James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.
At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.
‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.
Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.
Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.
This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.
US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.
The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.
The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.
It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.
As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.
“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”
Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”
Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.
Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.
“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”
Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.
“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”
With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”
If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.
“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.
“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”
But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.
“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”
Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”
For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.
“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.
“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”
After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.
“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”
Fresh from the global success of Cold War drama Deutschland 83, Germany’s UFA Fiction is now exploring the political and sexual revolution of 1950s Berlin in Ku’damm 56. Michael Pickard reports.
A tree-lined boulevard filled with shops, restaurants and hotels, Kurfürstendamm is described as the Champs-Élysées of Berlin.
Dating back to around 1542, the 3.5km-long avenue – known as Ku’damm – is now home to an array of fashion houses and boutiques. But in the 1920s, it was the burgeoning scene of many theatres, cafes and nightclubs.
It is also the setting for a new German period drama that has dancing at its heart.
Ku’damm 56 tells the story of Caterina Schöllack (Claudia Michelsen), a dance school owner who has three daughters, Helga, Eva and the rebellious Monika. When Monika tries to break free from her mother’s strict social conventions, she begins a search for female equality during a time when women are becoming increasingly unwilling to simply stand by their man.
Produced by UFA Fiction for German broadcaster ZDF, the three-part miniseries is written by Annette Hess and directed by Sven Bohse.
UFA Fiction has been enjoying success on the international stage with Second World War drama Generation War (Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter) and Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83, which became the first German-language series to air in the US after it was picked up by SundanceTV. It has now been sold to 20 broadcasters and online platforms worldwide.
The production company’s latest story is set in 1956, between the events of those two shows, and focuses the changing role of women 11 years after the end of the Second World War.
Nico Hofmann, CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA, says: “This is the first time a show has focused on women and tells the story of sexual liberation in the 1950s completely from a female perspective.
“I think we will start a huge debate in Germany when it airs because this is a topic nobody has ever had on their agenda. It’s not just a dancing school adventure, it’s about society in those days. It’s very critical, very sharp, and how you deal with sex and how we were educated in those days is the key issue of the whole show.”
Alexander Coridass, president and CEO of ZDF Enterprises, which distributes the series internationally, continues: “It’s the beginning of the sexual revolution. Don’t forget 1956 is only 11 years after the war – even some prisoners of war had only just returned.
“Directly after the war, women had to take over the country. Then the men returned and they wanted to take up their old roles again. Partly, at least, I experienced that myself and it was extremely interesting. On one hand, women were pushed back slightly but they became aware they didn’t have to accept it. This clash of two cultures – pre-war society and the dawn of a new era – led to political and sexual liberation. That’s a unique, spicy, sometimes funny and sometimes dramatic mixture.”
Hofmann is no stranger to using his series to start debates, following the controversy that surrounded Generation War’s depiction of the Nazi era and the subsequent conflict. Now he hopes the story of women finding their way in post-war Germany will spark new discussions.
“It’s a huge topic in Germany,” he says. “It’s very unique because you had a situation where you can say modern Germany was founded by women. There were no men. It wasn’t the same situation as in France or the UK. You had a lot of POWs coming back 10 years later. There were six million men killed. It’s a female society.
“We had a very controversial debate over Generation War. We had a month-long debate in Germany – and in Poland as well. We will have the same with this show because it’s a topic that’s never been seen. I’m amazed no one has done it before.”
Beyond the role of women, Ku’damm 56 – which will likely be called Berlin 56 for international viewers – also offers an opportunity to look at other emerging trends of the era, such as new fashions and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music.
“The fashion was great,” says Coridass. “It was conservative but stylish. At that time, the fashion and rock ‘n’ roll would still have been forbidden but, after the war, we were focused on other things. This was also the first sign of the rise of the German economy after the war. There are so many aspects that come together that we are pretty sure this will be a unique story.”
Hofmann adds: “It’s a very sharp and very critical portrait of society of those days. It’s not easy to watch. The most important thing about Annette’s script is the accuracy with which she’s portraying these women. It’s about our families, our mothers. A lot of it portrays my own mother in those days. It will have a similar impact to Generation War in terms of debate.”
While German drama has often looked back on its own history, Hofmann says the way these stories are told is now changing. “They’re moving away from kitsch and melodramatic structures and getting to a very sharp, analytical way of showing society,” he explains. “That’s why we’re proud of Deutschland 83 and Generation War, which have opened doors for me in other countries. It’s a game-changing moment for the industry in Germany. We’re now talking to (US cable channels) AMC and SundanceTV about new projects, and with Scandinavia, Italy and France about coproductions.”
In particular, Hofmann also says he plans to work more closely with Jens Richter, the CEO of distributor FremantleMedia International, and other drama producers within Fremantle’s production group.
“It’s the best time in my life,” he adds. “We have six shows on the way and made nearly €50m (US$57m) in revenues last year. We are having some very good conversations talking about what we’re doing after Deutschland 83 with SundanceTV.”
Other projects currently on UFA’s slate include three-part spy drama The Same Sky; Breaking News, about a war correspondent operating in Israel in the 1920s; and Hitler, an eight-hour biopic examining events from the Nazi leader’s rise to power to the Second World War. Based on the book Hitler’s First War by Thomas Weber, it has already been pre-sold to TF1 in France.
Another UFA drama, Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves), which tells the story of a three-year-old Jewish boy who is smuggled into the Buchenwald concentration camp in March 1945, has been sold by Global Screen to networks including SVT in Sweden, Spain’s TVE, DR in Denmark, Mediaset in Italy and KBS in South Korea.
There are reports this week that UK-based indie producer Drama Republic is developing David Nicholls’ hilarious and poignant novel Us for the BBC. The UK pubcaster is yet to confirm the project but it is likely to be a three- or four-part miniseries, with acclaimed British playwright Nick Payne lined up to write the screenplay. It’s the kind of high-profile book-based project that would sit comfortably in the Sunday evening slot that has been occupied in recent times by The Casual Vacancy and Jonathan Norrell & Mr Strange.
Nicholls has written three previous novels, two of which were adapted as movies (Starter for Ten and One Day). So the fact this one is being lined up as a TV project is another indication of the shift in the balance of power towards small-screen drama.
The switch from film to TV will suit Nicholls’ work, which is narratively and emotionally very rich. In the case of Us, the story is told from the point of view of Douglas, a married man whose wife Connie announces that she plans to leave him when their 17-year-old son Albie goes to college. Douglas takes the two of them on holiday to Europe to try to convince Connie to change her mind, while also hoping it will be an opportunity to emotionally reconnect with his son. Inevitably, the trip doesn’t go to plan.
It’s interesting that Payne will handle scriptwriting duties, given that Nicholls has a good TV screenwriting track record himself. Having first come to prominence as a writer on series such as Cold Feet and Rescue Me, he recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC, about a man who starts an affair with a woman he meets on a commuter train. Aired in 2014, that project drew an audience of 5.7 million across two episodes on consecutive nights, which isn’t too bad. Perhaps, though, the decision has been swayed by the poor reviews that the movie version of One Day received, with the LA Times calling it a “heartbreaking disappointment of a film.” There’s no question that One Day the novel is far superior to the film, so maybe Us will benefit from some outside input, with Nicholls presumably on hand in an executive producer role.
Just last night, I was thinking to myself that there aren’t enough dramas about female serial killers. So imagine my surprise when I saw that World Productions (Line of Duty) is making a two-part drama for ITV about Mary Ann Cotton, a Victorian serial killer who used arsenic to kill three of her husbands so she could claim against their insurance policies. Called Dark Angel, the production is based on David Wilson’s book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer and was commissioned by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea.
As far as anything in this life is a dead cert, this is it. Why? Because it will be directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and star Joanne Froggatt (also Downton). Anyone familiar with Downton will recall that Froggatt’s character Anna Bates spent some time under suspicion of murder – so there’s a neat link between the two shows.
Fea said of the show: “The combination of a tautly written script, an outstanding cast and great producers in World Productions make this a really exciting addition to the slate.” Dark Angel will start filming in August in Yorkshire and County Durham. It will be supported by Screen Yorkshire’s Yorkshire Content Fund, while Endemol Shine International is distributing it globally.
Still with ITV, the channel has also just commissioned six more episodes of WW2 drama Home Fires. Inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book Jambusters, it follows a group of women in a rural community during the war. It was created and written for TV by Simon Block (Lewis, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall).
WW2 has inspired a surprising number of drama series in recent years. The UK’s other recent offerings include the BBC’s Land Girls and ITV’s Foyle’s War, while Canada has given us Bomb Girls (set in a munitions factory during WW2) and, more recently, X Company. The latter is a spy thriller that debuted on CBC in February 2015. After the show’s first season generated a good response, CBC quickly took the decision to give the series a second run of 10 episodes.
WW2 has also inspired some good dramas out of continental Europe. The most high profile is Germany’s Generation War, which is one of the few German dramas to have secured sales to the English-speaking market. Another interesting title is Un Village Français (A French Village), a French show created by Frédéric Krivine, Emmanuel Daucé and Philippe Triboit. Set in a fictional village in German-occupied France, the show first aired on France 3 in 2009 and has slowly but surely picked up a loyal international fanbase. With a seventh and final series planned for 2016, the entire oeuvre was sold by 100% Distribution to MHz Networks in the US (and has also sold to MBC in Korea).
Explaining why Un Village Français has found an audience in such diverse markets, Cecilia Rossignol, director of sales & acquisitions at 100% Distribution, said it is because the show is not primarily a story of war. “It is about people who find themselves in extreme situations and must make choices. In this, it is a universal series.”
In recent weeks, we have discussed the success of Jane the Virgin, a Venezuelan telenovela that was remade for The CW in the US. With a second series recently recommissioned by The CW, there are now reports that Mediaset in Spain is to make a local version of the show. The deal underlines the beauty of having a strong formattable scripted franchise. Not only can buyers choose between licensing the Venezuelan or the US format, they can also acquire either of the completed series. With every new completed series the options increase, turning small local successes into globally successful franchises.
On a separate note, SVoD service Netflix announced this week that it will continue its rapid global roll-out with launches in Italy, Portugal and Spain during October. Echoing the recent launch in France, this may result in a new wave of investment in local productions. It might also provide a way for shows from these countries to break into the English-speaking markets (Netflix could, for example, acquire global rights to a local show and then test it in different territories if it performs well in its originating market). Overall, Netflix now has 62.3 million subscribers and is aiming to have services in around 200 countries within two years.
Built on a new willingness to tackle historical subject matter and increasing viewer acceptance of English-language shows, German drama is making international headway. DQ finds out how it’s all coming together for this growing industry.
In recent years the global dominance of Anglo-American TV drama has been challenged by a wave of innovative scripted shows from Scandinavia, France, Spain, Israel, Turkey and Korea.
But one country that should now be added to this list of emerging drama hubs is Europe’s powerhouse economy Germany. So long regarded as a creatively conservative market, Germany triumphed at 2014’s International Emmys with acclaimed miniseries Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter, pictured top). Other German-language dramas that suggest this will not be a one-off include Babylon Berlin, Shades Of Guilt and Deutschland 83.
All of this activity around German-language scripted content comes in parallel with the rise of German-backed English-language drama. Companies like Tandem Communications, Red Arrow Entertainment and Tele Munchen Group (TMG) have all become major players on the international drama scene with scripted series such as Pillars Of The Earth, Crossing Lines, Bosch, 100 Code, Moby Dick and Rosamunde Pilcher-penned miniseries. In addition to this, federal and regional incentives for film and TV have made Germany a popular production site (see panel).
To understand the German drama market in its entirety, however, it’s important to start by looking at the free-to-air public broadcasting market – which is where most of the drama audience and investment still resides. And the message here is that TV movies continue to dominate schedules. “Our audience loves TV movies,” says Susanne Mueller, head of feature films at one of Germany’s two public broadcasters, ZDF. “ZDF has been the overall leader in the German market for the past two years, and a lot of that is due to the success of our TV movies, which play in the traditional primetime slot of 20.15. We have two or three primetime slots for TV movies every week and typically get an audience of five million or more, which is very good in Germany.”
According to Mueller, there are three main categories of TV movie on ZDF: “Crime, romance and dramas dealing with contemporary social issues (such as drugs, stalking, adoption and sexuality). Sometimes we will also air comedy in the middle of the week, though that is less regular. We also sometimes acquire miniseries like The Borgias and reformat them to fit our TV movie slots.”
ZDF’s reliance on TV movies in primetime is mirrored over on ARD, Germany’s other public broadcaster. Despite a self-inflicted financial crisis that severely dented budgets at the broadcaster’s drama division, ARD Degeto, in 2012 and 2013, ARD continues to air a large number of TV movie-length dramas in primetime. Some are standalone titles and some are set up as branded franchises. An example of the latter is Tatort (Crime Scene), which has been airing at 20.15 on Sundays since 1970 and invariably rates well. Another long-running police franchise that continues to perform for ARD is Polizeiruf 110 (Emergency Call 110), on air since 1990.
ARD Degeto came out of its financial crisis with a dynamic new chief, Christine Strobl, who has a budget of around €400m (US$455m) a year to spend on drama. While ARD’s basic reliance on TV movies hasn’t changed, Strobl has made it clear that she wants to up the creative stakes at ARD, telling local media that the formula “‘beautiful landscape plus complicated family history equals success’ is no longer enough.” One title that underlines the new agenda at ARD is The Barschel Case. Produced by Cologne-based Time Warp, the show looks at the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of German politician Uwe Barschel in 1987, who may have been killed by Israeli secret service the Mossad.
Other ARD greenlights include biopics about Hans Rosenthal and Bernhard Grzimek, high-profile German figures whose career paths were dogged by personal difficulties. Rosenthal was a Jewish radio and TV host who overcame anti-Semitism in his youth to become one of Germany’s best-loved celebrities, while Grzimek was a zoo director and conservationist who was accused of being a Nazi but later acquitted of any wrongdoing. Like the Barschel film, both subjects show a growing appetite from German television to explore the country’s recent tumultuous history through the prism of character-based storytelling.
Germany’s fascination with domestically oriented TV movies has presented challenges from a content distribution perspective for a couple of reasons. First, international buyers tend to favour long-running series, because it is easier and more cost-effective to build a marketing program around them. Second, TV movies don’t lend themselves well to scripted format adaptations.
Nevertheless, leading distributors such as ZDF Enterprises, Global Screen and Beta Film have all had success selling German TV movies to markets like Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Beta Film MD Eric Welbers cites recent examples such as Anatomy of Evil (a five-movie franchise) to back the point. “The Anatomy Of Evil series has sold to RAI2, Antena3 and broadcasters in Scandinavia,” he says.
Welbers is also optimistic about the prospects of Murder by the Lake: The Celtic Mystery, the first part of a TV movie trilogy produced by Rowboat Film in partnership with Graf, ZDF and Austrian pubcaster ORF. Set on the shores of Lake Constance, the trilogy depicts German and Austrian police forced to work together on a murder case. The film attracted 6.6 million viewers on ZDF (20% share) last winter, and Welbers is confident it will do well with international buyers.
Global Screen, meanwhile, has had success with A Faithful Husband (Männertreu), an ARD primetime movie that was sold to Italy (RAI), Slovakia (STV) and Hungary (MTVA). It has also done well with Naked Among Wolves, which was pitched at Mipcom 2014 and the German Screenings last December. Directed by Philip Kadelbach (Generation War) and set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, the show aired in April and has since been sold into France, Poland, Benelux and Lithuania.
With TV movies occupying so much of their primetime schedules, ZDF and ARD tend to place series in afternoon, access primetime or late evening slots. “When we acquire British or Scandinavian drama series they usually go into the Sunday 22.00 slot,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “That’s also where we put our German crime series called The Team (which began airing in February).” An eight-part series, distributed internationally by ZDFE, The Team follows an international police unit on the trail of a cross-border crime network.
As with TV movies, German-language series have historically tended to appeal most to neighbouring markets. Betafilm’s Welbers cites Homicide Hills, a Tuesday night series on ARD that is also a strong performer on RAI in Italy, as an example. Also popular in Italy and Eastern Europe is another classic series, For Heaven’s Sake. One show that has travelled widely, says Welbers, is Kommissar Rex, a long-running police procedural centred on a police dog called Rex. Originally produced in German for Austrian pubcaster ORF, Rex has sold around the world and been remade in Italy and Poland. According to Welbers, there are also plans for a Canadian version.
ZDF Enterprises drama VP Tasja Abel says crime has historically been the strongest seller in her company’s catalogue. In particular, she points to classic series Derrick, a ZDF production that sold to markets including Australia, India, South Africa, France and Scandinavia. Global Screen has also done well with cop show Alarm For Cobra 11, which has been airing on RTL since 1996. A perennial seller, Cobra was most recently farmed out to Thailand.
Away from crime, another German-language show that has been exported widely is Storm of Love, an afternoon soap based in a five-star hotel at the foot of the Alps. Launched in 2005, the show is produced by Bavaria Film for ARD. To date, it has racked up more than 2000 50-minute episodes and been sold by Global Screen to 24 territories, including Belgium, Canada, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria and Italy. With format rights also sold to Turkey, the show was named by Madigan Cluff and Digital TV Research as “one of the 10 most valuable drama series in Europe” in 2012.
Undoubtedly the most interesting export of all, however, has been 2013’s Generation War, a high-end production that tells the story of five young German friends (one of them Jewish) living through the trauma of the Second World War. Described as Germany’s answer to Band of Brothers, the miniseries has sold to around 150 countries and, unusually, managed to secure slots on mainstream English-language networks like BBC2 in the UK.
At home, Generation War was adapted into a TV movie format and played in ZDF primetime, an unusual move for such an edgy production. For Nico Hofmann, producer of the show and head of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Films, Generation War is indicative of a new style and energy in German drama: “We have a very strong business in traditional TV movies and crime dramas, thanks to titles like Soko (ZDF) and Donna Leon (ARD), but there is a growing appetite in the market for high-end drama storytelling.”
In part, this is because broadcasters need special events to showcase their schedules, says Hofmann. But it is also a response to the fact that young German audiences are increasingly attracted to the slick narrative style of US cable drama. “The good news is that we have a wave of young talent coming over from cinema that can make great drama,” he explains. “But the unknown question is whether this kind of drama can get the kind of ratings to appeal to a mainstream primetime audience.”
This isn’t just a question for the public broadcasters, says Hofmann. Commercial broadcaster RTL (which owns RTL, RTL2 SuperRTL and Vox) has tended to rely more on factual and entertainment in primetime, “but it is expanding its interest in drama. We are making Deutschland 83 for them, a series about a young East German spy who is sent to West Berlin during the Cold War. If that can get around four to five million viewers in primetime then it might encourage broadcasters to commission more primetime series.”
Like ZDF and ARD, RTL’s upcoming drama plans focus heavily on historical subject matter. Aside from Deutschland 83, the broadcaster is also working with UFA on an epic eight-part series that looks at Adolf Hitler’s life as a soldier during World War I (a project that is likely to stir up as much debate as Generation War).
More typical for RTL is the TV movie Iron Fist, which was introduced to the international market by Global Screen at Mipcom 2014. Set in medieval Germany, it tells the story of Götz von Berlichinge, a charismatic knight who fought for the Holy Roman Empire. According to Global Screen, the film has attracted interested from markets such as France, Benelux, Eastern Europe and Asia.
While RTL doesn’t commission as much drama as ZDF or ARD in primetime, it has done extremely well in daytime with reality dramas from Filmpool, a subsidiary of All3Media. Filmpool’s Felix Wesseler says the company first hit on the idea of reality drama a decade ago and now produces around 1500 hours a year, primarily for non-primetime slots on RTL and its main rival in the free-to-air commercial TV market, Sat1. “The idea is to take real-life situations and amateur actors and then place them in a scripted drama scenario. The result is a very compelling drama at an efficient production cost, with format potential,” he explains.
Wesseler cites examples like Cases of Doubt, a family-based whodunnit in which an unsuspecting husband or wife is confronted with the possibility that a family member might have committed a crime. Now up to 600 episodes, Cases of Doubt doubled RTL’s share in its daytime slot and has been sold on to Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Other examples of this approach include Families at the Crossroads and Berlin Day & Night, a youth-based series that airs in post-primetime on RTL2.
A big hit on TV, Day & Night also has a strong online following and has spawned a spin-off series, Cologne 50667. Both series are hitting audience shares of 16-17% of 14-49s against a channel average that is generally sub-10%. “I think this is one of German drama’s mega-trends,” says Wesseler. “We’ve just been commissioned to make a new series for primetime (details regarding subject matter and broadcaster still under wraps) which will allow us to see if this format can extend to those commercially important slots.”
Like RTL, Germany’s other major commercial broadcaster Pro7Sat1 (owner of Sat1, Pro7 and Kabel 1) doesn’t air as much primetime drama as the pubcasters. However, Jochen Ketschau, its senior VP of German fiction and coproduction, stresses that “German drama has always been and still is a crucial element in the portfolio for Sat1. Key slots on Sat1 are Monday night (20.15 and 21.15) for serial drama. And Tuesday is Movie Night. For more than 20 years, Sat1 has been showing German fictional movies in this same timeslot.”
Sat1 is well known for historical movies as well as romantic comedy, comedy and drama, says Ketschau. Successes include Die Hebamme, the story of a young woman in 1799 whose ambition to train as a midwife sees her embroiled in a murder-mystery in university town Marburg.
Among other titles that have worked well for Sat1, Ketschau picks out Der Letzte Bulle and Danni Lowinski, “both of which are very successful and unique shows that have won several prizes over the past five years and have also been licensed for international markets.” In ratings terms, Ketschau says: “A good share is more or less 10% in our main target group of women aged 30-49.”
Recent times have seen Sat1 inject a new kind of energy into its primetime schedule with politics-based dramas, says Ketschau. One is Der Rucktritt, a docu-drama that follows the events leading to the resignation of former German president Christian Wulff (2010-2012). Another is Der Minister, a satire on the rise and fall of a young political star. The TV movie, produced by UFA-owned teamWorx, is loosely based on the plagiarism scandal that engulfed former German minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
As with RTL (owner of FremantleMedia), it’s important to keep in mind that Pro7Sat1 has positioned itself as an international TV business. In terms of drama, this manifests itself in two ways. First, the company sometimes joins projects as a coproduction partner. For example, it has teamed up with Munich-based Tandem Communications on a number of projects, including Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, Labyrinth and Crossing Lines.
Second, it is directly plugged into the English-language drama market through its international production/distribution division Red Arrow, whose projects include Bosch, 100 Code and Esio Trot.
Strategically, this approach allows Red Arrow to build up a slate of titles that are more attractive to buyers than the majority of German drama. It also means there is a significant level of German input on any English-language drama that is sold back into the German market.
This latter point reflects the pragmatism of the German TV market. While German drama is still the most popular form of scripted content, years of exposure to Hollywood movies and series have created a familiarity with and acceptance of dubbed English-language content. A good example of this is TMG’s run of TV movies/miniseries based on the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher (recent examples being The Other Wife, Unknown Heart and Valentine’s Kiss). These are aired on ZDF but shot in English so that TMG can sell them internationally. It’s a strategy that works. ZDF gets good ratings, while TMG sells the shows to more than 20 countries, including the likes of Spain, Scandinavia and Australia.
With more and more successful international coproductions, there’s increased willingness among German broadcasters to see this as a primary route to sourcing content. “A growing number of German producers want to see their drama succeed internationally but are restricted by the language,” says ZDF’s Mueller. “So we are seeing more projects that feature German actors and locations but are shot in English.”
Like its commercially owned counterparts, ZDF Enterprises is also investing more time and money in the international drama arena. In June 2014, it joined forces with executive producer Uwe Kersken to form G5 fiction, a joint venture designed to create original drama (miniseries, long-running series and event productions – predominantly history) with German and international market potential. Among G5’s first projects for the international market are the series Alexander the Great, with Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Vikings) as showrunner, and a miniseries called Ellis Island.
One interesting feature of the German market over the past two decades has been the strength of its free-to-air market compared with those of the US, UK and France. From a drama perspective, this has meant German pay TV has not really been a major contributor to drama investment when compared with US cable, Sky UK and Canal+.
Beta Film’s Welbers believes this might be about to change, and points to Babylon Berlin as evidence: “Babylon Berlin is a coproduction between X-Filme, ARD, Sky Germany and Beta Film that is an example of the creative risk-taking we are starting to see.”
Based on novels by Volker Kutscher, the show is set in 1920s Berlin and centres on police inspector Gereon Rath. The TV version will be headed by showrunner Tom Tykwer, whose directing credits include Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
All the partners involved see Babylon Berlin as a groundbreaking project. It is, for example, the first time ARD has gone down this kind of coproduction route with Sky Deutschland. “In order to realise this costly and intricate project, we wanted to try out a new form of co-operation with Sky,” explains ARD Chairman Lutz Marmor. “It could also be a viable model for the future.”
As for Sky Deutschland, Gary Davey, executive VP of programming at Sky, says of the show: “The story is perfectly suited to our mission statement to offer our customers high-quality productions. It describes a very special place at a very special point in history. Babylon Berlin will be the perfect addition to our successful US series.”
According to Welbers, a further illustration of the growing ambition of German pay TV channels is Weinberg, a six-hour psycho thriller series that will air on TNT Germany, Austria and Switzerland this year. Produced by Bantry Bay and Twenty Four 9 Films with Gerda Müller, Jan Kromschörder and Philipp Steffens, international distribution is again being managed by Beta Film.
The strength of Germany’s indigenous drama market, combined with its attraction to US and Scandinavian content, means it has never been a big buyer of scripted formats. But there are a couple of important examples produced by UFA for RTL. One is the long-running soap Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, adapted from the Australian series Good Times, Bad Times. Another, more recent example is a local adaptation of female prison drama Wentworth. Produced originally by FremantleMedia Australia, UFA went into production with a German version in March last year.
As evident throughout the above story, a large part of the current drama drive is built around historical subjects. If there are two notable trends here, they are the following: a willingness to tackle subjects previously thought of as taboo (like Hitler and the Nazis); and a greater exploration of periods outside WW2.
One of the richest sources of ideas is the period before the East-West reunification. Aside from Deutschland 83, for example, there has been Annette Hess’s critically acclaimed Weissensee, a family drama set in communist East Germany during the 1980s. The show first aired in 2010 and, having achieved a strong audience of around six million, will return for a third series this year. The show has also proved popular internationally, selling to Benelux, Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe.
Also of note is Bornholm Street, an ARD TV movie that took a light-hearted look at the final few hours of the Berlin Wall from the perspective of an East German border guard. The film attracted 7.5 million viewers and was named TV event of the year at the prestigious BAMBI Awards. Like Deutschland 83, it shows a new side to German drama, by tackling tough historical subjects through an ironic storytelling style more typical of the US and UK.
UFA’s Hofmann cites additional examples to underline the point about the historical flavour of German drama. One is Die Ärzte (The Doctors), which is set at the end of the 19th century in the world-famous Charité hospital in Berlin-Mitte. Another is Berlin Kurfürstendamm, the story of three young women in 1950s Berlin. “A lot of people talk about the fact that modern Germany was created by a generation of strong women, because so many men died in the war,” he says. “So this is a look at the era of sexual and social liberation they lived through.”
One other interesting dynamic worth mentioning in Germany is the existence of a strong bond between theatrical and TV, a situation that makes sense when you take account of ZDF and ARD’s dependence on TV movies. At last count, more than half of all feature films made in Germany had TV money in the budget (though there was a dip during ARD Degeto’s crisis).
A good recent example of this relationship at its best is Der Medicus (The Physician), a €10m UFA Cinema production which was a box-office success before going on to air as a two-part miniseries in ARD primetime. Hofmann says this kind of collaboration is acting as a blueprint with a raft of new projects being lined up for theatrical then television release. Worth noting here is that Der Medicus was shot in English and featured high-profile international stars Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Kingsley.
Echoing developments in other territories, increased quality in the TV market is encouraging some movie producers to place greater emphasis on TV production. A good case in point is Constantin Film, which has announced plans for TV series spin-offs of its Mortal Instruments and Resident Evil movies.
In addition, Constantin subsidiary Moovie, run by producer Oliver Berben, has been making its mark with some strong drama series. Following the success of period piece Hotel Adlon, Constantin/Moovie made Shades of Guilt, a 6×60’ legal/crime series based on true cases and featuring Moritz Bleibtreu. Distributed by Beta Film, the well-received show “is not a crime-solving series but a series that explores the motives of the people who commit crimes,” explains Beta Films’ Welbers.
The growing significance of TV is also having an impact on the European Film Market, which took place this year from February 5-13 in Berlin. This year, an expanded emphasis on TV saw the launch of a Drama Series Day and enhanced opportunities for screening, buying, selling and coproduction dialogue.
Explaining the move, Matthijs Wouter Knol, director of the EFM, said: “Unusual, often complex and sophisticated, stories combined with high production values and a first-class acting ensemble are now the trademarks of successful drama series, and they have moved the format closer to film. It was therefore natural for us to offer series producers and creators a platform at the EFM for the first time.”
Finally, it’s impossible to write a drama story these days without some reference to SVoD platform Netflix. Netflix Germany opened for business in September last year with its standard offering of series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and The Killing. There is no news yet on German-language originals, but the strength of the local SVoD competition (Watchever, Maxdome, Amazon) combined with the use of local-language originals during the recent launch in France suggests that may be the next step.