Nursing a secret

Nursing a secret

December 11, 2023

The Writers Room

Davos 1917 head writer and creative producer Adrian Illien transports DQ to the Swiss Alps, the setting for this wartime drama about a young nurse who is drawn into a world of espionage and competing powers.

Adrian Illien

As the First World War ravages Europe, a small spa town in Switzerland becomes the focal point for a relentless battle between secret agents representing the interests of competing global powers.

It’s here that young nurse Johanna Gabathuler (played by Sisi’s Dominique Devenport) unexpectedly gets caught between two fronts – and finds herself playing a deadly game with the German Secret Service in order to get back the daughter who was taken from her.

That’s the setup for Davos 1917, a six-part period drama created by Adrien Illien. Filmed in Davos, at the picturesque sanatorium-turned-hotel Schatzalp, as well as in Germany and Italy, the Swiss-German-language show is produced by Contrast Film, Letterbox Filmproduktion and Amalia Film for Swiss broadcaster SRF and Germany’s ARD Degeto. Global Screen is handling international sales.

It will debut on SRF on December 17, with the ARD launch following on December 20.

Here, head writer and creative producer Illien tells DQ about the real-life inspiration for the series, the demands of writing a spy story and why Davos 1917 is like a winter western.

What are the origins of the project?
I’ve always been fascinated by lost places. While exchanging ideas with Bettina Alber, head of series at Swiss broadcaster SRF, we stumbled across the local mountain sanatoriums of the Belle Époque. Together with Michael Sauter and Thomas Hess, who co-created the story, as well as Julia Penner and our producers from Contrast Film and Letterbox, we then developed the story around a war nurse.

Dominique Devenport as Johanna in Davos 1917

How would you describe the protagonist, Johanna, when we meet her?
After serving as a nurse for the Red Cross on the Western Front, Johanna is no longer the person she used to be. During the war, she was valued; she was even allowed to do surgery. She fell in love with a German soldier and got pregnant. But when he dies in the war, Johanna returns to Switzerland.
Her father, the well-respected director of the local sanatorium, is outraged. No one must find out that his daughter is a “war whore.” The family’s fate depends on Johanna’s good reputation: she is to marry a politician whose money can save the debt-ridden sanatorium. Johanna’s baby is immediately taken away from her upon birth and it is made clear to her that she will never see her daughter again.
Broken, Johanna submits to her father’s will. She is still an exceptionally gifted nurse, and everything looks fine from the outside; but on the inside, Johanna feels like she’s suffocating. In despair, she considers taking her own life – and is saved by an eccentric patient, Countess Ilse von Hausner, a German master spy.
The balancing act between Johanna’s bourgeois existence and her secret life as a spy threatens to tear her apart, and she finds herself between the fronts again. Does she have any chance of survival? And can she fulfil her dream of starting a new life with her daughter?

How was the series inspired by real events?
Johanna and her spy mentor are fictional characters but they are both inspired by real, courageous and ambivalent women from this era. We were strongly influenced by their reports and diaries, as well as intelligence reports from the time. The countess is based on a fascinating female German spy, Mata Hari’s agent handler – I find her to be more fascinating than even Mata Hari herself.
But also some events in the history of Davos and the spy cases themselves are based on historic realities. In 1917, Switzerland wasn’t as neutral as it seemed, and the famous Swiss watches were useful to a lot of people for a lot of things.

The series will debut in Switzerland this weekend

How would you describe the writing process?
Four years ago, together with the producers from Contrast Film, we writers started with a bible and a pilot script, which I then re-wrote in eight days after the first feedback from SRF and the Torino Series Lab. Thomas Hess, Julia Penner, Michael Sauter and I each wrote our episodes, and I did the head-writing before handing in the scripts to the producers and the coproducers. When the directors, Jan-Eric Mack and Anca Miruna Lăzărescu got on board, the other writers had already moved on to other projects. I then worked with them to get the script ready for production. This process of vision-sharing was very rewarding for all of us.

How involved were you through production? Were there any difficult moments on set?
As head writer and creative producer, I was quite involved in the production process. My background in producing and commissioning proved to be very valuable. I really appreciated the close collaboration with our three great directors, Jan-Eric Mack, Anca Miruna Lăzărescu and Christian Theede, as well as with the fabulous cast. Not to forget the meetings with our passionate production designer, Benedikt Herforth, and his team, who truly worked magic on our locations.
These close collaborations through production made it a lot easier when problems arose on set – such as wintry scenes without any actual snow, Covid cases and budgetary limitations. Thankfully, we had Marco Mehlitz, our wonderful executive producer, and his awesome production crew on board, who – together with our producers – were there day and night to make the impossible possible.

Why might the series appeal to international viewers?
We have a rich and original, yet very universal, story to offer. A story that resonates with the present. The audience gets complex and engaging protagonists and ambiguous antagonists, and I’m convinced that people all over the world will be seduced by our wonderful cast. Furthermore, as a spy drama should be, Davos 1917 is both thrilling and emotional, offering a great love story and many twists.
The scenery is also breathtaking and Davos itself is a unique and internationally beloved setting. Our directors really captured the magic of the Swiss Alps – sometimes, you will almost feel like you’re watching a western set in winter.

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