Viewers will be transported to Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in epic German period drama Babylon Berlin.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, the story follows Gereon Rath, a police officer from Cologne investigating in the capital with his own agenda. Yet the story only serves as a way into a city overrun by organised crime and political extremism. Berlin is a metropolis for those with talent and ambition but a dead end for the impoverished masses striving for a better life.
Writers and directors Tom Tykwer, Henrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries discuss how they used to books as the basis of the 16-episode series, which they say also asks questions about German society during the emergence of the Nazis.
They also reveal how they shared responsibilities in pre-production, during shooting and in the editing process, on a production that ran to 185 shooting days and filmed on a backlot built at Studio Babelsberg, complete with four streets and squares.
Babylon Berlin is produced by X Filme, ARD Degeto, Sky and distributor Beta Film.
Babylon Berlin recreates 1920s Berlin in exquisite detail to bring Volker Kutchser’s detective Gereon Rath to television. DQ visits the set.
Amid financial turmoil and growing distrust of establishment figures, an ultra-nationalist movement stirs, snaring growing numbers of supporters through lies and scaremongering while opposition parties flounder. A functioning political process begins its slow, stealthy death march, while the importance of fighting for freedom and democracy becomes impossible to ignore.
Small wonder the story of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s postwar democracy dismantled by the Nazis in the 1930s, feels so appropriate for our times. For X Filme, the German production company weighing up the possibilities, the big question was how to tell it. Enter Volker Kutscher, author of the noirish Gereon Rath detective novels.
Kutscher’s first story in the series, Babylon Berlin, follows vice squad detective Rath as he is dispatched from his hometown of Cologne on a secret mission to bust an extortion ring in Berlin. Instead, his investigations turn up sinister goings-on linking politics to the underworld and police corruption to a proposed right-wing military putsch. His sidekick, Charlotte Ritter, is an unlikely combination of police stenotypist and prostitute, such was the struggle for many to make ends meet on the cusp of the Great Depression. Although ridiculed by her superiors, she becomes indispensable to Rath, her dual life granting him crucial access to Berlin’s seamy underbelly.
It’s a rich stew of cultural, personal, political and economic excess in arguably the most intoxicating city of the age, and proved irresistible to producer Michael Polle and X Filme co-founder Tom Tykwer, director of ambitious art-house touchstones including Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas.
Brought to X Filme to build up the television department, it’s fair to say Polle is fulfilling his brief with Babylon Berlin, which will premiere on Sky Deutschland this October before its free-to-air debut on Germany’s ARD Das Erste next year.
After an aborted attempt to work up their own material for a Weimar-era drama, the team turned to Kutscher’s books and, after a patient hunt (they had been optioned by another company), bought the rights. Kutscher has been a hands-off partner on the Babylon Berlin set, happy to leave the production to it once he had seen the scripts, according to Polle.
Crucially, like the novel, the TV adaptation examines the era without imposing any knowledge of what was to come. This was the pre-cabaret age, when optimism still abounded and political turmoil was matched by a thriving creative arts scene led by director Fritz Lang, dramatist Bertolt Brecht and the art movements of Expressionism and New Objectivity. The Nazis were a minority concern and few had heard of Adolf Hitler.
Tykwer was joined by Achim von Borries (Alone in Berlin) and Henk Handloegten (Summer Window), with the triumvirate directing and writing all 16 episodes that make up the first two seasons. And despite being both the most recognisable name internationally and the ostensible showrunner, Tykwer appears to run a very collaborative process, insisting each episode is credited to the three of them. Certainly, it’s unusual for an auteur to harness their creative instincts to the collective quite so comprehensively.
“Tom wanted to develop characters and stories longer than films allow,” claims Polle. “This was the right project at the right time for him. It’s not about who’s best – they’re a strong team. That spirit of co-operation was fascinating. Achim says that, when you see an episode, you have no idea who shot which scene, which was the goal all along.”
While Tykwer was virtually a TV debutant before Babylon Berlin, with just two episodes of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Netflix folly Sense8 to his name, Von Borries and Handloegten had considerable experience in small-screen drama – something undoubtedly invaluable to the extraordinary logistical effort required to shoot 16 episodes concurrently over eight months.
It’s a bone-chillingly cold December day when DQ visits Babylon Berlin’s backlot set, Neuen Berliner Strasse, at the Studio Babelsberg in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, on the outskirts of the German capital. Scenes from episodes two, three, 12, 14 and 15 are being shot by all three directors across several locations in Berlin and Cologne, the hometown of not only Rath (played by Generation War’s Volker Bruch, pictured top) but also Kutscher.
At Babelsberg, a week before wrap, von Borries is directing Liv Lisa Fries (Day of Rage, Night of Reason) as her character, Chartlotte, attempts to rescue her younger sister from the clutches of an exploitative gangster outside Moka Efti, a legendary Berlin nightspot whose art deco facade is impressively rendered here. Almost all the houses on this network of streets are in fact facades, but their doors and windows still offer different perspectives and angles for filming. Interiors were shot in studios or production centres – primarily the former ministry of the interior for the GDR, which was used as the inside of a police station, various offices and part of Moka Efti (an old silent-cinema building was also used for the latter).
As well as overseeing the score, as he has done for the vast majority of his films, Tykwer brought several key collaborators to the series. Most critically, there’s production designer Uli Hanisch, whose work on this outstanding set allows grotesque wealth to nestle cheek by jowl with extreme poverty. Various streets from several different Berlin districts are here: principally, Friedrichstrasse, Charlottenburg and Kreuzberg Neukölln. No single thoroughfare is straight, again offering multiple camera angles for the creative director of photography. Greenscreens lurk on street corners, although on-location filming was carried out where possible, including a memorable day of filming on Alexanderplatz, a large public square in central Berlin. “The plan was to get an idea of Berlin in the 1920s, and to do that you have to film in the streets,” says Polle.
The scene being depicted when DQ visits is set a few days after police had used horses and tanks to disperse a Communist march for Official Workers’ Day, May 1, 1929. It’s a little calmer now, but only just. Political slogans cover walls and lampposts. Adverts promote Sanatogen ‘Fur Deine Nerven’ (for your nerves). Beautiful vintage cars squeal through crowds of people going about their business. Around 150 extras are on set today, each with their own name, number and costume – “some people say there aren’t any 20s costumes left in Europe because we have rented them all!” laughs Polle. The blend of 1920s Berlin with the aesthetic of classic American gangster movies is entirely deliberate, and a decision that Boardwalk Empire fan Kutscher endorses.
“Watching The Sopranos 15 years ago was an epiphany,” he told The Guardian last year. “That and The Wire. Seeing my books being adapted for TV in the tradition of those HBO shows is exciting.”
The timing for such a series is unquestionably right. “Once, there were more urgent stories to tell, like the Second World War and Hitler,” reckons Jan Mojto, CEO of Beta Film, Babylon Berlin’s distributor and strategic partner to X-Filme. “Germans have always had a complicated relationship with their past, but that’s changing now. The country is facing its own history in all its contradictions, understanding that, even if it was very black, there were light moments. It’s a more realistic attitude to one’s own history than just guilt.”
Babylon Berlin will join a growing number of German series making an international splash, notably Second World War saga Generation War and Cold War thriller Deustchland 83. Not since the days of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early 1980s has German television drama enjoyed such a high profile. Deutschland 83, however, proved to be a much bigger hit abroad than at home – an indication of the gamble being taken by producers when they aim for a wider market. As a result, broadcaster RTL has partnered with Amazon on its sequel, Deutschland 86. Netflix, meanwhile, will launch German-language supernatural drama Dark this winter.
The market, however, hasn’t been entirely cornered by SVoD services. For Babylon Berlin, X Filme opted for a pay TV/free-to-air partnership between Sky Deustchland and German national broadcaster ARD – an unusual but not unprecedented setup.
“For a project of this size and scale, it’s the first one,” says Mojto. “The budget is comparable to international standards, close to €2.5m [US$2.65m] per episode, but we could never have got that from a single broadcaster in Germany. The arrangement wasn’t too complicated; the important thing was that the three directors wanted to tell this story in a certain way, and we all met on that ground.”
European coproductions have, says Polle, become increasingly common, with Borgen creator Adam Price and Danish network DR working with Franco-German network Arte on faith-based drama Rides Upon the Storm.
“National networks now don’t have enough money to fund big, ambitious series alone,” he notes. “But from a storytelling point of view, even if its being made for a global audience, you shouldn’t be considering what French or American people might think about a scene. The story just needs a strong identity – if it’s unique and good, you’ll get attention around the world.”
Another key decision, says Mojto, was to shoot Babylon Berlin in its native language. “Given the size of the project,” he says, “four years ago it would have been reasonable to try and shoot in English, but we felt it would not enhance its authenticity. [Italian mob drama] Gomorrah was shot in a Neapolitan dialect so strong that lots of Italians struggled to understand it, but that didn’t prevent the series from travelling around the world.”
This is unlikely to be the last we’ll see of Gereon Rath, or his unwitting involvement in the birth of the modern age in all its glory and horror. “Volker wanted to tell the story of Berlin throughout this time,” says Polle. “His first idea was to finish the series in 1936 and the Berlin Olympics. His latest novel is set in 1937, so the first idea went a little too well! But that’s OK – the more books he writes, the better for us.”
And those successes are spreading confidence across the industry.
One of the most ambitious new series coming out of Germany is Babylon Berlin, which starts filming next month.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, it centres on police inspector Gereon Rath in 1920s Berlin – a hotbed of drugs and politics, murder and art, emancipation and extremism.
It was created by showrunner Tom Tykwer (Sense 8) and his writer/director team Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, and stars Volker Bruch (Generation War) and Liv Lisa Fries.
Babylon Berlin is particularly groundbreaking as it’s a collaboration between pay TV platform Sky, X-Filme, public broadcast group ARD and Beta Film, which is distributing the series worldwide. Sky will broadcast the series in 2017 and ARD in 2018.
Furthermore, the parties have all signed on for two seasons of the series. X-Filme producer Stefan Arndt says: “We’re particularly happy that we’ll be able to complete two seasons of eight episodes each during the first shooting. This shows how enthusiastic and confident all of the partners are in our joint project.”
That Sky and ARD have come together on the project is particularly unique, signalling both Sky’s ambitions to break into original German drama and the unique financing strategy in place to bring the series to life.
Volker Herres, programme director at ARD-owned Das Erste, which will air the series, says: “We would like to build on the incredible success of Volker Kutscher’s novels. These are exciting stories with a historical background, and we want to present them to German television audiences in a serial production that holds up to international standards. With this goal, we benefit from a collaboration between three strong partners so X Filme and Tom Tykwer can implement the detective series in grand style.”
Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto continues: “Due to the subject, the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, the first international reactions to the project have been very positive. Babylon Berlin doesn’t need to take second stage to any of the major international series.”
For Sky, Babylon Berlin is just the start of its original drama strategy, which is being built on top of exclusive acquisition deals for content from US premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime.
Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Deutschland, says the series “is an exceptional project and a perfect match for Sky – bold storytelling, an outstanding cast and Tom Tykwer’s incredibly creative team.
“The co-operation between X Filme, ARD Degeto and Beta Film is an impressive example of a fruitful and fair collaboration where all the partners are striking a unique path for Germany and Austria. With Babylon Berlin, we are adding an in-house German production segment to our exclusive international agreements with such major partners as HBO and Showtime – a direction we will be moving in even more in the future.”
Christine Strobl, MD of producer ARD Degeto, adds: “Babylon Berlin is a special project and very important for ARD. With this series, ARD Degeto will be offering Das Erste audiences a real treat that can stand up to international comparison from both narrative and visual points of view. With regard to co-operation and financing, such an exceptional project deserves an exceptional approach. I am looking forward to the upcoming start of filming – judging from the screenplays, we can expect some outstanding television.”
For Tykwer and his colleagues von Borries and Handloegten, the project marks the end of a search for a unique story to tell on Germany television.
“For a long time, we were searching for subject matter that could tell the story of this era in all its facets,” he explains. “We finally found it in Kutscher’s novels. And after Achim, Hendrik and I spent three years working intensively on the screenplay, I can hardly wait to get started.”
Von Borries picks up: “The final years of the Weimar Republic were a time of continual crisis and constant attacks from political extremists. A rapidly growing city with immigrants from all over the world was in the middle of it all – Berlin, the international melting pot, with the pressure constantly mounting. This was a source of inexhaustible material for us as authors. And to finally have the opportunity to portray the atmosphere of the late 1920s is a challenge to us as directors – absolutely huge and incredibly exciting.”
Of course, one of the central characters in the series is the city itself, which Handloegten says was characterised at the time by its fast pace, freedom and diversity.
“But soon it was too much speed, too much freedom, too much diversity,” he adds. “It was a city that was always becoming but never was. In Babylon Berlin, the city is the protagonist. And Berlin in 1929 is a bestial, monstrous, famished and satiated, exalted and down-to-earth, elegant and degenerate, perverse and chaste… and mysterious protagonist. It is the best thing that could happen to an author and director.”
German drama is also set to receive a boost from Netflix and Amazon, which have both ordered their first original German-language series.
Matthias Schweighofer will star in, direct and produce Amazon series Wanted, about a man who becomes the target of a mysterious hacking attack that puts him and his family in danger.
Dark, described as a family saga with a supernatural twist, comes to Netflix from producers Widermann & Berg (The Lives of Others) and is directed by Baran bo Odar. It is due to air in 2017.
The story is set in a German town in the present day where the disappearance of two young children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. It goes on to take a supernatural twist that ties back to the same town in 1986.
“Dark is a milestone for the German market and for us as a company,” says producer Quirin Berg. “Baran bo Odar and (writer) Jantje Friese are outstanding talents and we are glad they shared this amazing idea with us. We feel privileged to continue our collaboration with both of them and we are all thrilled to join forces with a great team at Netflix to create something truly unique.”
By pushing the boundaries of its homegrown series, both in terms of story and where they can be found, German drama is going from strength to strength at a time when there is a growing demand to see its stories played out on the international stage.