Described as a contemporary remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M, one of cinema’s all-time classics, Austrian drama M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Hunts A Murderer) sees people from across society become embroiled in the hunt for a child killer.
In this DQTV interview, writer/director David Schalko and producer John Lueftner reveal their ambitions behind turning Lang’s movie into a six-part series and how it has been updated to reflect modern society.
They also discuss the writing process and overseeing production of a series featuring 130 characters.
Set and filmed in Vienna, M – A City Hunts A Murderer is produced by Superfilm for Austria’s ORF and RTL’s TV Now in Germany, and distributed by Beta Film.
Fritz Lang’s classic thriller M is reimagined for television by David Schalko in M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (A City Hunts a Murderer). DQ met the director and the cast of the unsettling six-parter on set in Vienna.
At the time of its original release, Fritz Lang’s iconic film M was a groundbreaking piece of cinema that mixed social drama, police procedural, the criminal underworld and the hunt for a serial killer.
As such, it’s unsurprising that this 1931 classic, made during the German Expressionism period and one of the first German ‘talkies,’ is often cited as the inspiration for modern television genres. And it’s perhaps equally perplexing that there hasn’t been a television adaptation of M – until now.
M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City Hunts a Murderer) isn’t a strict adaptation, however. Instead, creator and director David Schalko (Braunschlag, Alte Geld) has reimagined Lang’s feature, which saw the police, a gang of criminals, the press and other members of society search for Peter Lorre’s child killer – a character not regarded simply as a monster but as a product of the society in which he has grown up.
For M: A City Hunts a Murderer, the film’s themes have been transplanted from 1930s Berlin to modern-day Vienna, which serves as the backdrop to this series co-commissioned by Austrian public broadcaster ORF and German pay TV network RTL Crime. Produced by John Lueftner for Superfilm, it is distributed internationally by Beta Film and is due to air this year. The series will have its premiere at Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event this month.
The sinister six-part thriller, written by Schalko and his wife Evi Romen, sees a capital confronted with a series of child murders, transforming the open and lively city into a society under total surveillance.
At first, the children disappear – but then bodies start to turn up, leading to a tabloid frenzy over the crime spree and the lack of action by the police. But while the ambitious Minister for the Interior tries to make his mark, the criminal underworld also steps up its search for the killer.
The Minister is busy scheming when DQ visits the M set on a bright and sunny day of filming inside the dazzling foyer of Vienna University’s library and learning centre. Like a scene from The West Wing, he is walking and talking with The Publisher in an attempt to use the media to spread fear through the city and get a new security law passed.
“How do you remake M? Firstly, why the hell do you want to remake M? If you want to remake a masterpiece, you need a really good reason to do it,” says Klaus Lintschinger, head of television features at ORF, answering the question of why no one has done it before. However, he continues, ORF and RTL Crime did have a good reason for doing it, but only in a contemporary setting.
“David likes storytelling with a lot of characters and a lot of storylines, so the template of M offered him an opportunity to tell a really big story that affects us today,” Lintschinger explains. “It’s essentially the story of how politics tries to do the right thing but ends up doing something catastrophic. I never saw it as a remake and I never saw it as a sequel. David would refer to it as a homage, but that’s not right either. It’s a re-reading of it.”
Moving the drama to Vienna was a natural choice for Austrian filmmaker Schalko, though it was important the limited series wasn’t strictly a Viennese show once RTL Crime came on board, in what is the channel’s first original production. The German network had been looking for the right project and the “unique” M provided the right platform.
“It’s one of the best movies ever made, so if you start original production, you should start with a bang, you should start big,” says Klaus Holtmann, RTL’s executive VP of digital channels. “We couldn’t resist doing it.”
Securing rights to Lang’s film proved to be the trickiest hurdle to overcome in development, with financing from the broadcasters supported by Beta Film and tax incentives offered in Vienna and Austria.
Both Lintschinger and Holtmann say they signed up at the pitch stage, drawn to working with Schalko and his take on M while also understanding that they wouldn’t be able to make wide-scale changes to his vision. “It was a very creative process but if you commit to something like M, you can’t turn it into a telenovela,” Holtmann notes. “It’s still M and the core and soul is still there, and that’s why we shared the same vision.”
That vision doesn’t include a tourist’s romantic view of Vienna. Instead, the focus is on the dark side of the city and the implications of a child killer roaming the streets.
The 14-week shoot certainly embraced the influence of German Expressionism on Lang’s original, utilising unusual camera angles and shadows on the snowy landscape, often creating an atmosphere that makes it appear as if filming took place on a sound stage as opposed to on location.
Early footage of the series suggests a deeply dark and creepy tone. What adds to the eerie and unsettling style is that, like Lang’s film, none of the characters have names. They are only referred to by their job titles or roles in society, which actor Moritz Bleibtreu says mirrors what is going on in contemporary society.
“For people with power, whether it’s in business or politics or the press, there’s a big lack of empathy going on right now,” says Bleibtreu, who plays The Publisher. “It’s not about the people, it’s about the mechanisms of power and how to use them. It’s about the fact that a president isn’t simply elected, there are people who get them to that point – whether they write about them or some guy from Russia is pushing buttons and making people believe this guy is the right guy. There are always people in the background who make these things happen.
“He’s one of those guys,” Bleibtreu says of his character. “He wants power. It’s the only agenda these people have. Fuck money, money is not interesting. Power is interesting. To be able to do whatever you want, that’s power. You need money as a tool but that’s not the goal. The goal is power. That’s what makes them so dangerous and so hateable.”
Bela B Felsenheimer, an actor and musician known as the drummer in German band Die Ärtze, plays The Mystic, a rich man who is drawn into the police investigation with an apparent will to help the parents, though it’s clear he has questionable motives. “He has his own agenda,” Felsenheimer reveals. “He thinks he’s the chosen one, and he’s connected to the murder. This connection is pretty important, but I can’t reveal too much. He’s living in an all-white apartment with dolls dressed in clothes he got from the missing children, so he’s a creepy character.”
A self-confessed fan of Schalko’s work, Felsenheimer also admits to having watched Lang’s M more than 10 times – and then again when he got the part. “My character isn’t there in the film; there’s a strange guy mentioned in one scene but he doesn’t appear. Then I got the scripts and they were the most brilliant scripts I’ve ever read,” he says, comparing Schalko to Quentin Tarantino. “Every single person, even a bystander on the street, has got their own story and it’s interesting. They’re not there just to fill a space. It’s a really great TV event.”
Meanwhile, Lars Eidinger and Verena Altenberger play the parents of the first murder victim. Naturally, their relationship is put under incredible strain by the loss of their daughter, and Eidinger says the way they react, in keeping with the tone of the series, is unnatural.
“David tries to ask what it means for the couple to lose the child, but more as a metaphor. They lose their future and their past,” he explains. “It’s a very complex structure and it has several layers that work metaphorically, but it is not very naturalistic. This is something I really like. They face everyday problems, but to deal with them on a different artistic level is, for me, much more inspiring.
“I was concentrating on being as truthful as possible to the moment when someone tells you your child is dead. I’m not going into the first cliche when you are crying because usually it’s not like this. Those parents become a bit insane – sometimes it means something in their lives changes so they cannot continue in the way they did, and sometimes it turns their world upside down. This is what the series is about.”
Altenberger says that while the initial focus is on the parents in the aftermath of their daughter’s murder, each episode expands to bring more characters into focus, while her own character’s darker side also emerges.
“Nobody is good or bad. Everybody is both, and sometimes that can change within a human life,” she explains. “I look for the balance in both sides of my character, and in every character in the show, to see how they react to each other. Every tiny little piece of the script matters.
“I’m pretty sure the scripts fit our society today. It’s even more than a general fear, it’s a hysterical way of accusing each other with the media and questioning something.”
As Shopgirl, Marleen Lohse reveals her character is carrying “a very deep and dark secret.” She works in a children’s store selling clothes, until she falls in love with one of the parents of the murdered children and finds a way to integrate herself into their family.
From the key characters to the bit-part players, each is “really fighting for something, and that makes it so special,” Lohse says. “Every scene has big moments. It’s about something bigger – the whole of society. Luckily I don’t carry this woman with me, but this project makes me think a lot.”
David Schalko’s tribute to a German classic
When David Schalko revisited Fritz Lang’s M four years ago, he found himself unable to forget it. But rather than simply remake the classic film for the small screen, he wanted to completely update it and add new elements to the story, such as social media, that would change the way it would be told.
He was also interested in exploring what he refers to as a “crisis” in contemporary Western democracy, considering M was released three years before the Nazis secured power in Germany.
“That was the idea,” Schalko says, “and also that there’s no main role or main actor – the town is the main thing. It’s something that’s very good for the series because Fritz Lang didn’t have the time to tell all the stories. Now we have the chance to tell it all, so we have more depth to the story and the characters.”
He describes the series as a puzzle that was particularly difficult to solve due to the fact that there is no protagonist at the heart of the story. Each episode also features different characters, offering new angles and perspectives on the story.
“It’s dark,” Schalko says. “We tried to make associations to German Expressionism, so you have the feeling of some things filmed in the studio with shadows, but it’s also a mixture of naturalism, which makes its own style. We hope it’s something very individual.
“That’s why I say it’s a tribute. The thing is not to be in a tennis match with Fritz Lang but to use this idea in the 21st century. It’s really a tribute to Fritz Lang’s work because I’m a big admirer. And if it’s half as good as the original, I’m happy.”
The large number of characters presented challenges in terms of both writing and the shooting process. But ultimately, Schalko says, the story isn’t about them but the kind of city they live in.
“It’s about how the children are killed but it’s not about violence,” he adds. “It’s not about how the killer is caught or who did it. It’s about the city itself. It’s not a crime story.”
Nothing is as it seems in the sleepy town of Pregau, which lends its name to a German/Austrian crime drama. Writer/director Nils Willbrandt introduces DQ to some of the challenges of piecing the thriller together.
At a glance, Pregau appears to be an ordinary Austrian town. Scratch the surface, however, and therein lies a terrifying underbelly of lies, corruption and violence.
It’s this premise that sits at the centre of the simply named Pregau, an eight-part German-language drama written and directed by Nils Willbrandt.
The story centres on police officer Hannes Bucher, who finds no end of trouble, particularly as he has married into the Hartmann family, which unofficially controls the town.
One night, after a momentary lapse in judgement, Hannes sparks a chain reaction of events that threatens to tear apart his family and the once quiet world of Pregau. With the bodies starting to pile up around him, Hannes desperately tries to cover up his crimes, but finds himself spiralling deeper into trouble.
With no one to trust, the more Hannes tries to conceal his secrets, the more he uncovers the extent of the Hartmanns’ criminal operation — from high-level corruption and coercion to prostitution and human trafficking. The family control the town, and Hannes is beginning to realise just how far they will go to ensure it stays that way.
The series stars Maximilian Brückner as Hannes, alongside Ursula Strauss, Antonia Jung, Patricia Aulitzky, Thomas Schubert, Nikolai Gemel, Zoe Straub, Wolfgang Bock and Karl Fischer.
It is produced by Mona Film and Tivoli Film, in coproduction with Germany’s ARD Degeto and Austrian public broadcaster ORF, which aired the series in September and December 2016 respectively. It is distributed by Red Arrow International.
Here, creator Willbrandt tells DQ about one of the pivotal scenes in the four-part drama and the opportunity to work with a German and Austrian cast.
What is the standout scene of the series?
For me it’s the starting point of our story: police officer Hannes Bucher works in a sleepy Austrian town. When he stops a car one night, he finds his niece behind the wheel, drunk and without a licence, and with her boyfriend by her side.
Hannes makes a momentary lapse of judgment with his niece, which sets off a frightening chain of events. We call this scene ‘the blowjob scene!’
In the scene, it is very difficult to condemn either Hannes or his niece. The power of the scene is in the subtext: for a brief moment he confuses her behaviour for real affection — affection he is not getting from anywhere else — and Rosa (played by Straub) just doesn’t know what else to do to rescue the situation. However, underneath it all, there is some real emotional affection between them.
It’s a fateful moment that changes everything for both of them. Hannes realises he is not quite as good a person as he thought he was; that there is a person inside of him that he didn’t know existed until this point, but has been unleashed. And just 300 minutes later, this new person will drive him to his end.
Where and how was this scene shot logistically?
It was shot over several, thankfully very still, nights in a big field near Vienna, and was lit by moon balloons. It was hot and some of the team got ticks during filming. We filmed until sunrise, which always came too early and always caused panic on set. The area lit up at night was more or less an entire valley.
Were there any script or practical challenges you had to overcome?
In a project as big as Pregau, you learn to live with the constant feeling of a writing crisis. ‘When did this or that person do what again and when? Oh yes, right, that was 206 pages earlier in front of the shop.’ There are so many thousands of small details that it doesn’t make sense to capture them all on cue cards. So you are forced to follow your intuition or else you’ll be driven mad by tiny details, which is both exciting and frightening.
What was it like working with the cast?
Being a German is not the same as being an Austrian and vice versa. Nuances of language and culture are only partly accessible to you and so you have to delve into the collaboration through the creative people around you and their backgrounds. On this show we were especially reliant on the help of the actors to do justice to the text and the intended subtext. The long shooting time brought everyone together, and you come to feel as though you know each other inside and out. In this profession, there’s nothing better than being able to work with actors so extensively over such a long period.
What is it like filming in Austria?
Austria is a very accommodating country. The people are positive, vibrant and, above all, artistic. They also love the bizarre, the deep and, for some, even the thrill of risk-taking. Through the filming of Pregau I have made some life-long friends.
Is Pregau based on any real-life cases?
Yes, it is. I knew the family, the place, the circumstances, the feelings. I have exaggerated them and fictitiously distorted them but at the core is truth, even though this is perhaps a really frightening thought.
One day Jannis Niewöhner was shooting an art-house film, the next he was giving a rallying speech to 150 extras on the set of a German historical miniseries. He tells DQ about period drama Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne.
By the time Jannis Niewöhner arrived on the set of German historical miniseries Maximilian & Marie de Bourgogne, he had completed two films back-to-back before “crashing” into his latest role as the titular 15th century Austrian archduke.
“I had, like, one day off between projects and then Maximilian was four months of working,” he recalls. “It was crazy but good – it was an experience. The interesting thing about such a long shoot is you have to find your motivation and energy for the whole time. On other movies, we do it in one or two months and then you’re done. But after two months on Maximilian, we knew it was going to be two more. To have the same motivation was tough but we were able to do it because we had a great story and a great team.”
Set in 1477, the show retells the love story between Marie (Christa Theret), the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian (Niewöhner), the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The cast also includes Tobias Moretti, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Miriam Gussenegger and Alix Poisson. The show, which debuts in Austria on ORF next month and on ZDF in Germany in the fall, is coproduced by the two networks alongside MR Film and Beta Film.
“He’s an impulsive and hot-headed guy,” Niewöhner says of his character. “He’s the son of the emperor of Austria. He rebels against his father, who waits until the enemy gets tired, is out of money or out of men, and he hates that. He sees it as a sign of weakness and wants to make strong decisions; he wants to fight. That’s one side of him – the other is the sensitive, immature side. Then he meets Marie and he has to discover how to deal with a woman he has to marry. It’s interesting to have both sides of that character that are really far away from each other.”
Having previously starred in film and TV series, German actor Niewöhner describes the six-hour Maximilian as a “long movie.” And, as a fan of Maximilian director Andreas Prochaska’s 2014 movie The Dark Valley, he was keen to link up with the Austrian.
“It was such a great movie – it was cool and looked great. But he [Prochaska] never loses the story or the character,” Niewöhner explains. “And I was interested in doing a genre movie but I also wanted to tell a true story.
“Andreas was great. He’s what you wish a director to be like. I had a lot of freedom, I could try a lot of things and he trusted me. That’s the best feeling you can have as an actor. [There are moments when] he comes to you and says little things, but you never get the feeling you have to do something you can’t do. You can feel like that sometimes when you do a movie. He’s open and he has the right attitude. His perspective of doing movies is that while it’s something we love and have a lot of passion for, it’s only a movie.”
As you might expect from an actor taking on a factual role such as Maximilian, Niewöhner set out to research the true story of his character – but was wary of straying too far from the character laid out in Martin Ambrosch’s script.
“I read some books at the beginning but then I recognised that I should not spend too much time on the historical facts because you can distance yourself from the script and that’s not a good thing,” he notes. “The special thing about Maximilian is it’s a coming-of-age story. He’s a young guy like me who has many questions and is angry and doesn’t know why. He’s someone I can compare myself to. It was important to focus on that.”
The period costumes and sets also helped Niewöhner get into character – as did his French co-star Theret, despite the language barrier between the pair.
“Playing with Christa was so interesting because we spoke different languages, but it worked,” he admits. “I thought it wouldn’t work because she speaks French and I speak German. That’s a strange thing and not something you have in real life, but you just focus on the eyes and body language – maybe that’s where the most emotion is.
“If you look each other in the eyes and are both committed and want to tell the story, it’s really easy to be close and to feel something for each other. It was great shooting with her.”
Filming across Austria and the Czech Republic, as well as in Budapest, Hungary, the actor compares the travelling production to being on a school trip.
He adds: “This production was a boy’s dream, but the biggest challenge was on my first day. Before, I was shooting an art-house movie with just 20 people in the team, improvising, and then I was standing on the set of Maximilian with 150 extras in front of me and I had to give a speech as the new duke of Bourgogne. It was a challenge but it was good to do it in the first days of shooting.
“Maximilian was like nothing I’ve done before. It was all new. I’ve done genre movies before but something like this, where you pretend to be the guy who makes decisions for a whole country, that was something new.”
With TV series becoming more cinematic, Niewöhner expects to be back on the small screen, but cinema will always be his first love – “because there I have a lot of time to prepare. I feel you have more freedom, but in this case [on Maximilian], it was produced like cinema and it looks like cinema, and that’s a great thing.”
Martin Ambrosch, the writer behind German crime drama Anatomy of Evil and the forthcoming historical series Maximilian, tells DQ about the challenge of meeting his own ambitions on screen.
As one half of a prolific writer-director partnership, Martin Ambrosch describes himself as a specialist in thrillers.
During his career he has penned episodes of German police procedural Tatort and Austrian crime dramas SOKO Kitzbühel and SOKO Donau.
But it is together with director Andreas Prochaska that Ambrosch brought to life the hit TV movie franchise Anatomy, which airs on ZDF in Germany and ORF in Austria.
The series, which debuted in 2010 with Anatomy of Evil, follows psychologist Richard Brock (played by Heino Ferch) as he is called in by the Vienna police to investigate the murder of a man who was about to stand trial for embezzlement.
Four more films featuring Brock followed – Anatomy of Revenge, Anatomy of Fear, Anatomy of Shame and Anatomy of Surrender, which aired in February – while the sixth in the series, Anatomy of Desire, began filming in February. A seventh instalment is already in development, with production due to begin in November this year.
Anatomy of Evil was subsequently sold to 34 countries by distributor Beta Film, with buyers including Netflix, Rai Cinema in Italy and Antena 3 in Spain. Ambrosch himself won an Austrian TV Romy award for the film, having previously earned a German Grimme award for one of his Tatort episodes.
“It’s a series I came up with. I just proposed it to the producer and the director and we developed a unique story,” Ambrosch says of Anatomy. “It’s a very character-driven story, which I like very much. It’s my child.”
Ambrosch’s partnership with Prochaska also includes the 2014 TV movie Sarajevo, about the events that led to the First World War; mystery western feature film The Dark Valley, which starred Sam Riley (SS-GB); and the forthcoming historical drama Maximilian.
Set in the 15th century in the Austrian Middle Ages, the latter retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The three-part miniseries is coproduced by MR Film and Beta Film for ZDF and ORF. It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“Maximilian was very intense,” Ambrosch says. “It was very different from pure fiction because the life of Maximilian is known to many. I had to create my own Maximilian out of his historic personality. It was a challenge but I think we managed it.
“Andreas and I have been colleagues and friends for a long time. We’re both very ambitious, so we knew we could create something really important. It was my first chance to do three 90-minute episodes in a historic setting, so it was a big opportunity for me and I immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ I love the historic change between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”
Ambrosch says he spent a year researching the true story behind Maximilian – but admits there’s a strong element of fiction to the tale viewers will see on screen. “That’s the creativity we wanted to give to the series,” he says. “You can’t just make a documentary. You have to create something that’s close to reality, but it’s bigger than reality and hopefully interesting for viewers.”
Ambrosch’s scripts are also quite detailed, ensuring the cast and director can play out his vision in front of the cameras. “I write it as I see it, and not just dialogue,” he says. “We did readings of the script quite a few times and I was on the set for many days, just watching and getting a feel for every actor.”
The German-language production was complicated by filming several scenes in French, but Ambrosch believes it important that European drama use organic languages to help tell the story. “I speak French but not well enough, so we had a translator,” he says. “I wrote it in German but I have a feeling for the French language because I lived in France for a year, so I know a little bit about it.
“It wasn’t clear at the start in which language we were going to shoot. There was a discussion at the very beginning to maybe shoot everything in English, but then we thought about it some more. I had to write the scripts nonetheless, so I wrote them in German and it was then we decided to shoot in two languages, which is of course a challenge.
“We have regional specialities in Europe. France is quite different from Austria, Germany and England, so it’s interesting to see the differences and get the feeling that Maximilian has to overcome the obstacles when he goes from poor and laid-back Austria to modern Burgundy and the French king with his own politics and lifestyle. It’s much more diverse than just shooting it all in English and saying there’s only one world. Back then it was very different and this is a good opportunity to show that.”
As partnerships go, Ambrosch and Prochaska’s is evidently successful, and Ambrosch credits this to a deep understanding between the pair. “The most important thing is we don’t have to use many words to connect,” he explains.
“We are each other’s biggest critics, so there’s a very open-minded atmosphere. I can tell him what he is doing is bullshit and he tells me what I wrote is bullshit and nobody is pissed off afterwards. That’s very important.
“But it’s also important for me to work with other directors because I don’t want to work only with Andreas. I’m doing a film with Stefan Ruzowitzky right now, the Oscar-winning director of Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008). It’s called In Hell (working title).”
Describing his writing style, Ambrosch says he first outlines a treatment before starting his research and writing a few pages “to get my thoughts on paper. After that, I let my mind flow free. You have a huge amount of input when you do a year of research, like I did for Maximilian, and then you start to feel the characters and put it on paper. But when the research is done, you have to throw away a lot of ideas and focus on telling the most important stories. That’s the hardest part. The rest is just fun writing.”
And the biggest challenge facing a writer today? “The challenge is to live up to my own ambitions,” he says.
As television drama continues to draw talent from the feature film industry and proves increasingly capable of rivalling the quality and production values offered by movies, Ambrosch readily admits the standards of the small screen have improved significantly – particularly in Germany, where series such as Cold War saga Deutschland 83 are breaking out as global hits.
“It’s difficult to say but, more often than not, the stories in really good TV movies are much better than the films in the cinema,” he says. “It’s a good time for German drama because there’s some money in the market and there’s a need for these kinds of TV series. There’s no other way than to be as ambitious as the UK and the US. You can’t just go on the way you have for the last 20 or 30 years; you have to adapt, and that’s an opportunity for writers and filmmakers in Germany and Austria.
“There are more opportunities in TV but it’s not so easy because you have to appeal to the viewers of public broadcasters. The young viewers are streaming US and British series and the older ones are used to the existing patterns. You need really good stories that producers will risk money on. The market is changing quickly and I’m very interested in where it’s all going to end.”
Andreas Prochaska, director of Austrian period drama Maximilian, reveals the challenges of realising an epic, action-packed script while sticking to a strict budget.
Andreas Prochaska is under no illusions: he is facing the biggest challenge of his career. The Austrian director is a multiple award winner in his home country and in Germany for his work behind the camera, most notably claiming an International Emmy in 2013 for TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle) and several best director gongs for 2014 feature film Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley).
His focus is now on Maximilian, a €15.5m (US$17.5m) television drama in production for MR Film, Beta Film, Austrian broadcaster ORF and German network ZDF. Set in 1477 in the Austrian Middle Ages, the three-part miniseries retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, set against a backdrop of politics and power struggles.
It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“I got a phone call three or four years ago about a project about Hapsburg and the founding of the empire,” Prochaska (pictured second from left in the main image) recalls. “I was immediately interested in being part of it because I think it’s a great European story and a great love story, and you have all the ingredients for a big TV production – love, politics, elements of a thriller and a bit of action. There’s also something very timeless about the whole thing.”
Prochaska is no stranger to costume dramas. The Dark Valley is a western set in the Austrian Alps, while he also directed TV movie Sarajevo, about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – considered to be the incident that sparked the build-up to the First World War. Yet it is Maximilian he describes as the biggest challenge of his career.
“It’s a challenge because I was watching a lot of historical pictures in preparation and there’s a style and a goal you want to reach but we don’t have that kind of money,” he explains. “But you still have images in the back of your head that you want to achieve, so I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to capture those scenes with our budget. I don’t want to just copy and paste other styles, I want to generate a style of my own with my own director of photography (DOP), art department, costumes and make-up.
“We’re not doing a documentary about guys in the 15th century, so we have done research to figure out how to make this interesting for a younger, contemporary audience. That’s a fine line you have to find. But we’re also not doing Game of Thrones. We’re based in reality and we did a lot of research with historians. But they’re like doctors – ask three of them and you get four opinions.”
The story is set within three different courts of Europe – France, Austria and Burgundy – and they are all being filmed in Austria. “If we could take our budget and go where we wanted, it would be easier. But we’re in a situation where we have to spend most of the money in Austria,” the director explains. “It’s a puzzle we have to put together to achieve the things the script requires.”
The logistics of the four-month shoot, which began in August, include 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3,000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour. Real-life settings include the castles of Rosenburg, Rapportenstein and Franzensburg, plus the Votive Church in Vienna.
Prochaska adds: “We’re shooting continuously and we have some travel days in between because the crew moves to the Czech Republic to shoot some battle scenes and in late November we move to Hungary to do some studio scenes there. It’s like a road movie – most of our locations are all around lower Austria so every two days we’re moving. It’s expansive and thrilling for everybody.”
Using real locations will help the miniseries add a layer of authenticity for viewers – but only if the lighting is right, Prochaska says. “We watched a lot of films (in preparation) and what I realised is that the light, to my taste, is often wrong. You get the feeling those places couldn’t have looked like they do in a lot of movies. When I’m talking to my DOP, I always try to find something that still feels real.
“The greatest challenge is ensuring things don’t look artificial with the actors in these weird costumes – the 15th century is not as cool as the 12th in terms of costume. I want to drag the audience into the middle of the scenes and not have the sense of looking at it from a distance that those costumes and locations could create.”
Maximilian also marks the first time Prochaska has worked with French actors, and the director says he enjoyed the opportunity to meet a new group of performers and to find a way to work with them across language barriers.
“We started with a scene in a French court and, thanks to the brilliance of the script by Martin Ambrosch (Sarajevo), we attracted an exciting French cast,” he says. “I don’t speak French, but even if you don’t understand every word, you very quickly get a sense if it’s right or wrong and that’s one of the first great experiences I had with this project. What we’ve seen in the dailies is amazing. Anlgade is a god in terms of acting.”
If television is considered to be a writer’s medium, nobody told Prochaska. With his background in film, where the director is king, he has brought the same level of involvement to Maximilian, including bringing Ambrosch on board to write the script.
“It doesn’t make a difference if I’m in television or film. When I’m doing something, I try to do it as well as possible,” he says. “I’m not just some hired gun to shoot the stuff that’s scheduled. I brought Martin onto this project because I knew he would deliver the material I need to get access to good actors and to get a story that people want to see.
“I was very involved in the whole development of the script. I didn’t get a call saying, ‘Here’s a screenplay, do you want to do it?’ I’m still a hired gun in a sense because it’s not something I was pushing forward, but it costs me two years of my life so I’m very keen that it’s good.”
Part of Prochaska’s involvement in the script process was to make sure the story didn’t go in a direction he felt would be too difficult to achieve on screen. “With our budget it’s not possible to do a battle scene like at the beginning of Gladiator. That’s what people expect when they see battle scenes,” he says. “I didn’t want to get into places where I couldn’t win.”
This meant that set pieces beyond the show’s budgetary limit had to be worked around with some creative thinking, but also meant Prochaska could build up the emotional aspects of the story while fighting takes place in the background. “At the beginning of the whole story, someone is found dead in a swamp in the aftermath of a battle. Then we have a dream sequence for the second battle and another sequence where the tension builds up to the start of a battle before cutting away to the people waiting at home,” he explains. “It’s more emotional to stay with Mary, who is waiting for Maximilian to come back, not knowing if he’s going to survive. For me, it’s more interesting to explore the emotional side of those situations than to do a battle scene we can’t afford.”
Like many film directors of late, Prochaska found the opportunity to move into television too good to turn down, and hopes he will be back for more. “This was something very attractive to me; this kind of miniseries or bigger series are the future of television,” he says. “Single TV movies will still be made but the focus is more on serialised content and Maximilian is a great opportunity for me to go in this direction.”
The Austrians are well known on the international market for the quality of their factual programming, but the country has never really made much of an impact in the scripted arena.
Its most high-profile drama export is Kommissar Rex, a police procedural about a German Shepherd dog (Rex) and the humans he works with at Vienna’s homicide unit. The show ran from 1994 to 2004 and was then revived as an Austro-Italian coproduction, with Rex’s activities shifting to Rome.
This week, however, Austria has been making headlines with two scripted shows aired by public broadcaster ORF that have picked up by ABC network in the US. That, surely, is proof that the US networks are now looking everywhere for compelling drama ideas that can be adapted for their domestic market.
The first of the two ideas is a comedy called Braunschlag. Produced by Superfilm, it follows the mayor of a community called Braunschlag who embarks upon a plan to save the town from bankruptcy. In the ORF version the mayor is male, but in ABC’s version the character will be a young woman. In both cases, the protagonist has to deal with all manner of problems, from dysfunctional family relations to meddling from the mafia.
Braunschlag was written by David Schalko, who turned his back on a career in economics to become a writer. After stints as a poet, author, advertising copywriter and music video producer, his TV career really took off in 2002 when he co-created satirical comedy show Sendung Ohne Namen, a finalist at the New York Television Awards and the Rose d’Or Festival.
Schalko’s subsequent credits included Undercover, Sunshine Airlines, Heaven, The Miracle of Vienna, Braggart and Kupetzy, before he went on to pen Braunschlag in 2012. Throughout his career Schalko has never been afraid to use experimental narrative styles – something that doesn’t always chime with critics and audiences. But in the case of Braunschlag he scored a major hit, attracting more than one million viewers on Tuesday nights and securing another Rose d’Or nomination.
Since then he has written an eight-part miniseries for ORF called Old Money (Altes Geld), about greed and corruption among the super rich. The story centres on a rich industrialist who learns he has a liver problem and will die within a year unless he finds an organ donor. Like Braunschlag, Old Money is produced by Superfilm (a company that Schalko co-founded).
The other Austrian success this week is Janus, a crime drama written by Jacob Groll and Sarah Wassermair. Also picked up by ABC, Janus focuses on Dr Leo Benedict, a forensic psychologist who deals with deranged criminals. When Leo looks into a series of mysterious suicides, he stumbles across a shadowy pharmaceutical company called Janus and is shocked when he discovers what is actually behind the suicides.
Prior to this seven-part serial, Groll was best known for his documentary The Sound of Hollywood, while Wassermair’s credits include musicals for children’s theatre. However, the two of them have also been working together on ORF’s popular crime series Soko Donau (aka Vienna Crime Squad). So far they have collaborated on eight episodes, with the ninth soon to air (Heldentod, the first episode of season 11). It’s not clear yet how much they will have to do with the US adaptation of Janus but the deal will certainly bring them a welcome profile boost.
Elsewhere, the big breakthrough of the week belongs to US writer Corinne Brinkerhoff, who is writing and executive producing American Gothic. Produced by Amblin TV for CBS, the show is a murder mystery set in Boston.
Due to air in a slightly softer summer slot, it is about a prominent Boston family that makes “a chilling discovery that links their recently deceased patriarch to a string of murders spanning decades, amid the suspicion that one of them may have been his accomplice.”
Brinkerhoff has consolidated her reputation as a writer on shows such as The Good Wife and Elementary. However, her entry into the business came when she landed a job as a production assistant for David E Kelly.
In an interview with Lara Ehrlich from BU Today (the newspaper of her former university, Boston), she recalls how it started: “I typed up (story ideas for Kelly’s show Boston Legal) every week for a couple of months, with no response. I completely understood – the guy is a titan of the TV industry, and he had his hands full without poring over the half-baked notions of a production assistant. But I was young and eager, and I’d never written a spec script outside of BU classwork, so I took my two favourite ideas and wrote a spec for Boston Legal.
“One day he said, ‘Let’s talk about your ideas.’ He liked two out of probably 40. As luck would have it, they were the same two I’d written into the spec script. I handed him the script and asked if he’d read it. He called me the next day. He said something like: ‘This is good. This should be an episode.’”
After Boston Legal, The Good Wife was a big step up, acting as a bridge to Brinkerhoff’s new role. She added: “I was terrified. I don’t think I spoke for the first three months. I guess they liked my scripts enough to let me stick around. My three years on that show really taught me how to build stories collaboratively in a writers room. There was an emphasis on making choices that subvert expectations and thinking visually instead of just verbally when writing a scene. It was an extremely valuable experience – and lots of fun. We spent 45 hours a week together in a little room, and the other writers became my hilarious, neurotic little second family.”
Another writer in the news this week is Ben Barnz, who has been greenlit by ABC to write House of Moore, a dark comedy set in the fashion world. Similar in tone to The Devil Wears Prada, the show is being set up as a vehicle for actress Felicity Huffman (American Crime, Desperate Housewives), who will also executive produce.
This is the second high-profile TV project to which Barnz has been linked this autumn. In September, he was named as writer/director of Valentina, ABC Family’s planned adaptation of RCTV telenovela My Gorda Bella Valentina. All of this is a significant switch in direction for the scribe, whose credits to date include movies such as Beastly and Cake.
This week filming began on Maximilian, a lavish three-part period drama from MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF, budgeted at €15.5m (US$17.3m). The shoot is expected to take place over four months in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and will involve 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour.
A 100-strong team has worked for months in a 4,000-square-metre hall in Vienna to construct and produce all sorts of set decorations, costumes, wigs, weapons and – for the two battle scenes – fake corpses.
At the heart of all this pomp and circumstance is what the producers call “a captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages.”
Amid the power politics of medieval Europe, the narrative focuses on the romance between Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian, the headstrong son of Emperor Frederick III.
Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto said: “The powerful relationship between Maximilian and Mary works its fascination through its contrasts: here the Austrian Middle Ages, there the Flemish Renaissance; here impoverished knights, there bustling commercial centres; here political calculations, there grand, genuine emotions. These are the conflicting poles that must be aligned. And I have no doubt that director Andreas Prochaska and his outstanding roster of Franco-German stars will carry this off splendidly.”
Not to be overlooked either is Martin Ambrosch, the Austrian screenwriter who was tasked with writing the script for Maximilian. Born in 1964, Ambrosch started his career writing movies such as Frank Novotony’s Nachtfalter, Valentin Hitz’s Kaltfront and Antonin Svoboda’s Spiele Leben.
From 2001 to 2011 he was a writer, and later head writer, of crime drama SOKO Kitzbühel, for which he wrote more than 35 episodes. More recently, he wrote the pilot and eight episodes of ARD’s Das Glück Dieser Erde and a series of coproduced TV movies for ZDF/ORF under the Spuren des Bösen (Anatomy of Evil) banner.
The Spuren des Bösen films were directed by Prochaska (referenced above as director of Maximilian). The same writer/director duo then worked together on Sarajevo, an Austrian feature about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event that is generally regarded as having triggered World War One.
Maximilian is arguably Ambrosch and Prochaska’s biggest challenge to date, but they have certainly proved themselves capable of handling epic content. It will be interesting to see if the end result is able to travel as well internationally as other recent German-backed successes such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.
Production has also begun on season four of Victorian-era detective drama Ripper Street. The show was axed after two seasons on the BBC in the UK, but was subsequently revived by Amazon, which has also committed to a fifth season.
Ripper Street was created by Richard Warlow, who is also the lead writer on the series. Explaining the project’s appeal, he told the show’s US broadcaster BBC America: “It was all to do with trying to create a different kind of period show in a different kind of period London, where we could tell thriller stories instead of a drama. I hope we’re still a drama, but we’re essentially a police thriller in a world where I hope people haven’t seen a police thriller before.”
Represented by Curtis Brown, Warlow worked as a development executive at Pathe and DNA Films before getting his first break as a screenwriter with the original screenplay Three Mile Horizon, optioned to Paramount Pictures.
His other TV credits include writing on all three seasons of Mistresses, as well as showrunning its second and third series . In terms of upcoming projects, he is currently working on a new series for TXTV Ltd entitled The Boiling House and is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety for Fox/DNA.
The latter, which tells the story of The French Revolution, is being developed for the BBC, which is presumably hoping for the same sort of success it has seen with fellow Mantel adaptation Wolf Hall.
Amazon, meanwhile, has confirmed that the second season of its transgender comedy Transparent will be streamed from December 4. The show is the creation of Jill Soloway, whose previous credits include Six Feet Under. One interesting fact about the new run is that there is a transgender female writer, classical pianist Our Lady J, on the team.
Although the first season of the show was widely acclaimed by both mainstream critics and the transgender community, Soloway had previously made it clear she wanted a transgender female writer on board to help with the show’s authenticity.
Speaking at a New York Festival last year, she said: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be ‘otherising’ Maura (the central character) in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers room full of men and we can write women just fine,’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”
With a marked absence of transgender writers in the business, Our Lady J was selected at the end of 2014 from a number of writers who submitted short stories to the Transparent team.
Describing herself as a “post-religious” gospel singer, Our Lady J announced her involvement in the show via social media: “I’ll be taking the next year off from touring to dedicate my life to the Pfefferman’s as staff writer for season two of #transparenttv. Thank you for having faith in me, @jillsoloway. The world is beginning to see us as we have seen ourselves.”
Meanwhile, it was reported this week that there is going to be a nine-day mid-production shutdown on Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down so that additional work can be done on scripts. The production, from Sony Pictures, is currently four episodes through what will be a 13-hour series.
Set in 1970s New York, the show was created by Lurhmann and Shawn Ryan and includes Jaden Smith in its cast. While Lurhmann is an example of film talent shifting to TV, Ryan is a veteran of the small screen. He was creator and showrunner of The Shield and The Chicago Code and co-creator of Last Resort. He is also used to working with marquee talent, having partnered David Mamet on covert-ops action series The Unit.