Generation gap

Generation gap

By Michael Pickard
April 11, 2024

The Writers Room

Marianne Wendt, writer and creative producer of Wer wir sind (Generation Now: Today for Tomorrow), opens up about the social themes at the heart of this German drama and the big questions it asks about the kind of society we want to leave for our children.

A clash between a group of youths and the police triggers a battle of the generations in German drama Wer wir sind – a series that considers what kind of world parents are leaving for their children and what sort of society young people want to live in.

The story centres on 17-year-old Luise (Lea Drinda), who bands together with other young environmentalists to target a local waste-disposal company owned that illegally dumps rubbish and engages in greenwashing to hide its sins.

When a peaceful evening at a protest camp in front of the company headquarters turns violent, Luise’s mother Catrin (Franziska Weisz), a police chief inspector, is put in charge of the investigation, but she has no idea her daughter was at the centre of the riots. Luise then joins the activist group and uses her mother’s position to gain information as the two become increasingly estranged.

Marianne Wendt

Meanwhile, a second narrative follows Dennis (Florian Geißelmann), a young offender who pushes Catrin to her limits. He lives in a supervised shared flat and is fighting to move back in with his family, as he feels responsible for supporting his younger brother Linus. But when he discovers his mother is abusing Linus, he decides to report her and turn himself in – a decision that ultimately leads him to prison, where he believes he can start a new life.

Directed by Charlotte Rolfes, the series is written by Marianne Wendt and Christian Schiller, who have been working together for many years and are also married. In fact, the series originated from a very personal place, as Wendt says that for some time they have been pondering “with concern” what kind of world they are leaving for their teenage son and his friends.

“A driving force behind the story was definitely our search for an answer to the question we feared our son might one day ask us: ‘What did you do?’” Wendt tells DQ. “From this question, we developed the mother-daughter relationship between Luise and Catrin. This served as our starting point, which we then extended to explore various parent-child relationships throughout the series, each with its own twist.”

Other examples include the dynamic between a local black politician and his son, who must deal with issues of racial profiling, and protest group leader Felix and his absent mother.

“As the series progresses, we discover she is an NGO worker who travels between Brussels and New York, dedicated to doing good deeds and feeling proud of her son,” Wendt says. “However, despite her good intentions, she’s often absent when Felix needs her the most.

Franziska Weisz and Lea Drinda play mother and daughter in Wer wir sind

“A third parent-child relationship is reflected in the character of a young Vietnamese activist fleeing the pressure to succeed that her parents put on her. However, at the core of all these relationships lies the gap between generations, filled with blame and misunderstanding rather than collaborative solutions. I aimed to uncover different answers to this complex question throughout the series.”

While developing the story, it was important to Wendt that Wer wir sind – which has the English title Generation Now: Today for Tomorrow – wasn’t just another ‘activist story.’ Instead, she wanted to discuss the social conditions that enable young people to act and to feel responsible for their own lives, focusing on how wealth and social background are just as important to future-proofing society for a liveable future as tackling the overexploitation of resources and the double standards of those in power.

“In this sense, the two main young characters, Luise and Dennis, represent different sides of the same coin,” she says. “In both storylines, the young people are confronted with the double standards of adults. They deal with questions such as personal responsibility, action or inaction, but also social, economic and cultural divides and the fight for the future.”

But as with any story that poses big questions, the writer admits Wer wir sind doesn’t offer viewers any easy answers. “My question during development was: how can we encourage individuals to take control of their own lives?” she says. “Through Dennis’s storyline, we explore the idea that if he doesn’t take responsibility for his brother, no one else will.

“Despite ultimately becoming the scapegoat and being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, Dennis chooses to save his brother, remove himself from a toxic environment and opts for prison, where he can pursue an apprenticeship.”

The story centres on a group of young environmentalists targeting a waste-disposal company

Work on the series began in 2019 when Wendt and Schiller approached German regional broadcaster MDR with the project. “In terms of its ambition and tone, the series is rather tough fare and a project that a public broadcaster had to commit to and have the courage to take on,” Wendt says. “Thankfully, they immediately said yes, so we dove right in.”

In her role as a creative producer, she also had a say in every stage of the project, something she says is “almost as important to me as selecting the stories I want to tell.” Once the scripts were complete, her tasks included choosing the director, participating in the casting process and acting as the director’s primary collaborator during shooting and post-production.

“The industry in Germany is just beginning to understand how much a project can benefit when a creator is also involved as a producer/showrunner,” explains Wendt, who first took up a showrunning role on her previous series, Swiss broadcaster SRF and Netflix’s Neumatt, and was keen to see whether she could work in a similar way in Germany on Wer wir sind.

“Unlike producers in big companies who often oversee multiple projects, a writer-producer is dedicated to the ongoing development of the series with a much deeper involvement in the story. This continuity is crucial, especially for complex series spanning multiple seasons and directors.”

While on scriptwriting duties, Wendt and Schiller alternate between tasks – first discussing ideas together and jotting down notes before deciding who will take the first draft of the first episode. The other person then starts the first draft of episode two simultaneously, before they switch roles.

Florian Geißelmann is Dennis, who has various troubles with his family

On Wer wir sind, they developed the concept, story and characters together, and once outlines for the episodes had been completed, a third writer, Magalena Graziewicz, was brought into help with plotting and writing.

Through the writing process, however, there were several real-world political events in Germany that were unfolding at the same time – and would go on to influence their draft scripts.

“In summer 2021 we witnessed protestors from Letzte Generation [Last Generation] engaging in hunger strikes in front of parliament in the lead-up to the next election,” Wendt recalls. “While we hadn’t initially planned for it in the story, I found it compelling and decided to incorporate the hunger strike into the storyline. In the fifth episode, there’s a pivotal moment when the group falls apart and Felix decides to embark on a hunger strike as a form of protest. His father, a politician, tries to intervene and save him, but Felix ultimately chooses to continue his protest by refusing to drink.”

Then during production, Wendt saw Germany’s activist movement in action up close. It was while filming in Halle that she encountered the Montagsdemonstrationen (Monday Demonstrations), where right-wing people gather to protest.

“Our first day of shooting happened to fall on a Monday, right in the main square of Halle, and unexpectedly, we found ourselves amid one of these demonstrations,” she says. “The police questioned our presence with cameras, and although we were permitted to film, they requested that we maintain a distance from the protests. This was not the only instance where reality seemed to intersect with our narrative.”

The series is set in Halle an der Saale in East Germany

The town of Halle an der Saale, located in East Germany, provides the central backdrop to the series, which utilises the location’s distinctive 1960s architecture and unique diverse population.

“Over the years, it has seen an influx of Jewish refugees from Russia in the 1990s, as well as impoverished Germans with right-wing ideologies,” she says. “Additionally, there is a sizeable Vietnamese community, as the German Democratic Republic invited many Vietnamese people from socialist Vietnam to Germany. This social mix is emblematic of East Germany but is rarely depicted in mainstream media.

“While stories in big cities in Germany often focus on Arab or Turkish communities, the absence of such communities in the eastern part of Germany inspired us to highlight this unique community in our series. For German viewers, this portrayal is unique, while for an international audience, it offers insight into the diversity of the region. This diversity is also reflected in the characters of our activists.”

The decision to film in Halle also came from a personal connection, as Schiller was born in neighbouring Halle-Neustadt. As the story developed, the couple talked to his old school friends – one a politician, another a social worker – and their conversations enabled the writers to be very specific when it came to discussing elements of the location.

“This focus on specificity is crucial in our approach to screenwriting – either you have first-hand knowledge or you need to do thorough research,” Wendt notes. “Otherwise, the story lacks depth and becomes less compelling.

Wendt’s son gave the show a glowing review – describing it as ‘pretty good’

“Our antagonist is illegally dumping waste, contaminating the groundwater. The activists in our story understand this and try to confront him while pushing politicians to take action. Even if our antagonist is fictional, the dumping of illegal toxic waste has led to various scandals in the Halle/Leipzig region in recent years, in which the authorities and politicians have not played a favourable role. Groundwater and soil were contaminated, and the accusations made in the show were also made in reality.”

On set, Wendt fostered a collaborative spirit between director Rolfes and producer Benedikt Böllhoff, endeavouring to ensure decisions were always taken in terms of what was best for the project.

That teamwork was particularly important when capturing the riot scenes from the early episodes. One large sequence set at night features in episode one, while the same town square location is revisited in later episodes.

“Filming the riot scenes took place over 10 to 12 days outdoors in the harsh winter weather, with temperatures as low as -8 or -9 degrees Celsius, which was really challenging for cast and crew,” Wendt says. “But Charlotte handled these challenges with remarkable skill, just like everything else.

“Together with Charlotte, we established the tone of the series – rough, contemporary and raw. It draws inspiration from British social realistic drama, ensuring it’s not just another glossy series. This style perfectly complements the story we’re telling.”

Wer wir sind debuted on public broadcaster ARD’s Mediathek streaming service in November last year, before getting a linear run on Das Erste. The series, which is produced by MDR, ARD Degeto, NDR and Viafilm, was then screened during the Berlinale Series Market in February. OneGate Media is the international distributor.

Wendt’s dream is that parents and children watch the series together, not just to enjoy the drama but also to discuss the themes and issues at the heart of the story.

“For me, there is clear proof of the quality of the mixture of entertainment, serious subject matter and suspense,” she adds. “Wer wir sind is the first show that our 15-year-old described in his incomparably cool understatement as ‘pretty good’ – and that’s something I’m truly proud of.”

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