With a number of drama productions from Central and Eastern Europe drawing critical acclaim in recent years, DQ finds out what’s coming next from the region and why it’s ripe for a breakout international hit.
While Scandinavia, Israel, Germany and Spain have been among the hottest territories for drama in recent years, a number of ambitious productions both in front of and behind the camera mean series coming out of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) now demand closer attention.
Over the past decade, the region’s drama output has earned plaudits on the back of HBO Europe’s original production strategy, which has led to a number of notable series – Hořící Keř (Burning Bush, 2013) and Pustina (Wasteland, 2016) from the Czech Republic; Hungarian crime drama Aranyélet (Golden Life, 2015), based on Finnish series Helppo Elämä; Wataha (The Pack, 2014), Pakt (The Pact, 2015) and Ślepnąc od świateł (Blinded by the Lights, 2018) from Poland; and Romania’s Umbre (Shadows, 2014) and Hackerville (2018).
Earlier this year also saw the launch of the first HBO Adria series in the shape of Success, a Croatian drama about four strangers bound together by a violent event. But while HBO continues to ramp up its own activities, it is by no means the only company that is pushing the limits of the region’s creativity.
One of the most ambitious projects coming out of CEE is The Pleasure Principle, which is billed as the first international production between three countries in the region – Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.
The 10-hour series, produced by Apple Film Production and distributed by Beta Film, sees police investigators from each country work together after female body parts are discovered in Odessa, Warsaw and Prague, in a cross-border inquiry that leads to shady businessmen, lawyers for sale, corrupt politicians, professional killers and traces of a common past. Canal+ Poland, Czech Television and Russia’s Star Media are also on board the series.
Series producer and director Dariusz Jabłoński says it was his ambition to create a universal crime thriller using local talent and crew. Set across 10 days in the three cities, the project used different teams to make the drama in each country, all under the supervision of Jabłoński.
“We have wonderful roles for the greatest actors of every country and, after a very deep casting process that I personally attended, we have chosen the best actors. Nobody refused us,” he says. “Then we started to think about shooting. Usually, when you make films that take place in different countries, you use one crew. But we wanted to show the differences between these three countries and, because of that, we chose a more challenging path by using completely local crews.
“So every country is shot by a different DOP who created the lighting for their own city. Warsaw is rather grey, all steel and glass. Prague is more bourgeois, with yellow and beige. Odessa is green and blue like the sea. All of them came with a simple idea that was different from the others, so I didn’t have much to supervise to keep everything balanced.”
The team communicated in the common language of English across the 120-day shoot, with filming being completed in one country before moving to the next. “We didn’t make any compromise over quality. It was shot in 8K with two, sometimes four, cameras, cranes and every technical tool at our disposal,” Jabłoński says. “I hope this show will not only be exciting for the viewers but also present the technical facilities of our countries.”
Russian drama Storm, meanwhile, sees respected police detective Gradov turn to crime – and murder – to find the money to pay for his terminally ill wife’s medical treatment. When his colleague, Osokin, begins to suspect Gradov is behind a string of crimes, he becomes determined to expose him.
Produced and distributed by Yellow, Black and White (YBW) for streamer start.ru and directed by Boris Khlebnikov (An Ordinary Woman), the series focuses on a complex group of characters and the choices they make.
“It is a wholly original story that writer/director Natalia Meschaninova came up with,” explains YBW creative producer Irina Sosnovaya. “The goal we set with this story was to make a genre series that would thrill and entertain within the social context of contemporary Russia. As producers, we tried to give as much creative freedom to the talented crew as we could, not forcing them to stay within the boundaries of the genre but encouraging them to write a social drama we would be excited to follow.”
The rise of streaming platforms is fuelling the drama boom in the region, Sosnovaya says, with creators no longer bound by the restrictions of major TV channels. Daria Bondarenko, YBW’s head of international development, distribution and coproductions, picks up: “Digital services allow authors to be uncompromising, to be bold and to take risks without looking back, so that’s where the cream of Russian talent gravitates towards. Directors, writers and actors now work on the digital series with as much freedom as they allow.
“Just 10 years ago, Russia was an unknown and unexplored market. Nowadays things have changed tremendously: we see more and more shows that travel globally, some of them awarded and recognised at prestigious TV festivals. Every new pickup of a Russian show outside our local market is a big success for the entire industry; it is the recognition that makes us noticeable as a film-producing country.”
Shifting west of Russia, TVP1 series Our Century marks the first period drama to come from producer Endemol Shine Poland (ESP). Based on the book by Albena Grabowska, it follows the fortunes of the multi-generational Winny family, woven through the most dramatic events of the 20th century.
Magdalena Cieślak, head of scripted at ESP, says she and her fellow creative producer on the show, Małgosia Retei, “were immediately taken by the story when we read the three-part novel back in 2016.”
She continues: “It was nearly a thousand pages of gripping literature, which we believed could serve as the basis for a great script. It took us some time, though, to convince the broadcaster, as period dramas seemed a very costly and risky genre at that time. What helped us was the involvement of one of the best Polish screenwriters, Ilona Łepkowska, who supervised the script development and ensured the project we pitched to TVP1 was outstanding in terms of storytelling.”
Other talent involved includes director Piotr Trzaskalski, DOP Witold Płóciennik and actors Kinga Preis, Jan Wieczorkowski and Olaf Lubaszenko.
The story begins in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and ends in modern times, covering almost 100 years of Polish history. Against this backdrop plays the story of one family whose lives are full of hidden secrets, passion, love, sacrifice and complicated relationships.
Certain book characters were cut to allow for greater focus on some of the more distinctive family members, while new scenes were created for the adaptation, which blends drama and tragedy with touches of comedy and some fantastical, dreamlike sequences that relate to one character’s ability to see the future.
Cieślak says shows like Our Century feed Poland’s current demand for homegrown series while also showcasing the “outstanding” quality achievable by the local production industry.
“Polish viewers prefer local stories and 80% of the dramas on air are created and produced locally,” she adds. “To find new ideas that will entrance the audience, we need to invest in local talent, beginning with script writing and development. Over the last two years, we have also seen more book adaptations making it to screen, so we are watching the publishing market very closely and searching for adaptation opportunities.”
Over in Croatia, the third and final season of Novine (The Paper), made by producer Drugi Plan for local broadcaster HRT and Israeli distributor Keshet International, is currently in production. Set in a busy newspaper office, the series presents a cocktail of political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal, with its characters navigating the blurred lines of morality and integrity. After exploring the media in season one and politics in season two, season three moves to the judiciary.
“If we take into consideration the size of the country and its capacity in terms of cinematography, and a specific language, we can say that Croatian high-end drama production is doing really well in European and even global terms,” says Nebojsa Taraba, producer of The Paper and creative director at Drugi Plan. “The Paper is globally available on Netflix, and HBO aired its first series from the Adria region this year, Success, which is also produced by us.
“There’s a lot being done in neighbouring Serbia – supposedly there are as many as 20 projects in different stages of pre-production and production, so high-end series are going through a real renaissance in the region.”
When it comes to stories that will attract an audience, “there are no rules,” Taraba states. “People simply like strong stories they can relate to, regardless of the genre. People also like stories with some kind of social involvement and message. Luckily for us, or maybe unfortunately for us, the entire region of south-eastern Europe has many such stories, whether we tell them ourselves or someone else comes over and tells our stories. The best example of [the latter] is Chernobyl.”
Series like Chernobyl – made by the UK’s Sister Pictures for Sky Atlantic and HBO and focusing on the 1986 nuclear disaster – demonstrate that success can be found in unearthing previously unknown stories that are ripe for dramatisation or setting a fictional story against a specific historical backdrop. Germany has created several successful dramas fitting this description, including Babylon Berlin, the Deutschland series and Ku’Damm 56.
The makers of Czech drama Dukla 61 took a similar approach to history after discovering the true story of a mining tragedy that led to the deaths of 108 people. The two-part miniseries, set in 1961, takes place in the town of Havířov, home to the Dukla mine. It focuses on the Šlachta family, with father Milan and son Petr working in the mine, where the highest-quality coal is a commodity sought at any cost.
Blending family drama and disaster epic, Dukla 61 was inspired by a single line in a book. The project was then developed and produced by Czech Television.
“There was a book with a short sentence about some disaster that was in 1961; there was just one sentence that they brought in many miners,” says Czech TV creative producer Michal Reitler. “We started researching and realised nobody knew about this disaster. We focused on this for six months and then we developed the scripts.”
Director David Ondříček picks up: “The main reason why it’s so successful is that it has a great screenplay and is very authentic in tone and has a lot of emotions. We tried to tell a story without words, especially towards the end.”
The creative team credit the movement of film writers, directors and producers to the small screen with advancing the Czech drama industry, with Ondříček noting that television was considered a “dirty word” just a decade ago. “It was a filmmakers’ community, but it’s changed a lot,” he says.
Reitler adds: “It helps that money is coming to development first, so we can work with writers and then decide what we will produce. There becomes a system of how to develop scripts, how to find the right authors and how to work with them to find a way to tell a story that is understandable locally and globally.
“Everyone asks us if there will be a new Czech wave like in film in the 1960s. We can feel something in the air but we don’t know what it is. There are a lot of new producers. Our generation of directors is in good shape. We’ll see. I can feel that we try to make very authentic and very good-quality shows.”
As streaming platforms mature and creative talent find new places to tell their stories, there is ambition in the region to see its series go on to become as globally popular as projects from other countries. But as ever, financing looms large as the inevitable barrier to the most epic projects getting off the ground.
“The challenges we face are not of a creative but a financial nature,” says Taraba, noting that a Croatian series might cost six or seven times less than one produced in neighbouring Italy or Austria. “It is only financial restrictions, or the low intensity of production, that can stop the creative momentum of the Croatian and the regional market right now. For the price of an episode of an average drama series in the UK or Germany, you can produce an entire season of a series in the range of The Paper in Croatia.”
On making The Pleasure Principle, Jabłoński adds: “We used all the resources from Eastern Europe and we had to combine them because no single broadcaster was able to finance this show. So thanks to this combination, each of our partners got the show for their own exploitation, but we controlled everything to deliver a good show not only for our audience but the international audience.
“This is a trial to check if this combination will bring the quality that will make a difference and break the glass ceiling we experience as filmmakers from Eastern Europe because we feel we’re not able yet to make international audiences excited. I hope that will change.”
With the quality of drama and ambitious storytelling coming out of the region, coupled with the continuing demand for series worldwide, Central and Eastern Europe is well placed to smash that glass ceiling and become the latest global drama hotspot.