whereupon she encounters resistance from her new colleagues.
Jantje Friese recently secured the job of writing Dark, Netflix’s first German original series. The 10-part show, directed by Baran bo Odar, is set in a German town where the disappearance of two children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. Friese studied in Munich then started her career as a commercials director. Subsequently she went into production and writing. Together with Odar, she wrote the film Who Am I?, a well-received political/cyber thriller.
Netflix is best known for its US-originated scripted series. But new funding will allow it to ramp up its investment in dramas from other parts of the world. Here we look at its efforts so far.
On Monday, Netflix announced plans to raise US$800m of debt to help finance original content. Its rationale for this is to reach a point where it has 50% original content on the platform, thus reducing its reliance on increasingly expensive rights acquisitions.
So far the streamer has made its name with US scripted originals like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things. But as it builds up its subscriber base around the world, it is also investing in non-US scripted content. It’s not clear how well Netflix’s international investments have done so far – because the company doesn’t release any ratings data. But what we do know is that its international subscriber base is growing rapidly, with an additional 3.2 million non-US customers added in the third quarter of this year. So presumably some of this tranche of funding will be earmarked for more international projects.
While it’s not possible to get an accurate picture of how individual Netflix shows perform, there are a few ways of getting a rough idea of a show’s appeal – such as IMDb scores, awards, critical notices and whether it gets recommissioned. So this week we’re taking a look at Netflix’s non-US scripted commissions and trying to formulate a view on whether the company is spending wisely.
The Crown: Produced by Left Bank Pictures for Netflix, this epic 10-part account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is reckoned to have cost US$100m to make. The UK-originated show doesn’t launch until November 4 so there is no IMDb score to refer to as yet – but the quality of the creative team suggests it will start strongly. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the story commences when the monarch is just 25, so there is scope for it to run and run if it proves popular. The success of Victoria on ITV UK, coupled with extensive sales at Mipcom last week, suggests there is an appetite for royal drama globally.
Marseille: For the French, Netflix decided to back a gritty crime drama set in the evocative south coast city. Created by Dan Franck, its appeal to the international market is bolstered by the presence of actor Gerard Depardieu. However, the first season of eight episodes, which premiered in May 2016, received a negative reaction from critics. Le Monde called it an “industrial accident,” while Canada’s Globe and Mail and the USA’s New York Times were also pretty disparaging, the latter writing it off as a clichéd copy of US cable drama. An IMDb score of 6.9 is also pretty poor – though it didn’t stop Netflix from commissioning a second season.
Between: Netflix’s first Canadian original is a six-hour survival thriller starring Jennette McCurdy (iCarly). Created by writer-director Michael McGowan, it focuses on a town afflicted by a deadly disease that kills anyone over the age of 21, leaving local teens to fend for themselves. When the government quarantines the town, a deadly power struggle ensues. The show got mixed reviews and an IMDb score of 5.9 – but was still strong enough to secure a second season, which launched in July 2016.
Suburra: Netflix greenlit this 10-episode organised crime series, set on the Roman coast, for Italy. The streamer describes Suburra as “a captivating story that involves politics, the Vatican, the Mafia, corruption, money laundering, drugs and prostitution.” The show, which will premiere in 2017, is from Cattleya, the producer behind hit series such as Gomorrah (IMDb score: 8.7) and Romanzo Criminale (8.6). Cattleya’s track record suggests Suburra will attract a decent Italian audience at launch. Also in the show’s favour is that it is a spin-off from a critically acclaimed movie of the same name (pictured), released last year. While Netflix’s international drama investments are primarily designed to attract subscribers in their respective domestic markets, the popularity of Gomorrah outside of Italy suggests Suburra could also generate a good audience globally.
The Rain: This week, Netflix ordered its first original series from Scandinavia, an apocalyptic thriller from FremantleMedia-owned Miso Film. Set 10 years after a virus has wiped out most of the Scandinavian population, The Rain follows two young siblings as they embark on a search for safety guided by their father’s notebook about the hazards of the new world. It will premiere in 2018. “Miso Film is extremely proud to produce the first Netflix original series in Scandinavia. We have been focusing on high-end drama series since we established the company in 2004 and collaborating with Netflix on The Rain will be a new milestone for our company,” said Peter Bose, producer and CEO at Denmark-based Miso Film. It’s obviously too early to say how well the show will do, but Miso has a good track record with shows like Acquitted, and Nordic drama invariably does well internationally.
Hibana: Launched in June on Netflix Japan, Hibana is a 10-part drama that tells the story of two male stand-up comedians. Based on a best-selling novel by Naoki Matayoshi, it sees an aspiring comedian and an established talent who agrees to mentor the younger man. The show has generated a lot of acclaim outside Japan from critics who think it represents a new way forward for the country’s scripted sector. Typically, Japanese dramas don’t sell very widely overseas but the new style and tone represented by Hibana could change that, and an 8.2 rating on IMDb is encouraging. “The mentor-apprentice relationship, as well as a passion in pursuing something, is very Japanese,” Netflix Japan president Greg Peters told The Japan Times. “So it’s a great opportunity to present a story that is authentically Japanese, but relatable to a broader audience.”
Dark: Ordered earlier this year, Dark is Netflix’s first German original series. The 10-part show, to be directed by Baran bo Odar and written by Jantje Friese, is described as a family saga with a supernatural twist. It’s set in a German town where the disappearance of two children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. “Dark is an incredible German story that will appeal to a global audience,” said Erik Barmack, VP of original series at Netflix. “Bo and Jantje are creative talents that have developed great projects in both Berlin and Hollywood, and we are thrilled to be working with them on our first original series entirely authored, shot and produced in Germany.” There are no details yet on Dark’s launch, but the success of Odar/Friese’s 2014 hacker film Who Am I – No System Is Safe is likely to create a lot of buzz around the series at launch.
As yet, Netflix hasn’t announced any Korean dramas, but it won’t be long before it does. At a recent press conference in Seoul, CEO Reed Hastings said: “Korea is an optimal market for Netflix as the nation has a high level of consumption, high-speed internet and a well-established mobile infrastructure. Netflix will produce various original content with Korean creative partners.”
In Australia, Netflix faces competition from Stan, which has already had an origination hit with Wolf Creek. As yet, Netflix hasn’t greenlit an original Australian show, presumably because it can rely on US dramas to build its business there. Asked about originations by The Sydney Morning Herald in June, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he would like to commission an Australian show but didn’t make any specific commitments. “Australia has such a rich production infrastructure and great talent, both in front of and behind the camera. There’s no reason we would not [commission] original shows for Australia,” he said.
Over the summer, Netflix announced that it was fully localising in Turkey. As yet there have been no Turkish commissions, but the company did do a major deal with Eccho Rights for the global distribution of 450 hours of mostly Turkish drama content – including titles such as The End and Kurt Seyit & Sura. This suggests it sees Turkish drama as a growth opportunity.
Around the same time, Netflix also expanded its Poland service to include more content subtitled or dubbed in Polish. Quizzed on his plans for Poland-based production, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said there were definitely plans to back local shows. In terms of time frame, he said it is usually three years before Netflix gets to a point of producing local shows – which would mean the first Polish commission is probably due in around 2019 or 2020. Subjects would need to appeal to the global audience, with Hastings suggesting Polish history might be a good starting point.
One country that isn’t on the Netflix radar at the moment is mainland China. Hastings recently said the chance of the SVoD service entering the country “doesn’t look good,” adding: “Disney, which is very good in China, had their movie service shut down. Apple, which is very good in China, had their movie service closed down.”
Note: One factor that may speed up Netflix’s local production plans in Europe is a proposed change in European Union law that would require on-demand players like Netflix and Amazon to invest more in local original production. If approved, the rules would require them to spend around 20% of revenues on Europe-produced original content, compared to the current 1-2%.
On the eve of MipTV 2016, German producer/distributor Beta Film sold a slate of German dramas to leading broadcasters in Scandinavia.
Among the titles picked up by DR Denmark, NRK Norway, SVT Sweden and YLE Finland were the right-wing terror trilogy NSU German History X and Tom Tykwer’s 1920s crime series Babylon Berlin.
The four networks also acquired Oliver Hirschbiegel’s spy drama The Same Sky and 15th century period drama Maximilian.
Historically, drama has travelled in the other direction – from Scandinavia to Germany. But the new deals are further evidence of the way German scripted content has started to appeal to international buyers.
Expressing the German industry’s newfound confidence, Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto – talking about Babylon Berlin – said: “Made in Germany is also a hallmark of quality in television. Due to the subject (of Babylon Berlin), the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, 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.”
That view was endorsed by Stephen Mowbray, head of acquisitions SVT, who said: “German producers are now delivering world-class fiction, and partnering with Beta secures a raft of exciting titles for the Swedish public.”
Also upbeat is Tarmo Kivikallio, head of acquisition at YLE: “New German drama is strong at the moment in Finland. The way it deals with German history is unique and thrilling. I am sure Finnish audiences will enjoy these series and I am very happy about the co-operation with Beta.”
German drama was preivously known for being quite conservative in tone and style, targeted primarily at the mainstream free-to-air domestic market. But a shift in the market came with Generation War, produced by UFA and distributed by Beta Film. A hard-hitting, high-quality exploration of the Second World War from the perspective of five young German friends, it has sold widely around the world.
The success of this show was then repeated by Deutschland 83, another UFA, which that took a quirky, offbeat look at the end of the Cold War era. The story of a young East German spy who is sent to the West on a mission, it was picked up in English-speaking markets such as the US (by SundanceTV) and the UK (Channel 4) – a significant breakthrough for German drama.
All of which brings us to Cannes’ MipTV market, where Germany will be making a lot of noise as Country of Honour. The event will be hosting numerous networking and screening events throughout the week, as well as a series of conference sessions.
In terms of drama titles, the Beta Film titles mentioned at the outset will all be on show or up for discussion. There will, for example, be a screening of NSU German History X. Produced by Gabriela Sperl (Line of Separation) and Academy Award-winning Wiedemann & Berg (The Lives of Others), this drama explores the true story of a series of murders that, despite serious hints, were only exposed as right-wing terrorism 10 years after the first killing took place.
“In the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a clandestine far-right German terrorist group called National Socialist Underground, or NSU, began operating in Germany by killing immigrants in cold blood, termed the Bosporus Serial Murders,” explains Beta Film. “It took the police and intelligence services over 10 years to hunt down the perpetrators. Beate Zschäpe, suspected to be a member of the NSU, is still on trial today.”
The 20th century has proved a strong source of inspiration for German scripted TV producers. Another project coming through from Beta Film, for example, is Hitler – a 10–hour event series based on the biography Hitler’s First War by historian Thomas Weber. The show, which promises to shed an unprecedented light on the most closely examined figure of modern history, has been pre-sold to French broadcaster TF1 and is likely to be the subject of numerous conversations with buyers next week in Cannes.
As is evident from the above scripted shows, Beta Film has played a key role in the new wave of German drama exports. But there will also be plenty of activity at MipTV involving the country’s other leading content owners. ZDF Enterprises, for example, has already had success with its crime drama The Team. And at MipTV it will launch Ku’damm 56 – Rebel With a Cause. A three-part drama produced by UFA Fiction for ZDF/ZDF Enterprises and written by Dorothee Schon, it is set in the 1950s and tells the story of young women of the era and their struggle for equality.
Also coming through is Blender, a six-part series that Tele München Gruppe is developing together with Friedrich Ani, Ina Jung and Dominik Graf. Based on a true story, the series centres on the head of a police drug squad accused of being involved in the drug world himself.
Global Screen, meanwhile, will continue selling its acclaimed TV movie Naked Among Wolves. Based on a novel about a three-year-old Jewish boy who is smuggled into the Buchenwald concentration camp in a suitcase, it has already sold to markets including the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, France, Benelux, Poland and Lithuania.
The company will also present Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the story of the battling brothers behind Adidas and Puma, set against the backdrop of the rising Nazi regime. The show has already been sold to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
One of the main sponsors of the Germany In Focus event is Red Arrow Entertainment, the content creation and distribution arm of ProSiebenSat.1 Media. For the most part, Red Arrow’s international strategy has been driven by participation in non-German scripted content (Bosch, Cleverman, Peter & Wendy, The 100 Code). But it does have a story to tell in terms of German scripted formats. Classic series The Last Cop has been adapted for France, Japan, Estonia and Russia, while Danni Lowinski was recently reversioned for the Netherlands Market.
In terms of future prospects for German drama, there is another development that points to a bright future – namely the emergence of SVoD platforms as content commissioners. Amazon, for example, has recently greenlit its first German-language series in The Wanted. Starring Matthias Schweighöfer as a Berlin convention centre project manager whose life is turned upside down following a mysterious hacking attack, the series will debut on Amazon Prime in Germany and Austria in 2017.
Netflix, meanwhile, has just unveiled plans for its first German original, a supernatural family saga called Dark. Commenting on that one, Erik Barmack, VP of International Originals at Netflix said: “Dark is an incredible German story that will appeal to a global audience.”
All in all then, it looks like we are only at the start of a boom time for German-language drama exports.
For more about Rivals Forever and an interview with Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch, be sure to pick up the latest copy of Drama Quarterly in Cannes.
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.