Oder and above

Oder and above

By Michael Pickard
January 17, 2024


Arend Remmers and Christian Alvart discuss their partnership on German dark crime drama Oderbruch, their inspiration for the series and how they sought to bring originality and personality to the story.

East of Berlin, the German region of Oderbruch is an area of wetlands dominated by the winding Oder river, which marks the border between Germany and Poland.

Known for episodes of heavy flooding, it was also the location of the biggest battle during the Second World War to take place on German soil, when the Battle of the Seelow Heights pitched the Soviet Army against the Nazis in April 1945.

It now also lends its name to a dark crime series called Oderbruch, which begins when the discovery of a huge pile of corpses shocks the sparsely populated region and triggers a large-scale police operation.

Arend Remmers

Inspector Roland Voit (Felix Kramer) is sent back to his homeland, where he is supposed to work the case with Polish officer Stanislaw Zajak (Lucas Gregorowicz), while his former colleague and childhood sweetheart Maggie Kring (Karoline Schuch) is also called in when her family comes under suspicion.

Maggie’s brother Kai died during the Oder flood in 1997, which caused her to leave her hometown of Krewlow. The ex-police officer then reluctantly returns to the scene of the crime to investigate the gruesome serial murders – and uncover the true circumstances of her brother’s death, leading Maggie and Voit to delve deep into their own past to uncover an unimaginable truth.

From the writers and directors of shows such as Dogs of Berlin and Sløborn, the show’s cast includes Julius Gause, Jan Krauter, Sebastian Urzendowsky, André M Hennicke, Alix Heyblom, Adrian Topol, Winfried Glatzeder, Robert Glatzeder, Edgar Emil Garde, Stefan Weinert and Bettina Wegner.

“It’s one of our favourite genres. I definitely have a very dark taste, but I have to say, I have exorcised this demon, so I’m now looking to do something more light-hearted. But I love the serial killer genre,” head writer Arend Remmers tells DQ.

Four years in the making, the idea for the series first emerged when Remmers and his wife were looking at potential vacation spots around Berlin and saw images of the Oderbruch region.

“I’d never seen this area. The visuals looked very impressive, and I said, ‘How have I never seen this region in a movie or a TV show in Germany?’” he explains. “I did some research and read some articles about the history of the Oderbruch, and stuff came together. There was just an interesting history aspect, and there were flooding catastrophes, especially one in 1997 that I vividly remember. It’s just loaded with history, and it’s also one of the most sparsely populated areas in Germany. It all adds up to a very interesting location.”

Matching the real-life region to his love of serial killer stories, Remmers began to formulate an idea for a series that incorporated influences such as HBO drama True Detective – but one tinged with a supernatural element.

Oderbruch begins with the discovery of a pile of bodies, sparking a hunt for a killer

“It’s very slightly supernatural. It’s not like the X-Men enter at some point, but it was just this feeling where you think, ‘OK, what if they go beyond just crime, just a little bit? That was the core idea,” says Christian Alvart, who directs the series with Adolfo J Kolmerer.

“I would even say we took something that’s supernatural and pounded it into reality as much as we could. We never treat it as if it’s supernatural. We treat it as if this could really happen,” Remmers adds.

Produced by Alvart’s Syrreal Entertainment in coproduction with ARD Degeto and CBS Studios, the eight-part series reunites Alvart with Remmers, who worked together on fictional pandemic drama Sløborn.

“It was four years ago [that we started] because the pitch was in January and then it took a year to get to the full series outline written with all the episodes,” notes Alvart. “Then six months later, we had the first two scripts and got all the investors on board. Then it went super fast. From pitch to finished show was three years. I know it felt longer for Arend, because he was in the middle of it, but it was unusually fast. All my other shows usually took much longer from pitch to finished product.”

Christian Alvart

“My kid was born when it got greenlit and she turned three years old when it was done. So for me it feels like an eternity,” Remmers adds.

In fact, it was Remmers and Kolmerer’s partnership on a 2017 film called Snowflake that first brought them to Alvart’s attention, and he offered the filmmakers the chance to develop new ideas with him at Syrreal.

“I loved them and I started working with them on several projects,” Alvart says. “The two guys also wanted to have a creative base so we started discussions about a permanent partnership. They work through my production outfit, pitch a lot of stuff and Oderbruch was one of those. We decided based on those meetings that we were going to work together, and Oderbruch was one of the shows that Sigi [Syrreal producer Siegfried Kamml] and I thought would be possible to fast-track. It’s the first thing that has been made out of that relationship.”

Oderbruch saw Remmers lead a writing team that includes Alvart, Martin Behnke and Ronny Schalk – the latter two having previously worked on Netflix’s German mystery thriller Dark. Remmers describes the project as a “team effort,” and praises Alvart as a mentor who helped him construct and storyline his first television series.

“It was a long and tough process, but it worked very well,” he says. “We are great friends, and since we came to Syrreal, we are also just buddies, and that’s a huge help and a lot of fun.”

On one occasion, after a full day of shooting David Hasselhoff drama Ze Network, Alvart spent the evening working with Remmers to pull apart and rewrite episode four, which is largely told in flashback and was proving difficult to get right.

The idea for the series first came to Remmers when he was looking for a vacation spot

“We worked together like that, to rebuild and restructure some things,” Remmers says. “The whole show was also meant to be two seasons in my original pitch, but from the feedback we got, we ultimately decided it had to be one season and then we would see what happens [afterwards] because we didn’t know if we would get two seasons. It would be a little bit too daring [to risk it]. So there were a lot of structural challenges that we tackled together.”

Alvart admits that “for some reason or another,” he was “annoyed” by flashbacks while Oderbruch was being developed, but recognised how integral they were to telling this story, which takes place across three decades.

“I went to Arend and I said, ‘We have to find a way to make these flashbacks work for people like me who feel they’re annoying.’ And I think we found a great way, because the show is about how past trauma and past secrets influence later generations, and how the past is always present in the now and influences the now,” he says. “We found a way visually, in how the flashbacks start and how they are incorporated in the story, so that they’re not presented as flashbacks. Then all of a sudden, the flashbacks were a high point for me.”

Episode four, he says, proved particularly difficult because it was hard to make the audience care about a point in the show that halts the story’s forward momentum to go back into the past.

“It has to answer questions and it has to push the mystery and all the characters forward, even though we’re in the past now. That’s why this episode was super difficult,” he says. “That was one of the very difficult structural things.”

Oderbruch comes from Syrreal Entertainment in coproduction with ARD Degeto and CBS Studios

It may have given them a headache, but solving that puzzle was just one example of how Remmers and Alvart sought to subvert the crime genre and create something completely original. They liken their ambitions to scenes in HBO miniseries Chernobyl that moved away from the unfolding nuclear disaster to feature the soldiers tasked with shooting stray dogs left behind during the evacuation.

“When we saw the dogs episode in Chernobyl [‘The Happiness of All Mankind’], we thought, ‘This is something that’s challenging how you tell stories,’” Remmers says. “But Christian always says, if you do something unconventional, it’s 10 times harder to get made.”

Another challenge was the intention to present Kramer’s Inspector Voit as a “very normal” police officer, who wouldn’t initially stand out to the audience. That meant it could potentially be very difficult to sell him as the protagonist to both commissioners and the audience.

“Arend was saying, ‘I want to do this differently.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you can do that differently, but if you do it differently, you have to be twice as good because people will attack it,’” Alvart says. “Investors want to feel safe with what you’re doing. And if they’ve never seen something, they have many more questions than if you’re just going with a tried-and-true formula. I’m very proud of Arend that he strived for that, but I was also torturing him a lot because everything that is different has to be better.”

Having recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 police procedural film High & Low, which similarly features a “realistic” detective in the lead role, they realised they needed a High & Low moment that could cement the show’s tone and ground it in reality – one that would also suppress the supernatural elements that would follow later in the show.

The show makes its debut this week on ARD Mediathek

The answer came in an introductory scene, where police officers arrive at the crime scene but Voit isn’t standing at the front of the group. Instead, he’s in the back row – a signal to the audience that he is an ordinary detective with nothing particularly special about him.

“We then used this method for all major elements of the show and all the major characters and, especially, the supernatural element,” Remmers says. “We always asked, ‘Is this grounded enough?’ In the end, the audience has to decide how well that worked. But we are very proud that we constantly worked on that.

“It was tough. I have to say it required a few drafts and a few yellow pages on set. It was a huge challenge for me personally as well, because it was the first time for me in this role, and I’m super glad that Christian was there, that Adolfo was there, and I had a whole team that really kept at it. If Snowflake, our first movie, was my first film school, this was definitely my second, my graduation.”

Self-avowed film and television fans – their individual offices are both filled with shelves of DVDs and Blu-Rays – Remmers and Alvart were naturally inspired by other titles in the making of Oderbruch. But Alvart says the “pure and very personal” vision for the series always came from Remmers.

“It’s a genre show, but there are a lot of very personal experiences about generational trauma and the past influencing the present. All those are subject matters that I now recognise are about his family, about his life,” he says. “Even if you cannot watch all the shows that are out there, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re original if you put yourself into the show in an honest way.

Karoline Schuch is among the drama’s stars

“If you superficially do that then everybody will think it’s an ego piece, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about some hard, honest truths that you’ve painfully learned and that you’re almost not ready to touch yet. If you approach them through your art and share that and make it into a piece of entertainment that connects, then you will not feel like you’re doing something that’s already out there because you yourself are hopefully a unique person.”

Remmers certainly wanted to guide Oderbruch with a personal touch, but he says he was also excited to see how Alvart and Kolmerer interpreted the scripts and brought their own ideas – and love of cinema – to the series.

“For example, I just love the moment in all of these crime shows when detectives watch old footage, some videotape or surveillance cameras, so I was like, ‘Please, Christian, can we do one scene?’ Christian took that idea and I was so happy when I saw what he did with it,” the writer says. “This is also where the kid in me comes out.”

Some time has now passed since the series was delivered last year – it will debut this Friday on ARD Mediathek before airing on Das Erste on January 26 – but that means Remmer is now able to look forward to watching the show as a fan.

“I’m excited to have people watch it because I think it’s just a really good crime show, with a little extra element, and it has all these things I generally really love about the genre as well,” he says. “We fulfilled our pledge to ourselves to do this wide mix [of elements] and I hope people will see that. We really try to go for the sweet spot.”

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