German writer Annette Hess tells DQ about period drama Ku’damm 56 and its upcoming sequel Ku’damm 59, her desire to create a series with strong female characters and why she enjoys writing about the past.
The origins of German period drama Ku’damm 56 make for an interesting play on the progression of writers within the country’s television industry. Annette Hess, who had created long-running series Weissensee, was demoralised at the lack of control she had over her own show. So for her next project, she carved out a role as a showrunner that meant she could be hands-on with the programne throughout its development and production.
Ku’damm 56, about three sisters finding their way in 1950s Berlin while under the watchful eye of their strict, socially conservative mother, first aired on ZDF in March 2016. Shown over three nights, it was watched by an average of six million people. Its sequel, Ku’damm 59, will debut on March 18 this year.
“Ku’damm 56 was the first time I was involved as a kind of showrunner,” Hess tells DQ. “It was on Weissensee that I did not have enough influence to give my opinion, and I didn’t like that very much. I was outside and it was always the director who was the last one to decide. I told my agent I wanted to have it another way next time.
“There’s a lot of work still to do, of course, because a lot of directors don’t like this development. But it had to be done because I know so many talented writers and they’re so frustrated after years [in television] and they’re going into literature. I also started [writing literature] myself and now I have to write a book!”
Ku’damm 56 tells a story of conflicting generations through Berlin dance school owner Caterina Schöllack (Claudia Michelsen) and her three daughters Monika (Sonja Gerhardt), Helga (Maria Ehrich) and Eva (Emilia Schüle). While Helga and Eva are willing to follow their mother’s wish to see them happily married, Monika rebels against her strict upbringing and falls in love with rock ’n’ roll music.
Hess puts the success of Ku’damm 56 down to the music and dancing at the centre of the coming-of-age story. “It’s one you can understand immediately if you have problems with your mother, even if your mother isn’t such a monster as Caterina.
“Older people were interested because it was about their youth. It was the youth of my parents, which is why I wrote it, because my mother told me lots of stories about her girlfriend, and these girls – Helga, Monika and Eva – are kind of real. And the younger ones are also interested to see where their mothers and grandmothers come from and how they lived.”
Set three years later, the sequel sees single mother Monika fight for custody of her daughter, as Caterina believes the little girl should live with Helga and her husband Wolfgang (August Wittgenstein), as a way to hide his secret homosexuality. Meanwhile, the careers of Monika and her dance partner Freddy (Trystan Pütter) pick up speed under the stewardship of Caterina’s management, while Monika must also confront her feelings for Joachim (Sabin Tambrea). Eva is also unhappy in her marriage to Professor Fassbender (Heino Ferch).
Like its predecessor, Ku’damm 59 is produced by UFA Fiction and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
“We always had [a sequel] in mind if it was a success,” Hess admits. “You’re thinking about it in your meetings with the broadcaster and talking about what you could do. For me, it’s always difficult, if it’s a success, to make it even better. Of course, everyone’s expecting it to be better than Ku’damm 56. I told my husband, ‘What can I write?’ It was a long process. But on the other hand, I love to write characters and tell their lives. Now it’s even better than Ku’damm 56.
“I’m so overwhelmed by what I see [on set]. The actors are much more in their characters, the director is much more free this time and the stories are grown-up stories. Ku’damm 56 was more like a fairytale; Monika was an ugly duck who became a swan. Now they’re struggling and have conflicts with each other and their husbands and their mother. It’s not a coming-of-age story but really a drama, and with a lot of humour too.”
Taking to social media, Hess says she enjoyed hearing from viewers who were willing Monika and potential love interest Joachim to marry. Monika rejected Joachim in Ku’damm 56 but he returns in the sequel.
“There are a lot of fans asking for marriage and happy endings between him and Monika so it’s wonderful to see all these Facebook posts,” the writer says. “It’s quite new that the writer has direct reaction to what you have written. They said after the first part it has to go on, they have to marry and I’m giving the fans this marriage but not in the way they are expecting. I really like to listen to viewers and fans and to react and give them more, but not in the way they are expecting.”
Ten years ago, Hess wrote a series called Die Frau vom Checkpoint Charlie (The Woman from Checkpoint Charlie), a TV movie for Arte based on the true story of a woman who is separated from her children while escaping 1980s East Germany. While it was a big success, Hess says she is now far removed from this “simple” kind of story that was made at a time when something like Ku’damm, with a cast of complex characters, would not have been produced. Now she’s fighting to bring more complicated females to the screen.
“Female movies are the more soapy movies and the others are crime stories, mostly with strong men, and women are prostitutes or drug addicts,” she says of the German industry. “I’m exaggerating but it’s a big issue for me because it’s a real problem. It’s a kind of regression. You can see it in the directors – 20% of directors are female, the same with writers, and these 20% are writing mostly the soapy stuff while men are writing the interesting projects. It’s not moving, so for me it’s now very important.
“In other series, women are just ornaments or they try to make one strong woman so nobody can say there isn’t one. It’s ridiculous sometimes. But they’re not really the sort of female characters I want to see. Orange is the New Black and The Crown are great series with fascinating female characters.”
Future series from Hess are likely to continue to live in the past, as per Weissensee and the Ku’damm shows. She’s now also writing an adaptation of Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (The Children from Bahnhof Zoo), an autobiographical book by Christiane F, who Hess describes as “the most famous drug addict in the world.” The series is set in Berlin in the 1970s.
“For me, it’s easier to tell stories from a distance,” she says. “If I’m writing about my everyday life, I cannot choose what is important – I think everything is important. But if I have some distance, I can decide what is the essential story, what are the essential characters, and that’s the story I’m going to tell. But whether it’s in the 1950s or 1970s, it’s also about today because the conflicts are the same. It has to be a mirror of our time, otherwise it wouldn’t work with the audience. It’s just like something from a museum.”
Whether there will be a third instalment in the Ku’damm series set in 1962 remains to be seen, as Hess would have to deal with the Berlin Wall, which was built a year earlier. “I don’t like to write these things,” she adds. “We have seen it so many times, it’s not easy to find a new idea about it.”
As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.
It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.
Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.
The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.
“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”
But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.
“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”
As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.
“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”
In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”
Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”
When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.
“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”
It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”
Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”
“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”
To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”
That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”
“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”
With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.
One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”
US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.
“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”
So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”
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.