Set in the aftermath of the First World War, The Master Butchers Singing Club follows German butcher Fidelis Waldvogel as he starts a new life with his wife and child in Argus, North Dakota, where he sets up shop and founds a singing club that becomes the epicentre of the local émigré community.
In this DQTV interview, star Jonas Nay (Deutschland 83/86) and producer Sarah Kirkegaard talk about how the miniseries has been adapted from Louise Erdrich’s novel and why it speaks to one of the most important issues in modern society.
Nay also discusses the casting process and how he tackled Fidelis’s Southern German dialect.
The Master Butchers Singing Club is produced by Moovie, Constantin Television, SWR and ARD Degeto for Das Erste, and distributed by Global Screen.
As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.
It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.
Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.
The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.
“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”
But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.
“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”
As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.
“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”
In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”
Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”
When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.
“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”
It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”
Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”
“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”
To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”
That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”
“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”
With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.
One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”
US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.
“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”
So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”
German film prodco 23/5 Filmproduktion is moving into TV for the first time with Das Verschwinden (The Vanishing), in which a woman searching for the truth behind her daughter’s disappearance uncovers more than she bargained for.
Since Generation War burst onto the scene in 2013, the international reputation of German drama has been surging on the back of shows such as Deutschland 83, Der Gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), 4 Blocks and Ku’Damm 56. Upcoming projects including Das Boot and Babylon Berlin are likely to ensure German scripted series remain a talking point for some time to come.
It’s no surprise, then, to see filmmakers from all corners of the country now moving into television, further proving that the film-to-TV trend isn’t just reserved for Hollywood. Among German producers now targeting the small screen is 23/5 Filmproduktion, which is finding its way in this new world with Das Verschwinden (The Vanishing), its first TV drama.
Building on another current trend – stories with a disappearance at their heart (see also The Missing, The Five, El Regreso de Lucas) – The Vanishing centres on the search for 20-year-old Janine Grabowski, played by Elisa Schlott, who goes missing from a small Bavarian town near the Czech border.
While all the evidence suggests Janine wanted to leave her rural life behind, her mother Michelle (Julia Jentsch) takes up the investigation herself and quickly finds that the more she looks for answers, the more she discovers about her daughter and the company she kept. She then begins to question whether Janine even wants to be found – and her own role in the disappearance.
The eight-part series, distributed by Beta Film, was created by writers Bernd Lange and Hans-Christian Schmid, who also directs. With five or six stories in development, they were discussing which film to shoot next when they turned to The Vanishing, a story they determined was too complex and had too many characters to squeeze into a 90-minute feature.
“While there’s this story on the surface – this woman looking for her grown-up daughter – we’re also trying to create a portrait of a small town,” Schmid tells DQ at 23/5’s Berlin office. “Then we were curious to see if we could manage an eight-hour series.”
The series is based on a true story, and Schmid says he was keen to explore why young people have such a hard time with their parents. “Nowadays in this area, there are a lot of drug issues. Crystal meth is produced along the Bavaria-Czech border and it’s transferred to these small towns where you can buy it for €10 [US$12],” he continues.
“So they have a problem with this. The other thing I wanted to find out about was what happens to you if you’re looking for your daughter, even if she’s grown up. What do you find out about her? Does the daughter even want to be found? I would call it a mother-daughter story, or a generational story. These are just questions we hopefully put in the audience’s mind so maybe they talk about it afterwards.”
After getting the green light from public broadcaster Das Erste, the immediate challenge facing Schmid and producing partner Britta Knöller was raising the budget by navigating the German regional broadcasting system. The series is coproduced with Mia Film and ARD Degeto, BR, NDR and SWR. Support also came from funding bodies FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the Czech State Fund for Cinematography.
“There’s no opportunity for independent producers like us to get a coproduction development for a TV series without losing all the rights,” Knöller explains. “If you’ve been developing for two-and-a-half years on your own, you don’t just give it up in the last five or six months, which is hard on the financial side but we managed.”
On the creative side, coming from a cinema background meant Lange and Schmid had to come to terms with a new story structure featuring enough material to fill eight hours of television. “It was just so hard to treat all the characters well and keep all the storylines up and to not just include something just to keep the story going on. It was quite challenging,” Schmid recalls.
“The structure is different; we’re used to the three-act structure and we’re both pupils of classical storytelling, but here you have seven cliffhangers so we had to create those without betraying the characters. Trying to make it look realistic and natural was tough, and if you read the third draft of the script, there’s not much left from the first treatment. It was a long, ongoing process.”
Production was completed in December last year following a 90-day shooting period for a show whose story progresses over eight days.
“Because we had one director [Schmid], we shot all the scenes at one location and then moved on to the next, so the actors were really hopping between these eight episodes, which probably isn’t the nicest thing for either the director or them,” Knöller admits.
“And, of course, you need team members who will be available for such a long journey. We shot the border scenes at the beginning and then moved up to Berlin because we had funding from the city and because it was turning to winter, so we did most of the interior shots there, such as the police station.”
Schmid worked with the production designer and cinematographer to create a show that he believes “doesn’t look like TV,” taking some inspiration from the naturalistic approach of French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned). “It’s really hard to do to German suburbia and to try to make it look like something you want to watch,” he admits.
“I liked the look of Les Revenants and the simplicity of the shots. It’s a mountain village, which is the same in our show, and there was always a lot of fog. We were there [on location] for half a year and found out how quickly the weather changes, and there was fog coming up from the forest. But you see that so often that we didn’t put much emphasis on it. Often we would just have two people talking. You don’t have to shoot every angle.”
With The Vanishing set to debut in Germany this fall, 23/5 is now working on its next feature. And while the company hasn’t ruled out another move into television, it won’t embark on another small-screen series just because it’s the fashionable thing to do.
“It’s good if you’re really well organised with the schedule,” Schmid says. “You have to be prepared to shoot four minutes [of screen time] a day. In cinema it’s usually three or two-and-a-half, and that makes a big difference. You hardly ever have the chance to step back from what you’re doing, see the rushes and dailies and do something again. But you can get used to it. I’m afraid to get used to it!”
“Producing series just to be part of the series hype is kind of foolish,” Knöller notes, adding that new financial mechanisms are required to support independent producers. She says 23/5 will observe whether broadcasters’ current demand for series holds up and, reflecting the US industry, leads to television replacing mid-budget feature films, which now struggle to get made.
“Funding institutions have already shifted some of their money for cinema to series. I don’t know how that will impact the quality of cinema, but since we are still mainly a cinema production company, I would be wary of shifting everything to TV now.”
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.