Tag Archives: ARD-Das Erste

Building Babylon

Babylon Berlin recreates 1920s Berlin in exquisite detail to bring Volker Kutchser’s detective Gereon Rath to television. DQ visits the set.

Amid financial turmoil and growing distrust of establishment figures, an ultra-nationalist movement stirs, snaring growing numbers of supporters through lies and scaremongering while opposition parties flounder. A functioning political process begins its slow, stealthy death march, while the importance of fighting for freedom and democracy becomes impossible to ignore.

Small wonder the story of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s postwar democracy dismantled by the Nazis in the 1930s, feels so appropriate for our times. For X Filme, the German production company weighing up the possibilities, the big question was how to tell it. Enter Volker Kutscher, author of the noirish Gereon Rath detective novels.

Kutscher’s first story in the series, Babylon Berlin, follows vice squad detective Rath as he is dispatched from his hometown of Cologne on a secret mission to bust an extortion ring in Berlin. Instead, his investigations turn up sinister goings-on linking politics to the underworld and police corruption to a proposed right-wing military putsch. His sidekick, Charlotte Ritter, is an unlikely combination of police stenotypist and prostitute, such was the struggle for many to make ends meet on the cusp of the Great Depression. Although ridiculed by her superiors, she becomes indispensable to Rath, her dual life granting him crucial access to Berlin’s seamy underbelly.

It’s a rich stew of cultural, personal, political and economic excess in arguably the most intoxicating city of the age, and proved irresistible to producer Michael Polle and X Filme co-founder Tom Tykwer, director of ambitious art-house touchstones including Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas.

Tom Tykwer (centre) on the Babylon Berlin set

Brought to X Filme to build up the television department, it’s fair to say Polle is fulfilling his brief with Babylon Berlin, which will premiere on Sky Deutschland this October before its free-to-air debut on Germany’s ARD Das Erste next year.

After an aborted attempt to work up their own material for a Weimar-era drama, the team turned to Kutscher’s books and, after a patient hunt (they had been optioned by another company), bought the rights. Kutscher has been a hands-off partner on the Babylon Berlin set, happy to leave the production to it once he had seen the scripts, according to Polle.

Crucially, like the novel, the TV adaptation examines the era without imposing any knowledge of what was to come. This was the pre-cabaret age, when optimism still abounded and political turmoil was matched by a thriving creative arts scene led by director Fritz Lang, dramatist Bertolt Brecht and the art movements of Expressionism and New Objectivity. The Nazis were a minority concern and few had heard of Adolf Hitler.

Tykwer was joined by Achim von Borries (Alone in Berlin) and Henk Handloegten (Summer Window), with the triumvirate directing and writing all 16 episodes that make up the first two seasons. And despite being both the most recognisable name internationally and the ostensible showrunner, Tykwer appears to run a very collaborative process, insisting each episode is credited to the three of them. Certainly, it’s unusual for an auteur to harness their creative instincts to the collective quite so comprehensively.

“Tom wanted to develop characters and stories longer than films allow,” claims Polle. “This was the right project at the right time for him. It’s not about who’s best – they’re a strong team. That spirit of co-operation was fascinating. Achim says that, when you see an episode, you have no idea who shot which scene, which was the goal all along.”

The team behind the show sought to recreate the ‘optimism’ of 1920s Berlin

While Tykwer was virtually a TV debutant before Babylon Berlin, with just two episodes of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Netflix folly Sense8 to his name, Von Borries and Handloegten had considerable experience in small-screen drama – something undoubtedly invaluable to the extraordinary logistical effort required to shoot 16 episodes concurrently over eight months.

It’s a bone-chillingly cold December day when DQ visits Babylon Berlin’s backlot set, Neuen Berliner Strasse, at the Studio Babelsberg in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, on the outskirts of the German capital. Scenes from episodes two, three, 12, 14 and 15 are being shot by all three directors across several locations in Berlin and Cologne, the hometown of not only Rath (played by Generation War’s Volker Bruch, pictured top) but also Kutscher.

At Babelsberg, a week before wrap, von Borries is directing Liv Lisa Fries (Day of Rage, Night of Reason) as her character, Chartlotte, attempts to rescue her younger sister from the clutches of an exploitative gangster outside Moka Efti, a legendary Berlin nightspot whose art deco facade is impressively rendered here. Almost all the houses on this network of streets are in fact facades, but their doors and windows still offer different perspectives and angles for filming. Interiors were shot in studios or production centres – primarily the former ministry of the interior for the GDR, which was used as the inside of a police station, various offices and part of Moka Efti (an old silent-cinema building was also used for the latter).

As well as overseeing the score, as he has done for the vast majority of his films, Tykwer brought several key collaborators to the series. Most critically, there’s production designer Uli Hanisch, whose work on this outstanding set allows grotesque wealth to nestle cheek by jowl with extreme poverty. Various streets from several different Berlin districts are here: principally, Friedrichstrasse, Charlottenburg and Kreuzberg Neukölln. No single thoroughfare is straight, again offering multiple camera angles for the creative director of photography. Greenscreens lurk on street corners, although on-location filming was carried out where possible, including a memorable day of filming on Alexanderplatz, a large public square in central Berlin. “The plan was to get an idea of Berlin in the 1920s, and to do that you have to film in the streets,” says Polle.

Henk Handloegten delivers instructions

The scene being depicted when DQ visits is set a few days after police had used horses and tanks to disperse a Communist march for Official Workers’ Day, May 1, 1929. It’s a little calmer now, but only just. Political slogans cover walls and lampposts. Adverts promote Sanatogen ‘Fur Deine Nerven’ (for your nerves). Beautiful vintage cars squeal through crowds of people going about their business. Around 150 extras are on set today, each with their own name, number and costume – “some people say there aren’t any 20s costumes left in Europe because we have rented them all!” laughs Polle. The blend of 1920s Berlin with the aesthetic of classic American gangster movies is entirely deliberate, and a decision that Boardwalk Empire fan Kutscher endorses.

“Watching The Sopranos 15 years ago was an epiphany,” he told The Guardian last year. “That and The Wire. Seeing my books being adapted for TV in the tradition of those HBO shows is exciting.”

The timing for such a series is unquestionably right. “Once, there were more urgent stories to tell, like the Second World War and Hitler,” reckons Jan Mojto, CEO of Beta Film, Babylon Berlin’s distributor and strategic partner to X-Filme. “Germans have always had a complicated relationship with their past, but that’s changing now. The country is facing its own history in all its contradictions, understanding that, even if it was very black, there were light moments. It’s a more realistic attitude to one’s own history than just guilt.”

Babylon Berlin will join a growing number of German series making an international splash, notably Second World War saga Generation War and Cold War thriller Deustchland 83. Not since the days of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early 1980s has German television drama enjoyed such a high profile. Deutschland 83, however, proved to be a much bigger hit abroad than at home – an indication of the gamble being taken by producers when they aim for a wider market. As a result, broadcaster RTL has partnered with Amazon on its sequel, Deutschland 86. Netflix, meanwhile, will launch German-language supernatural drama Dark this winter.

The market, however, hasn’t been entirely cornered by SVoD services. For Babylon Berlin, X Filme opted for a pay TV/free-to-air partnership between Sky Deustchland and German national broadcaster ARD – an unusual but not unprecedented setup.

The drama also stars Liv Lisa Fries

“For a project of this size and scale, it’s the first one,” says Mojto. “The budget is comparable to international standards, close to €2.5m [US$2.65m] per episode, but we could never have got that from a single broadcaster in Germany. The arrangement wasn’t too complicated; the important thing was that the three directors wanted to tell this story in a certain way, and we all met on that ground.”

European coproductions have, says Polle, become increasingly common, with Borgen creator Adam Price and Danish network DR working with Franco-German network Arte on faith-based drama Rides Upon the Storm.

“National networks now don’t have enough money to fund big, ambitious series alone,” he notes. “But from a storytelling point of view, even if its being made for a global audience, you shouldn’t be considering what French or American people might think about a scene. The story just needs a strong identity – if it’s unique and good, you’ll get attention around the world.”

Another key decision, says Mojto, was to shoot Babylon Berlin in its native language. “Given the size of the project,” he says, “four years ago it would have been reasonable to try and shoot in English, but we felt it would not enhance its authenticity. [Italian mob drama] Gomorrah was shot in a Neapolitan dialect so strong that lots of Italians struggled to understand it, but that didn’t prevent the series from travelling around the world.”

This is unlikely to be the last we’ll see of Gereon Rath, or his unwitting involvement in the birth of the modern age in all its glory and horror. “Volker wanted to tell the story of Berlin throughout this time,” says Polle. “His first idea was to finish the series in 1936 and the Berlin Olympics. His latest novel is set in 1937, so the first idea went a little too well! But that’s OK – the more books he writes, the better for us.”

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Conquering the world

DQ hears from writer Christian Schnalke and producer Mario Krebs about Katharina Luther, a TV movie that tells the story of Christianity reformer Martin Luther from the viewpoint of his wife, Katharina.

It’s a TV movie 500 years in the making, retelling the story of Martin Luther and the 1517 publication of his Ninety-five Theses that would send reverberations through the Christian church and change Europe forever.

But uniquely, Katharina Luther (also known as Luther & I) retells this story from the point of view of Luther’s wife, Katharina.

Abandoned on the doorstep of a convent at the age of six, Katharina (played by Karoline Schuch, pictured above) lives the life of a nun until she becomes acquainted with the writings of the reformer Martin Luther (Devid Striesow), opening her eyes to a new world of ideas.

She flees from the convent but when she meets Luther, he is not the imagined ‘fighter’ who is wreaking havoc throughout Europe; he is vulnerable, ill and full of doubt. Their wedding marks the beginning of an entirely new life for Katharina. Going on to mother six children, she also becomes a successful businesswoman and a key figure in the earliest awakening of women’s emancipation.

The drama, which debuted on ARD/Das Erste in Germany in February to 7.28 million people, is produced by Eikon Süd, Cross Media, Tellux Film and Conradfilm in coproduction with MDR, ARD Degeto, BR and SWR. Global Screen is distributing the made-for-TV movie.

Speaking to DQ, writer Christian Schnalke and producer Mario Krebs reveal the importance of commemorating this story on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the challenge of producing the film in just 40 days and why Katharina’s experience is a universal story that will appeal to international audiences.

Christian Schnalke

What are the origins of Katharina Luther ?
Christian Schnalke: The idea is to present the Reformation as a riveting and emotional drama. It is the story of Martin Luther’s family, in which the convictions of his faith are tested in both a loving and tragic manner.
Mario Krebs: As 2017 approached, with it being a reminder of the beginning of the Reformation [marking 500 years since Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses], an event movie was called for that in no way resembled the countless films about Martin Luther. ARD was in full agreement with us on this point. What could be more relevant than telling the story of Katharina von Bora?

How was the drama developed with the network?
Schnalke: The co-operation was trusting and constructive. The station gave us the freedom to develop our own ideas and encouraged us to pursue unusual solutions.
Krebs: Until Christian took over the project on my suggestion, the network and we producers had tried numerous approaches with different writers, but unfortunately none of them worked. It had to be a process of mutual understanding.

Why was this a story you all wanted to tell?
Schnalke: It’s the story of a heroine left with nothing but her faith and her will, who must face the most daunting of obstacles – the all-powerful church, family, society, her faith, fateful misfortune – and, despite everything, manages to create a happy life for herself and her family. What could be more inspiring?
Krebs: Katharina is willing to oppose all of the rules of her time, which incurs great risk. Who would not want to accompany her to see how she manages to maintain such a focus on her goals? We follow her into a world strange to us, and are spectators as she conquers that world.

Katharina is living as a nun when she first encounters Martin Luther, played by Devid Striesow (left)

How would you describe the writing process?
Schnalke: Learn, read, discuss, write, and fantasise – to get close enough to Katharina and Martin to understand their needs and their motivations. That was the hardest part. As far as the characters themselves go, they have been almost automatically formed by history itself.
Krebs: It was wonderfully co-operative between the writer, network, director and producer.

How did you create the show’s look and style?
Krebs: From the beginning, director Julia von Heinz had a very clear artistic and visual concept with which she first convinced the producers and then the network. My task was to work with her to find the right department heads for production design and costume and to support them in any issues with the network, and also to help stay abreast of the network’s requirements regarding time and broadcasting slots. It was productive that Julia had brought in Daniela Knapp at the very beginning so she was there as director of photography during the entire process.

Mario Krebs

How important were production design and costumes in creating the world?
Krebs
: Very, very important. We wanted to completely immerse viewers in the ambience of the time, which was far from pleasant.

How did Karoline Schuch land the lead role and what did she bring to the character?
Krebs: For myself as well as Julia, Karoline was the clear first choice. It’s the combination of her fragility, tenderness and her determination that carries the film.

Why was it important to tell this story from Karoline’s point of view?
Schnalke: By seeing Martin Luther and the Reformation through her eyes, we become familiar with the man, Luther, and understand just how difficult it was to fight for his beliefs in that time.
Krebs: Because it shows the path to an awakening, with all its risks and without a safety net.

Where was the drama filmed and how were the locations used?
Krebs: Everything was on location. We were shooting at historic sites in Thüringen, where Luther was born, and in Saxony-Anhalt, where he had a strong presence. In these areas of the former DDR, the inadequate economic resources of the Stalinist regime has left much intact that has long since disappeared in the west. In an old, empty castle south of Gotha, we built the Black Monastery, into which Katharina moved after she married Luther.

Katharina Luther’s creators believe its story will resonate with viewers around the world

What were the biggest challenges during the production?
Krebs: Because we had only 40 days to shoot and studio time was not feasible due to financial constraints, we had to shoot the ending first. That meant beginning with the renovated and comfortable Black Monastery as it was arranged and furnished by Katharina, then gradually moving backwards step by step through the demolition of the furnishings to the ruin Katharina finds at the beginning. On the days that the castle required reconstruction, we were on location shooting the street scenes, the scenes at the Cranach, at the Monastery of Nimbschen, at the court of the family of Bora and others.

Why might this story also be appealing for international audiences?
Schnalke: The events depicted in the show changed the entire world. For all of us, to experience them so vividly underlines the importance of defending these values that for 500 years have been fought for by the bravest of our ancestors. The stories of people who find each other in the midst of the fight for their convictions inspire every human being, worldwide.
Krebs: The story of a woman, fuelled by love and hope, who goes her own way despite all the resistance and obstacles is one everyone on every continent understands.

What are you working on next?
Schnalke: I’m enjoying my work on a novel, a psychological thriller about German artists shortly after the Napoleonic wars.
Krebs: The Swiss company C-Films, supported by EIKON and me, is preparing a feature film about the reformer Huldrych Zwingli, who, in the city-state of Zurich in 1519 – and unlike Luther – chose a humanistic path for his reformation. By organising the citizens to vote, freedom was won, albeit a freedom that was eventually defended with weapons raised against the ‘ancien régime.’

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Germany makes History as true crime trend continues

The themes of US feature film American History X meet true crime in miniseries NSU – German History X. The drama’s producer and directors discuss how they worked together to tell this real story from three different perspectives.

In 1998, American History X told the story of a former neo-Nazi who tries to prevent his younger brother from following the same path he did.

Gabriela Sperl
Gabriela Sperl

Almost 20 years later, the same right-wing themes are studied in a German miniseries that takes its inspiration from a series of brutal murders and the resultant trial that is still progressing through the courts system.

NSU – German History X opens as a clandestine far-right terrorist group called National Socialist Underground (NSU) begins operating in Germany by gunning down immigrants in cold-blooded acts that became known as the Bosphorus Serial Murders.

Police initially believed the deaths to be the result of infighting between immigrant communities, until links were drawn to three suspects and their right-wing influences.

The fictional series is based on the ongoing trial of Beate Zschäpe, one of the trio accused over the deaths of 10 immigrants between 2000 and 2007 murders. The other two both suspected of involvement killed themselves before they could be brought to trial.

Producer Gabriela Sperl explains: “It was the biggest series of unsolved murders in Germany, which was unprecedented because you have 10 murders and you make the victims look like they are to blame. Then, all of a sudden, you find two guys dead and it’s right-wing terrorism.

“So we started thinking what we could do about this and why it took so long for a country where everything is very well organised like Germany to find the people who did it, to find the murderers. And they still haven’t found them. They still haven’t resolved it.

“Then we asked what do we do with something that’s unresolved – so we tell the story from different angles to get as near to the truth as possible. This is what we did and this is why we did a lot of research and digging and looking under stones. Now we’re further from the truth than we were in 2012!”

The three episodes are told from three perspectives: The offenders (pictured top), the victims (above) and the investigators (below)
The three episodes are told from three perspectives: The offenders (pictured top), the victims (above) and the investigators (below)

Distributed by Beta Film, NSU – German History X aired on ARD-Das Erste in March this year. The show’s cast includes Albrecht Abraham Schuch, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Anna Maria Mühe, Almila Bagriacik and Tom Schilling.

Each installment of the series, known locally as Mitten in Deutschland: NSU, focuses on a different aspect of the story, with episodes titled The Offenders, The Victims and The Investigators. Three directors – Christian Schwochow, Züli Aladag and Florian Cossen – then took charge of each film.

They attribute the idea of focusing each episode on a different perspective to Sperl, with the directors brought on board the project before any words had been committed to the scripts.

“We met with Gabriela quite a few times before the writers were involved and that was a great approach,” says Aladag. “From the beginning we were thinking about three strong perspectives. That’s why we liked Gabriela’s idea – we knew we couldn’t bring the whole truth to the story because it is still going on.”

NSU-German-History-X-The-Investigators-2

Schwochow continues: “If you see filmmaking as a quest for truth, perspective is one of the strongest tools you have. In this case, that was the brilliant idea. Gabriela said that if we told the story as if a coin had three sides – one from the side of the neo-Nazis, one from the victims and one from the state – you come to something in between those three parts that is maybe not the whole truth but is very truthful.

“The idea is not having one aesthetic concept or one author, but that every perspective stands on its own. You see three films that look very different but they cross over. When you look at all three of them, you get a brilliant idea of what 3D storytelling looks like.”

The directors also discussed the extent to which continuity should play between each episode, but the idea of one style or tone was quickly dismissed.

Züli Aladag
Züli Aladag

“Of course, we discussed whether the films should look the same and if we should have a miniseries where you can’t tell the difference – but if you want that, you shouldn’t ask three directors!” says Schwochow. “Each of us found our own way to tell our story. Sometimes just the three of us would meet so there was always a connection and an exchange of research.”

Cossen describes the events retold in NSU – German History X as “one of the biggest post-war political and criminal scandals,” adding to his desire to honour the victims through his work.

“They have been very quickly forgotten,” he says. “Just facts, numbers and dates – no human beings, no families, no biographies. So this is also to remember the victims who have been horribly treated by the German authorities, which can never be amended.”

The miniseries marks the latest show coming out of Germany that analyses the country’s past, following dramas such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.

“We have a very special history so we have special stories to tell and that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Sperl explains. “The fact that Nazi ideology is resurging is really frightening.”

Florian Cossen
Florian Cossen

As a result, the production, led by Wiedemann & Berg Television, was kept under wraps to avoid unwanted attention while the real trial continued its passage through the courts.

Sperl continues: “We kept it very quiet – we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t do any press and kept it very low key. We didn’t want to provoke any legal problems or for Nazis to disrupt the shooting. You never know.”

The subject matter led to several additional hurdles for the crew, however – the most notable of which was finding extras willing to play Nazis on camera.

“We had a challenge to find extras who would shave their heads and scream all that Nazi bullshit, to give their face for very little money,” Schwochow says. “We didn’t want to employ real Nazis. We had a person who did all the extras casting and one day she came up with an idea to ask all the left-wing supporters to take part and they helped us. All the people you see in the film are from the political left. That was a hard thing to solve because we had a lot of extras.”

Another challenge was the script itself, which the producers and directors determined must be authentic without turning the production into a documentary.

Aladag notes: “The challenge for all of us was to be precise, to be authentic, to have a great script. We worked on the script together until we were really happy with it. We didn’t want to shoot before it was finished. So each of us started really early. Shooting took six months to prepare.”

Christian Schwochow
Christian Schwochow

The directors also sought to make their own films stand out in their own way, creating new obstacles. Schwochow’s installment, for example, had no scored soundtrack, instead using Nazi rock music in the background.

Cossen explains: “The musician and the author recreated Nazi rock because we didn’t want to pay any royalties to real Nazi bands. But you hardly notice. You have to think how they think in order to not only make it good but to compose that kind of evil music so that it gets to you and works emotionally.”

Beyond the storyline and its direct resonance in Germany, Schwochow ultimately sees NSU – Germany History X as a warning against political and social issues affecting much of Europe as right-wing politics find new footholds in many countries.

“You don’t have to explain what’s going on in Europe at the moment but we’re facing so much racism everywhere and we’re building a fence around the continent,” the director says. “People should be very careful who they vote for and who they follow.”

Cossen says he wants the audience to feel “true empathy” with the victims, not just pity, “and understand what it means to be in their situation; to be more sensitive against foreigners and immigrants and to be more sensitive against our own inner racism.”

He adds: “There are many things we want people to think about. There’s not just one focus. We’re also curious about what lies between the films – what’s not told is as important as what is.”

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