Tag Archives: Max Wiedemann

Around the block

Mobsters rule a corner of Berlin in German drama 4 Blocks, which has been renewed for a second season before its debut. DQ chats to the team behind the six-part series.

When it comes to mobsters on the small screen, series such as The Sopranos and Gomorrah can claim to rule the roost. But the gangs that run New Jersey and Naples respectively could be pushed off the map by the clan at the centre of a new German drama set on the streets of Berlin.

4 Blocks, which debuts on May 8 on German pay TV network TNT Series, revolves around Ali ‘Toni’ Hamady (Kida Kodr Ramadan), who has made a promise to his wife Kalila to leave behind his life of crime.

4 Blocks is set within the Arab ‘mafia’ in Berlin

But when his brother-in-law gets arrested in a police sting, Toni feels obliged to step up as leader of the clan once again and prevent his hot-headed brother Abbas (German rapper Veysel) from becoming head of the family.

Set across six episodes, 4 Blocks tells a story about friendship and family, betrayal and trust, all within an Arab mob living in the central Berlin district of Neukölln.

It is produced by Oscar-winning studio Wiedemann & Berg Television, with executive producers Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann, Eva Stadler, Karsten Rühle, Anke Greifeneder and Hannes Heyelmann. The writers are Hanno Hackfort, Bob Konrad and Richard Kropf, with Marvin Kren directing.

4 Blocks was originally conceived as a series told from the point of view of the police, but executives from TNT Serie owner Turner felt that premise was too straightforward and formulaic. Instead, they wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the Arab family.

The inspiration for the series came from an article Berg had read that said there were areas in Neukölln into which police officers would not venture alone.

“I really liked the set-up and the clans. I’ve lived in Berlin for a few years so I knew what was going on,” recalls Greifeneder, Turner’s director of original productions. “Then I said I’d like it to be a bit more radical and change the perspective by going into the clan and telling it from their perspective.

“It’s a parallel universe within society, and that’s what’s interesting. Quirin was really happy about it; they don’t very often hear suggestions to make it more radical – and that’s how the whole project started.”

Berg picks up: “There is some kind of news from Neukölln every week, every month, so it’s really something that is vibrant and has a certain momentum. The fact the police wouldn’t really go there was remarkable because it was far away from my perception of Germany as a safe place and a safe country.

4 Blocks aims to look beyond criminal gang members and into their families and personal lives

“We always wanted to tell the story from both sides, not just the police side, but there was more of that in the original concept. We really embraced Anke’s input, saying ‘Let’s be more radical.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

Because of the realities of life in Neukölln, the production team sought a story that had a balance between reality and fiction – a process that involved speaking to lots of people who actually live and work in the district.

“We spoke to officials, policemen, attorneys, lawyers and people living there,” Berg says. “It was all about treating people with respect and not judging them. We tried to really get a survey on what’s beneath the surface. For us it was not about the typical clichés of gangster life. It was more about the question of who are the people behind it, their family and their relationships.”

That’s why 4 Blocks is not just about action and organised crime, and uses the legacy of shows such as The Sopranos and Gomorrah by exploring the dynamics and relationships within the gang and what leads them to make the decisions that they make during the course of the series.

“It has some very emotional elements to it as well,” adds Hannes Heyelmann, Turner’s senior VP and managing director, central and eastern Europe and international original programming strategy. “That’s one of the big advantages when you tell the story from the inside versus the police angle. We’ve managed to show different perspectives and we’re not just fulfilling the stereotypes. This is what people on the street realised as well. When we hired some of the cast from the area and brought in lots of extras, word spread that this was not about shaping a certain image.”

Behind the scenes during production of 4 Blocks

Leading the project from a creative standpoint was director Kren, whose credits include crime drama Tatort. He has also been hired to helm forthcoming crime drama Freud, about the young psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in 1886 Vienna.

“I immediately latched on to that idea [of dramatising life inside the clan] and felt that it was really interesting,” he says. “For me as an Austrian, to try and get a foothold in this world was very difficult, and thanks to Kida, who is from a Kurd-Arab background and knows quite a few people in the area, that was a door-opener, definitely.

“We’re trying to look at family and in this case it’s a Lebanese-Kurdish family. We know they exist in Germany. It’s very authentic and we can be very confident in our approach. Then of course there is this backdrop of Neukölln. The interesting thing is if you go to France, nobody knows there is a mafia in Germany, that there are mafia-like structures and mobsters in Germany. I talked to somebody and mentioned this, and they had no idea this existed. So it’s interesting to tell a story about Germany that is not too familiar outside of Germany either.”

Berg has previously worked with Kren and describes the director as “extremely passionate” about his work, noting that he spent many days and nights in Neukölln speaking to people there. “He’s one of the best directors we have [in Germany] right now,” he says. “We developed a large part of the series with Turner and our writers. Then we brought Marvin in and he changed the game in a very good way. He spent a lot of time with people that really contributed by telling him stories and sharing their lives with him. He soaked in this authenticity and found a way to put it in our project. It’s his style, his handwriting and the whole tone of the series is what he managed to put together in a great way.”

“He also brought the writers in; they had their office there for a couple of months,” reveals Greifeneder. “You’re always better when you know what you’re writing about and that’s something you could really feel. It’s something that’s not typically German. It’s a really unique look.”

For leading actor Ramadan, 4 Blocks was something of a homecoming, as until recently he had lived in Neukölln for 37 years.

“The danger of making a contemporary series about a criminal foreigner is that you sure up stereotypes and clichés, or that you actually stoke the flames of the whole [immigration] debate,” he says of the series. “But, of course, on the other hand there are criminal clans [in real life] and we’re trying to give them a face so you can look at it in a different way and understand why the situation came about. If you touch something that’s a hot topic, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stoking the flames.”

Actor Kida Kodr Ramadan (left) has lived in the Neukölln area of Berlin most of his life

The location of the series, in the south-east of Berlin, also provides a distinctive look that will be unrecognisable even to those familiar with the streets of Germany’s capital.

“Berlin is a little bit like New York – it’s shot so many times you’ve seen all these places so many times,” Greifeneder admits. “But now I’ve seen Berlin in a new way. At the beginning, you almost feel like you’re in Istanbul, but then you realise it’s Berlin. Even the typical things you know, he made it so you see it with new eyes, and that’s really difficult.”

Berg says the production used a lot of original locations, which sometimes meant going into places where the crew might not have been entirely welcome: “We made sure we were talking to the right people and that they knew we respected them,” he notes. “They loved our work as filmmakers in general so they respected us. The funny thing was, after we wrapped principal photography, a policeman came up to us and said while we were shooting the whole area was really quiet and, one day after we stopped, it all went crazy again. It’s true – it could have gone so bad and it didn’t. We didn’t have any incidents or any problems at all.”

The third original series to air on TNT Serie, after comedy Add a Friend and mystery thriller Weinberg, 4 Blocks has already been renewed for a second season. Production is due to begin later this year and the season will air in 2018.

“When we look at a concept, we try not to play it safe but take risks,” Greifeneder says of Turner’s original drama strategy in Germany. “4 Blocks is not typically German but it’s also easier for us [to commission a show like that] because we don’t have ratings pressure. We’re pay TV, so we have another business model. Saying that, we still want to reach for both. We want to have something critically acclaimed and that also has fans.”

Berg adds: “We’re not trying to please the audience, we’re trying to follow a vision we believe in. Most of the time, I find that if you have a strong creative vision you don’t try to make everybody happy and you end up having something that is stronger at the end and will attract more people. That’s one of the strengths pay TV has to offer and we’re taking full advantage of that.”

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Running in the family

The rivalry between two brothers that led to the creation of sportswear giants Adidas and Puma is brought to life in a new German miniseries. DQ speaks to its creators.

They’re two of the biggest rivals in the world of sport – but this battle doesn’t take place in a stadium or arena. Instead, the origins of the conflict between sportswear giants Adidas and Puma can be found within a single German family as the story of two brothers is retold in miniseries Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle.

Set in the early 20th century, the show follows the Dassler brothers as their initial partnership sees them launch the sports shoe to international fame. But long-standing differences lead to mistrust and when they fall out, their relationship unravels and the business they founded together is split into companies that become two of the world’s biggest sports labels – Adidas, led by Adi Dassler, and Puma, run by Rudi Dassler.

Written by Christoph Silber and produced by Quirin Berg, Rivals Forever stars Hanno Koffler, Christian Friedel, Alina Levshin and Hannah Herzsprung. It comes from Wiedemann & Berg Television (The Lives of Others) in coproduction with ARD Degeto for German broadcaster ARD, and is distributed internationally by Global Screen.

Rivals Forever
Rivals Forever focuses on brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler

“As producers, we’re always looking for strong topics and headlines that draw attention and create a reaction,” Berg explains. “The Dassler story is certainly one of the biggest family sagas recent German history has to offer, besides the fact we’re dealing with two extremely well-known brands that are loved around the globe.

“Most people in Germany have heard about the story without really knowing too much about it. That creates a perfect level of mystery and interest for a TV project. The true story itself is thrilling, dramatic and truly tragic – two brothers who share a vision and drive that vision almost to extremes but fail big time when it comes to keeping their family together. They change an industry but at the same time create a war within their family.”

In contrast with other biopics, where real-life stories are often fictionalised to inject extra drama or tension, Berg says the story of the Adidas-Puma battle needed no extra excitement as the Dasslers’ story is retold over a 50-year period.

Silber picks up: “The advantage we get from the brothers’ conflict is twofold: on the one hand, there’s an element of surprise because hardly anybody knows that behind these huge brands are two brothers who fought pretty much all their lives; and on the other is the narrative gain, because rather than having a typical biopic, you know from minute one to the end there’s always one element that holds everything together, the brothers, and that’s perfect for me as a writer.”

Berg says he was also fascinated by the story on a personal level, as he could relate to the central relationship: “I have a business partner who co-owns my company and he is my oldest friend as well. We went to school together and started to do films 20 years ago. So I could really relate to the brothers sharing one vision and fighting for it, building a company – and I was wondering what could happen to tear them apart? We’re sure it won’t happen to us and that’s something we definitely take from the story. The Dasslers paid a high price for being so competitive and successful. They sacrificed their brotherhood, their family.”

Adidas and Puma were 'very welcoming' over the project about their respective founders
Adidas and Puma were ‘very welcoming’ of the project about their respective founders

In terms of research for the three-hour series, Silber says there was already a lot of material concerning the brothers’ relationship in the public domain, adding that Adidas and Puma were very welcoming of the project.

“Those companies are no longer owned by the family, they’re owned by investors and shareholders,” Berg says, “so they are still competitors but today the big enemy is Nike. They were very open, collaborative and fair. The families are no longer involved and all the material is out there. There are hundreds of interviews and documentaries, so there’s a rich pool of information available for anybody who is interested.

“But, from a writer’s perspective, it’s always rewarding to meet people who are actually part of the story and it provides the benefit of adding details you wouldn’t find on the internet. Within the companies, we were lucky to find people who knew the brothers personally and had worked with them for years. That was very helpful – we wanted to find out as much as possible about the real characters.”

Silber’s television credits include crime series Tatort and Der Kriminalist. He also won an International Emmy for 2011 German-Austrian TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle). Describing himself as a history and sports buff, he admits he doesn’t like “typical” period dramas, despite frequently working in the genre.

“I always want to peel away the veil of history and get close to the characters, which is why a sports-themed period film with the brothers aspect was so appealing. It already looks like you can’t have that veil over it,” he explains. “I did a lot of reading and talked to a few people, but it was a very collaborative process with Quirin. We’ve worked together for many years, we’re very hands-on with our work on stories. I need to be writing to get into a story so I do a lot of drafts. We work very well together.”

Directors Cyrill Boss and Philipp Stennert then joined the production, into which the creative team sought to inject a sense of speed and urgency, as if the brothers are racing each other against a backdrop of 50 years of history.

Rivals Forever
The series covers a 50-year period in the brothers’ lives

Berg says: “There are many examples of movies that have a great character and depict one crucial year or focus on a short episode in their life, and that has many advantages. But we wanted to tell the whole story, to give the big picture – so we decided to cover 50 years. And it’s so great to see not only the characters change over time but German society as well.

“Politics, fashion, quality of life – all those things that make and define a country changed over those years. We start shortly after World War One and end in the mid-1970s. That’s an interesting USP and not many German TV series offer that range. It’s not only about the brothers, it’s a ride through several Olympics and soccer World Cups, through German history, and we feel it’s something people will love.”

As such, one of the challenges faced by Berg and his production partner Max Wiedemann – who are behind Netflix’s first original German production, the supernatural thriller Dark – was to get every euro in the budget on screen while recreating half a century of time periods.

“There are several very crucial and budget-intensive sequences but our focus is on the family,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges was changing the production design and sets across the years. And obviously we have actors playing the same role over 50 years, so we had a great make-up team to make that happen. You want to stick with the same actor for all those decades so when it comes to make-up, it’s a tricky task but it worked well. You follow the same person and you almost feel part of the family at the end because they shared so many moments of their lives with you.”

Rivals Forever is the latest German drama set to warrant international attention, following in the footsteps of Deutschland 83, Generation War and Naked Among Wolves. Coincidentally, another German broadcaster, RTL, also ordered its own version the Dasslers’ story, with TV movie Duel of the Brothers – The story of Adidas and Puma. It premiered in March this year.

Berg says the self-financing German market is now opening up to seek investment from other territories, increasing the opportunity for German stories to be made for an international audience. “The whole industry is globalising more,” he notes. “In every country you will find amazing local stories that have a global scale. That certainly applies to the true story of Adidas and Puma and I’m glad we were able to pull this project off for ARD and an audience all around the world.”

Silber adds that 10 or 20 years ago, plans to tell the origin story of the two sportswear labels might have run into hostility, but those tensions have now cooled: “There’s been a generational change and the heat of that conflict isn’t so high any more. They’ve pretty much made peace and they can co-exist as two strong brands. Today it’s easier to tell the story, but the market has also changed. Germany is more eager to tell stories that reach out to an international market and don’t just focus on one audience. This story is ideal for that.”

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