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Infectious TV

Real life unexpectedly clashed with fiction in the making of German drama Sløborn, in which a virus ravages an island community. Showrunner Christian Alvart fills DQ in on the eight-part series.

When he pitched the idea for his latest series, Christian Alvart could have had no idea how prescient his fictional story would turn out to be. Sløborn, which launches on Germany’s ZDFneo tomorrow, brings together a disparate group of characters who are suddenly struck down by a deadly virus that sweeps across their island community.

The series, named after the show’s setting, introduces 15-year-old Evelin Kern (Emily Kusche), who does not yet know she is pregnant by her teacher Milan Gruber (Marc Benjamin); her classmate Herm (Adrian Grünewald), who is bullied by his fellow students, including Fiete (Tim Bülow); eccentric star author Nikolai Wagner (Alexander Scheer), who is broke, struggling with drug problems and writer’s block; and Magnus Fisker (Roland Møller), who is leading a rehabilitation project for young offenders.

Christian Alvart

During a beach party, Fiete and his friends find a capsized boat containing the mummified bodies of a couple who died from a mysterious virus, which the youths unknowingly carry back to the shore.

After developing the show for two years, Alvart pitched Sløborn to ZDF last February at Berlinale. With partners such as distributor ZDF Enterprises and financiers Tobis and Nordisk Film subsequently joining his Syrreal Entertainment Production label on the project, filming took place between September and November on the North Sea island of Norderney and at the Polish seaside resort of Sopot, among other locations. Then, as post-production began in December, news began to spread of a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China…

“It’s a freaky coincidence,” says Alvart, whose series focuses on an extremely deadly pigeon flu. “You’re leaving the set, shooting all these scenes with people wearing masks and people freaking out over the government telling them what to do. It gets very intense towards the end of the series, and then you leave the set and everything you’ve discussed for years – how would people behave, how much fear drives our society – then plays out in slow motion in real life while you’re editing it.

“Every time I talked to an actor or the editor, we spent the first 10 minutes getting over the fact this is now happening. It was bizarre for the whole world, but there was an extra level of weird for everyone involved in the show.”

Having spent so long researching and studying viruses for the series, Alvart says he quickly became aware that governments around the world were not doing enough to prepare for Covid-19. “When the real virus hit us, I was a little more scared than the average person because I know this is very serious and could mean a society-shaking event,” he says. “Corona is not harmless at all, but it is still not the most dangerous or lethal virus, and it’s a wake-up to the world about, with globalisation, how fast it travels and if it breaks out somewhere, we’re going to get it here.”

Sløborn stars Emily Kusche as Evelin Kern

The writer and director admits that, during post-production, he was nervous about the possibility that a show depicting an epidemic and its effects on its characters might look silly compared with current events in real life. However, he’s confident the finished product avoids any such pitfalls, with many parallels running between the series and the Covid-19 world.

“What differentiates us from virus movies is that this is about personal responsibility in these times where you don’t know who to trust anymore,” Alvart says, pointing to real examples including the 2014 sinking of Korean ship Sewol, where many passengers died because they followed orders to stay in their cabins.

“It was my core belief in the past that you do what the doctor says in case you’re sick, or you do what the cops say. But there were several cases like the one in Korea, even in Europe, where I thought you can never give up personal responsibility for yourself. Now, with society not agreeing on facts anymore – and for every opinion, there’s a counter opinion – it’s getting increasingly difficult [to know who to believe].

“The idea for Sløborn was, ‘What if a society like ours now that doesn’t trust facts, each other or the authorities is hit by a virus? How does it play out on a personal level?’ That’s why we made the conscious decision not to be in the room with [people in positions of] power on this show. We’re only with regular people and families on an island [and not politicians]. The show is us. What happens to us when we are hit by something like this? If you come back to real life, it’s even more like the real world now because we are not in the room with power and 99% of people aren’t, so everybody will see themselves in this show.”

Alvart first began thinking about the themes behind Sløborn when he was living in LA following the success of his 2005 crime thriller Antikörper (Antibodies). He was receiving lots of offers from Hollywood and working with stars such as Renée Zellweger, Bradley Cooper and Dennis Quaid. He describes that period as “probably the most exciting time of my life,” which also coincided with a swine flu epidemic in Mexico in 2009.

Alvart spent two years developing the virus-focused drama

“The news over there [in the US] was very dramatic,” he remembers. “It was predicting doom and gloom and that maybe this could be the apocalypse. I was like, ‘This is interesting because the news tells us this might be the apocalypse but I care about my career and I’m compartmentalising my own life.’ Then I saw everyone was basically doing that. I realised humanity will keep going. We’re just worrying about what’s close to us and keeping going as long as possible until it hits us in the face. This is a great metaphor for everything we’re facing in our society.

“Then when I was in the writers room, I set a goal that the storylines had to be interesting enough that the audience is invested in them, and even if there’s no virus hitting the story, we should still be able to write it to a satisfying, tense conclusion. The virus storyline is almost disrupting our other storylines. That’s where this whole thing started.”

Four years ago, Alvart partnered with writer Henner Schulte-Holtey to develop the story. And after working with Kusche on his 2018 movie Steig. Nicht. Aus! (Don’t. Get. Out!), Alvart came up with Sløborn’s main character, Evelin. Last year, ZDF came on board and the series quickly rolled into production.

Having built a reputation as a director who writes many of his own screenplays, Alvart honed his approach to television on his 2018 Netflix drama Dogs of Berlin, a crime series set in the Berlin underworld. First he sets up his vision for the series before taking it into a writers room, where it can be tested, pulled apart and rebuilt.

He worked with Schulte-Holtey to draft storylines for the whole season, before writers Erol Yesilkaya, Siegfried Kamml and Arend Remmers joined to pen individual episodes. “Then we go back to the room, we discuss the shortcomings and the successes of each episode and the writers get another crack,” he explains. Alvart subsequently takes a final pass at each script.

The series takes its name from its island setting

“Every episode or script is at least co-written by me because it has to fit. It’s one story and it has to feel consistent. Some characters talk slightly differently in every episode before I do my draft. The writer who arrives on the island, he has a very specific way of talking where every line I had to rewrite so it becomes this very specific tone he has. He’s a weird, intellectual, hipster writer who doesn’t talk like everyone else.”

Unlike on Dogs of Berlin, for which Alvart directed all 10 parts, this time he shares duties behind the camera with Adolfo Kolmerer (Snowflake, Abikalypse), who has also linked up with Alvart’s Syrreal. This also gave Alvart more time to focus on other areas of the project and fulfil the multiple demands of his role as showrunner.

“There’s a misconception, at least in Germany, where if people are head writers, they think they are already showrunners,” he says. “That’s weird because someone running the show should also be responsible for the show as the producer, and I am the producer along with my partners at Syrreal. I’m writing, I’m directing, I created it, I produce and I am the DOP on my episodes, so I think I’m not overreaching in taking that position.”

Large sections of filming took place in Poland to offer German viewers an unfamiliar landscape. More familiar to Alvart, meanwhile, were the key members of his crew, with whom he works on every project.

Alexander Scheer plays author Nikolai Wagner

“I’ve been shooting so much lately. In any given year, I have several projects, sometimes a show and movie, or I had a year with three movies, and this is only possible because I work with the same core crew on every project, including the gaffer, first assistant camera and the grips,” he says.

“It’s not just heads of departments but the technical crew. They’re amazing, and really the whole set is a well-oiled machine. That’s why it wasn’t that challenging [making Sløborn], even when shooting on water or in the cold or in a different country. I always have the team with me and they’re super reliable, so I feel very comfortable taking on all these things like shooting with kids, on water or with animals. Everything that people tell you not to do is OK!”

While Alvart imagines Sløborn to run to multiple seasons, this self-contained first season poses the question ‘what would you do?’ if faced with a similar situation. It also puts the spotlight on the balance between accepting expert advice and taking personal responsibility for yourself and your family.

“You can’t go nuts or go full-on conspiracy theorist because then you’re not responsible anymore, but you also can’t go 100% ‘I’m doing what I’m being told.’ It’s a very interesting dilemma,” Alvart sums up. “It’s getting more and more difficult to trust your eyes and ears, and you need to trust your logical reasoning more. If there’s one thing that makes my heart bleed every day, it’s how you’re not able to reason anymore. That should be the number-one priority of our society.”

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On Decker

The latest German detective to hit TV screens – Dunkelstadt’s Doro Decker – plays by her own rules, as star Alina Levshin and director Asli Özge reveal.

With the country’s penchant for crime drama, there aren’t many German cities that haven’t been on screen. Hit long-running drama Tatort, for example, is a collection of police stories set in different locations around the country, while the Soko series is set in Munich, Stuttgart and Leipzig, among other places.

As a result, when the production team behind six-part drama Dunkelstadt wanted to take viewers somewhere different, they turned to Belgium and the Flemish city of Antwerp to create the show’s brooding, anonymous backdrop.

Dunkelstadt (Dark City) introduces private detective Doro Decker, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of her late father, a respected police officer who was killed in the line of duty. But an inability to follow orders and a problem with authority figures meant her police training came to an abrupt end. Now she solves cases on her own while also investigating the suspicious circumstances of her father’s death.

Episode one sees a client ask Doro to find out whether her husband is cheating on her. But it soon emerges that the husband is under threat after receiving information not meant for him – and his attempt to hand it to Doro ends up with him getting shot, leading her into a case that will have political ramifications.

“She’s very ambitious but she also has a lot of demons,” explains Alina Levshin (Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, Never Too Late For Justice), who plays Doro. “She’s fighting against herself. She’s ambivalent, she’s not really the buddy type. She doesn’t have many friends. She likes to do her work on her own and nobody comes in her way. She has a problem with alcohol, and that was interesting for me to see, as she’s not very old.

“She’s not a man and she has all these issues we actually expect from male detectives. So I was curious about to try this out. I also have this very strong passion for justice. She’s really helping people because she has a good heart so, all in all, she’s a good person, although she doesn’t appear like she is the hero.”

Dunkelstadt director Asli Özge (left) and star Alina Levshin

On the surface, Doro may seem pretty tough, confident and aloof, but she’s also emotionally fragile, series director Asli Özge says. “She’s tough outside and you cannot get through her very quickly. You have the shell and what she shows outside, and that contrasts nicely with what she is in reality.”

The procedural series comprises six different stories, covering themes such as homelessness, family, wealth, politics, the police, religion and cults, while each episode also contributes to the overarching serialised story about Doro’s investigation into her father’s death, which is not as clear cut as it initially appeared.

Each part also sees Doro take on another character to garner information pertinent to her case, which often involves an elaborate costume and the chance for Levshin to portray a character playing another character.

“She gets information and talks to people and dresses up like somebody else, so each episode I had to dress twice like somebody else,” the actor says, speaking to DQ at Berlinale, where the show was screened ahead of its premiere on ZDFneo in February. “I was dressing up a lot and playing somebody else in Doro’s character. I could fool around as other people. That was fun. It’s her way of getting deep into something, to get people to trust her. It was not so easy [to play]. It was fun reading it, but then I had to play it, so we had to figure out how she would talk to different people. But that was a really cool aspect of the series.”

Özge joined the production, which was filmed over just 51 days, when two episodes had been written. She talked with Levshin about character and playing Doro before the shoot began in Antwerp, which the lead character describes as “my town.”

“Germany is a country with all these series like Tatort or other crime dramas, so everywhere has been used [on screen before]. If you watch something, you can tell where it is,” the director says. “When the producers said they were thinking of shooting in Belgium, I thought it could be something special. So we went to Antwerp and we really loved it. We can do something visually strong there. That was the most important part for me.

Levshin’s Doro often appears in disguise

“We didn’t define it as a city – we didn’t show any Belgian places. The language is German between the actors but the ambulances are different, police uniforms are different and the police cars are not the police cars in Germany. That was the interesting part, creating this world. But it’s still realistic. It’s not like a fantasy. It could be anywhere.”

While the location is undefined and rooted in reality, this only adds to the atmosphere of the series. From the setting and narrative voiceover to the comic book-style credits sequence and the lone central character facing her inner demons, Dunkelstadt has many of the trappings of a traditional film noir.

Levshin and Özge say they never set out to make a show that stuck to a particular blueprint, instead aiming to create a modern detective series with a noir sensibility.

“It’s a modern film noir. I never talked about any [particular] film so I really went there completely free,” Levshin says. “I thought, ‘OK, this is the location, I can do something.’ But there was not even one image in my mind about film noir. I really completely ignored it. That’s the best way to think about it – to try to forget it.”

“My last film, Aug Einmal [All of a Sudden], was kind of a film noir. But I never had it in my mind, because I wanted to make a psychological drama,” Özge continues. “Then I understood how it was perceived in Germany and how, actually, people need something like that because there are so many crime stories. What I like about Dunkelstadt is Doro is a rebel and not everything she does is perfect.”

Dunkelstadt marks Özge’s first television series, following credits on other films such as Hayatboyu (Lifelong) and Köprüdekiler (Men on the Bridge). She says making the show was a “big difference for me, it was shocking,” noting the shorter preparation time she had with her lead actors – Levshin, Rauand Taleb (Doro’s young assistant Adnan Musa) and Artjom Gilz (police commissioner Chris Lautner).

The German drama was filmed in Belgium for ZDFneo

“What was good was I could bring them together for three days so that we got through the whole script together. [That way], we knew what was not working for them and for me,” the director says. “Then on set, on a film I would normally do 30 takes or something – I really try everything. But here I shot every take a little bit differently. I didn’t repeat the same thing, I always changed the cameras so the lens was different, so I could use any part of it in the editing, which in the end was not a problem. It was very quickly and fluently edited, so that was the good part. It helped – and I will now take that idea into my films.”

Filming in Belgium with a multinational cast and crew also proved challenging, with French, Turkish, German and English among the languages spoken on set.

The fact Doro is in almost every scene meant the schedule was particularly unrelenting for Levshin, though the actor admits she knew what she was getting herself into. “I knew before that was going to happen, it wasn’t a surprise,” she says. “You have to have discipline, but I was happy when somebody else came in. In every episode, there’s one or two scenes that are not just with me. So whenever those scenes would come, I would have 15 or 20 minutes off. They were long days, but we had really good stunt coordinators and people who would help. There was a lot of support. But after that, I needed a holiday!”

Levshin says she would love to take the role of Doro further should a second season be commissioned by ZDFneo. The series is produced by Zeitsprung Pictures in coproduction with Brussels-based AT-Prod, with distribution by ZDF Enterprises.

For now, she is just proud of starring in a series that stands out in the crowded German crime drama market. “Firstly, there is a female in the middle, and then the film noir style. There is a lot of crime drama in Germany, but we don’t have this type,” she concludes.

“She’s not a hero. We actually wanted to make it unfriendly and we were always struggling, thinking, ‘Is this too unfriendly? Will they hate me as a person?’ She’s really groggy, she doesn’t give a shit really. She never smiles. She’s an anti-hero. That’s how I feel about it.”

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Scent of a killer

Constantin Film producer Oliver Berben tells DQ about making Parfum (Perfume), an inventive German crime drama for ZDFneo and Netflix that uses both the book and film on which the show is based as plot points.

Oliver Berben

While book and film adaptations are key cornerstones of the television drama market, it’s rare that the existence of the source material is acknowledged within the show on which it is based.

But this is the case with German series Parfum (Perfume), with both the book and film that inspired the series appearing during the story, providing clues that help the detectives solve the mystery at the heart of this particularly gruesome crime drama.

Perfume begins with the discovery of the body of a woman on the Lower Rhine river, whose hair – pubic and axillary – have been removed. The investigators, played by Friederike Becht, Wotan Wilke Möhring and Juergen Maurer, then come across five people who knew the victim from their time at boarding school together.

It transpires that the group were interested in human scents, having been inspired by Patrick Süskind’s real-life 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. To help understand the case, the lead profiler subsequently reads the book and watches the 2006 feature adaptation that was directed by Tom Tykwer and starred Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Dustin Hoffman.

Here, producer Oliver Berben from Constantin Film breaks down the making of the series and talks about how the original book and the movie became integral to the plot of the drama.

What are the origins of the project?
The show originates from the idea of exploring, in a serial form, the fundamental premise of the novel and the movie of the same title: How far can humans be manipulated through their sense of smell? Constantin Film had acquired the film rights and produced Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of the novel, which became an international success. But with the serial, we wanted to take the historical ‘story of a murderer’ to another level and transfer it to our time.

What were your first impressions of the book?
I read the novel more or less when it first came out, as a teenager, and was completely overwhelmed by it. Perfume is one of the most fascinating and obscure books I know; it’s complex and intriguing, like a strange perfume. Süskind made me – and so many other people around the world – think about odours and scents in a very different way.

How did the novel and the movie inform the series?
They both served as inspirational starting points and as a reference throughout the series. They turn out to be a key element of the investigation. The novel, in particular, forms part of the backstory of our modern-day protagonists: They read the book when they were at boarding school together in the 1990s, and it inspired them to start experimenting with smells, like Süskind’s protagonist Grenouille in the early 18th century. The profiler who investigates the actual murder case, in the present, reads the book and watches the movie in order to learn about the possible motives behind the crime.

How are they related and why did you decide to take this route, rather than a straight adaptation or remake?
Tom Tykwer’s 2006 movie is a congenial adaptation of Süskind’s novel, in every sense. We did not see the point of trying to copy or simply repeat this approach in a TV show more than a decade later. Instead, we thought it would be interesting to ask ourselves: What makes this story so fascinating and relevant to us today? How can it be translated from 18th century France to our own world, where smells and perfumes are being perceived differently but may still have the same power over people’s emotions and behaviour?

Perfume’s meta approach sees the source material acknowledged within the plot

What was writer Eva Kranenburg’s process?
Eva started developing the idea for the show, the plot and the characters in close collaboration with me, and continued to write a concept that we closely discussed and worked on as a team over the course of several months. The process of writing the scripts for the six episodes was also aided by Philipp Kadelbach, the director, at a later stage.

How was the series developed with ZDFneo?
ZDFneo series are typically supervised, in the development stage, by a commissioning editor from ZDF. For Perfume, this was Günther van Endert, with whom we had worked on a number of great projects before, so there was a lot of mutual trust and understanding. Günther knew the scripts from a relatively early stage and really liked them.

When did Netflix join the show?
Netflix was on board from the very beginning. I explained the idea to Kai Finke [Netflix’s director of German-language content acquisitions and coproductions] in the early development stage and he was on board from day one. We found a deal together that could do justice to the complexity of the book, which had been translated and sold around the world, and also meet the needs of the broadcaster and a worldwide streamer on the other side.

How does Perfume stand apart from other crime series?
Perfume is unlike other crime series in that it combines a thrilling modern crime story, a deep psychodrama and a seemingly esoteric topic such as the mystical power of smell. It is also unusually original in terms of its visual and narrative style: beautiful but bleak, psychological but also extravagant, fantastical and hyper-realistic at the same time. We tried to create something without using existing patterns or paragons, something with its very own look and feel.

How are the detectives portrayed?
Our main character, Nadja Simon (Friederike Becht), is a young profiler. She leads the investigation but finds herself in a constant power struggle with the prosecuting attorney, Grünberg (Wotan Wilke Möhring), with whom she is having an affair. Köhler (Juergen Maurer), a detective with the local police, supports Nadja’s unorthodox investigation techniques and tries, unsuccessfully, to get closer to her.

The series was filmed on location in West Germany

What did director Philipp Kadelbach bring to the drama?
As a director with a clear vision and a legendary talent for working with actors, Philipp brought immense creative input to the series. Without his obsession – with every small detail as important as the entire production – Perfume would never have happened.

Where was the series filmed and how did locations influence its look?
Perfume was filmed on location at the Niederrhein, a rural/suburban region in the far west of Germany, between Cologne and the borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. The landscape is mostly flat and rather bleak, characterised by potato fields and pervaded by slip roads, power poles and run-down industrial areas. But in between, you come across small spots of surprising beauty: an old castle, the ruins of something in a blooming forest, a small river, a patch of moor.
This area, with its vaguely ‘lost’ feel, was the perfect setting for our show, whose protagonists are isolated – located nowhere, so to speak. The landscape also fits the look we were trying to create, with its focus on a kind of beauty that keeps oscillating between loveliness and gloom, between perfection and devastation, between a brutal present and the nostalgic transfiguration of the past.

What were the biggest challenges in development and production and how did you overcome them?
Movie making is always a big challenge overall and it creates tangible smaller problems during each step of the development and production process. It is only with the support of an excellent team, both on the creative side and on the production side, that you can overcome these constant challenges.

Why did you think Perfume would appeal to both German and global viewers?
Now that the series has come out [it debuted in November 2018 on ZDFneo and in December worldwide on Netflix], it is very exciting for us to see that German viewers and audiences around the world are reacting so strongly to it. Perfume has turned out as we had hoped – it is unlike anything people have seen before, and it has a sort of suction effect, a tight grip. So we are not surprised but very happy that it provokes and fascinates so many people at the same time, in so many different countries.

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