Haus work

Haus work

By Michael Pickard
May 1, 2024


Creating a thriller around a large ensemble of characters and unexpectedly shooting in a foreign country threw up plenty of challenges for Haus aus Glas (Inside a Family) writer Esther Bernstorff and director Alain Gsponer. They tell DQ how they made it work.

Weddings are usually a cause for celebration. But for the Schwarz family, the protagonists of German drama Haus aus Glas (Inside a Family), the marriage of youngest daughter Emily brings only despair.

The six-part series opens as Richard (Götz Schubert), Barbara (Juliane Köhler) and their four children – Eva (Stefanie Reinsperger), Leo (Morgane Ferru), Felix (Merlin Rose) and Emily (Sarah Mahita) – reunite to celebrate Emily’s marriage to Chris (Aram Arami). But during the day, several revelations come to light.

First it is revealed that Emily was kidnapped when she was six years old and is still traumatised by the event, so much so that she barely leaves the house. Then Richard reveals it is not Eva, his eldest child, but Chris who will be his successor in the family business.

But when Chris disappears from a night train as he and Emily head to France for their honeymoon, all the family face up to secrets from their past.

Esther Bernstorff

From writer Esther Bernstorff and director Alain Gsponer, the series debuted in Germany on ARD Mediatek in December, and on Arte and Das Erste in January before it was screened during the Berlinale Series Market in February.

Despite taking seven years to bring to the screen, overcoming numerous obstacles along the way, the story never deviated from Bernstorff’s original intentions. “The first idea, which is what it is now, was to have a family with the trauma of a child being kidnapped in childhood, and to combine that with someone going missing now, which brings back the old memories,” she tells DQ. “That was the basic idea. But it was a long process.”

The writer wanted to create a story filled with suspense, but one that would also allow her to dig into the differing perspectives of a group of four siblings. “It’s mainly driven by the character development,” she continues. “I wished people would find these characters so interesting that they would want to follow them without the usual crime thriller element. It was also a very interesting process for me to work with Alain; I learned a lot about how helpful it is to have suspense to carry people through, and then tell the story within that.”

Rather than focusing on who Emily’s kidnapper might have been, or where Chris has gone, the writer found the tension for the series in questions surrounding the family and whether they might fall back into the familiar patterns that have caused each member so much pain over the years.

“’Who did it?’ was not really what drove us. While developing it, it was always like, how can we get the characters to the point where we really want them to make it?”

Of course, when grown-up children return to the family home, more often than not they adopt the roles they had growing up, and it’s the same for the Schwarz children.

Haus aus Glas (Inside a Family) revolves around the Schwarz family

“For me, that is essential,” Bernstorff says. “Why are our roles in childhood still the motor for everything we do? And how extremely difficult is it to get out of those roles? The second sister, Leo, almost kills herself because she’s not able to say what she needs and because she always had the part of making everybody happy, so this is the essential thing for me. It’s in every family.

“Although there are light moments, which I really love, it’s also very much about them being allowed to get some distance from the family. It doesn’t have to be a big happy bunch, it’s about them thinking, ‘What do I need for my life?’”

As the story progresses, Emily is at the centre of everyone’s thoughts after her kidnapping ordeal is revealed, and her trauma is brought back by the disappearance of her new husband. It’s the trigger that pushes the siblings back into old patterns and, in the end, “it’s a chance for them to find a new way to deal with these things,” the writer adds.

Haus aus Glas marks the first time Bernstorff (Ein Teil von uns) and Gsponer (Heidi) have partnered together on a series, and it didn’t come without its challenges. Working on the project for seven years, Bernstorff admits she wrote for a long time – “probably too long” – as she thought she had to write the whole series to tell a story that had lived with her for so long. With Gsponer’s support, however, she later brought in co-writers Annika Tepelmann and Annette Simon.

Alain Gsponer

“They were a great support and saved all of our lives,” she notes. “Annika works in character but also in structure, and we went through the whole thing. That really saved me because I was so close to it that I couldn’t see the whole thing, and that was really great.”

“We didn’t have enough time, that was the main reason. There wasn’t enough time for Esther to do it all by herself, and the co-writers were really good,” adds Gsponer. “They were not a second Esther. Sometimes they were the opposite to her, and that pushed us in different ways.”

That there were half-a-dozen central characters didn’t help the writing process, with each one needing to find their place in the family and the story. “We talked a lot,” Bernstorff says. “I need to be close to each of them to not lose [sight of] them. But then there was also a process we did together to see where each character has to go. It was impossible for me to see that. Between us, it was very productive.”

Gsponer picks up: “For example, in the beginning, Leo isn’t important and you have to develop her character. But at the end, it’s her story. In the beginning, it was only Emily. Everyone works with Emily and has to fight with her. To find a way to change the characters and the importance of the characters through the series was difficult but important, and we found a way.”

When writing characters, Bernstorff needs to find something she loves about each of them, and she went through the same process on Haus aus Glas. Emily, the youngest, proved to be the most difficult, as “she’s quite manipulative, and that’s a quality in people I can’t stand and something I don’t connect with,” she explains.

The cast includes Aram Arami as Chris and Sarah Mahita as Emily

“I always had to fight more to see what I liked about her. With the others it was easier, but it’s about perspective. For example, the mother is a person who would be quite likeable if you’re not her child. She’s an artist so I would like to meet her, but I wouldn’t want to be her child. But then another child might not think she’s so bad. I find this ambivalence of characters very exciting. I would never like to have someone who is only terrible.”

Joining the project five years ago, Gsponer became a key member of the creative team as the series progressed through development with producers Constantin Television and Beside Productions, in coproduction with broadcasters WDR, ARD Degeto, Arte and BR. Bavaria Media International is the distributor.

What he hadn’t expected, however, was that he would end up shooting for 67 days in Belgium. “This show is special for me because we didn’t have enough money [for our initial plans] so we had to shoot in Belgium, a country I had never been to in my life, and then we decided it would be [set during] summer, more or less, so we had to rewrite all the scenes, which were set more in winter – and it changed everything.

“It’s also about a dark topic, and depressing, but it’s set in summer and it’s a really bright TV show. Everything is bright but the souls of the characters are quite dark, and this contrast was good for the show.”

“But we always agreed on the tone,” says Bernstorff. “That’s how we found each other, because Alain has made some beautiful family movies and also it’s a subject that interests us very much.

Emily is still traumatised by being kidnapped when she was six years old

“We always agreed to have a mixture of warmth, hope and darkness, which is something I’m always looking for. It’s something the Danish do wonderfully. We want to look into something that’s dark but we don’t want to tell a story without hope. We love to tell stories like that.”

Bernstorff hopes viewers see something of themselves in the series as well, and find a connection from their own lives to the characters and story.

“The good thing about TV is that sometimes you’re really able to reach people. I really enjoy that,” she says about writing for the small screen compared to cinema. “The big difference was being able to do this long, long piece. But one thing for me [next time] would be to not work alone on it for so long and to let people in earlier.”

“I realise now that everybody likes [different characters]. If you watch it, the parents are not the main characters, but a lot of people like the story of Barbara or Richard,” Gsponer adds. “Everybody has to reflect on themselves and find their own family [in the series]. Somebody also told me they watched it because they don’t have siblings, and they wanted to have the feeling of siblings. That was surprising to me.”

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