Swedish drama West of Liberty brings the first book in Thomas Engström’s spy series to television. DQ speaks to producer Gunnar Carlsson about making the English-language series, which is set and filmed in Berlin.
Once upon a time, the idea of an English-language Swedish drama set in Germany might have seemed impossible to realise, considering the number of potential partners involved and the logistics of pulling together such a collaboration.
But today, such considerations are water off a duck’s back to a producer like Anagram, which has offices in Sweden and Norway and has successfully completed series set as far away from Western Europe as Thailand and India.
The independent prodco’s latest series is West of Liberty, an action-packed, suspense-filled spy thriller that will receive its international premiere tomorrow as part of Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event.
The six-part drama centres on Ludwig Licht, a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who works as a freelance problem-solver and bartender in Berlin. When his old partner Clive Barner, head of the CIA’s Berlin office, asks him to come out of retirement and work a case involving Lucien Gell, the corrupt leader of whistle-blowing site Hydraleaks, Licht gets the chance to solve one last investigation.
Wotan Wilke Möhring stars as Licht, with Michelle Meadows as former Hydraleaks legal advisor Faye Morris. The cast also includes Matthew Marsh and Philipp Karner.
Produced by Lund-based Anagram for Sweden’s SVT and German broadcaster ZDF, West of Liberty is based on the first novel in Thomas Engström’s acclaimed book series. It will also air on TV2 Norway and YLE in Finland, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment distributing.
Anagram Sweden’s head of drama, Gunnar Carlsson, first came across the story when Engström’s agent gave him a copy of the book. “I read it very early and immediately I was interested in it,” he recalls. “Then I got to know this was the first of a series. We optioned them all and started work.”
The fact the story is set in Berlin was no deterrent to producing the show, with Carlsson embracing the project as the next “natural step” for a Swedish company looking to break into the international market. “It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad but doing international shows directly for the market. This is a very natural step to take,” he says.
In particular, it was the fact West of Liberty is a character-driven story, rather than a plot-heavy drama you might expect from the spy genre, that most appealed to the producer. “Of course there’s a plot there but it’s also very character-driven and this is something I liked very much,” he says. “There’s a lot of depth to the characters. So my interest in this was the characters, particularly the main character Licht, who is a former Stasi guy who double-plays with the CIA and now lives in Berlin where he runs a bar. He has a very interesting story.
“It also has a lot of action in the plot – they’re chasing a guy who’s running a Wikileaks-like organisation who is in hiding. This was written before [Wikileaks founded Julian] Assange ended up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London but it’s quite an astonishing coincidence. It’s very contemporary.”
With Sara Heldt (The Crown Princess, The Dying Detective) and Donna Sharpe
(The Team, Teufelsberg) on writing duties, the scripts were initially penned in Swedish by Heldt before she and Sharpe translated them into English. West of Liberty’s characters come from a variety of backgrounds, so English was the common language used on screen, though characters also use their native languages where possible.
Carlsson describes Heldt as “one of the best scriptwriters we have,” having previously worked with her while he was an executive at Swedish pubcaster SVT. “She’s very good on character. She was my absolute first choice and has written most of the script [in Swedish]. Sara is Swedish and she’s fluent in English but, at the same time, it’s different [speaking English as a second language]. So before we started shooting, we looked for an English writer. My partner, Bettina Went, had worked with Donna before and she followed the scripts through the whole production.”
Behind the camera is Barbara Eder (Thank You For Bombing, Tatort), who Carlsson says has used a hand-held style to film the series. “It’s not mainstream,” he explains, noting that this technique brings a freedom to the visuals, which also incorporate natural light where possible. The acting is also very natural, adding to the cinematic tone of the drama. “This is something we wanted from the beginning when we were looking for directors who had worked a bit like that, and that’s how we found Barbara,” he continues. “She picked Carl Sundberg, the DOP, who is also used to working this way. We put together a team that could do this a bit more advanced than a mainstream show.”
The majority of filming took place in Berlin, with additional scenes shot in Cologne and Bonn in Germany as well as Malmo in Sweden. But the story is entirely set in the German capital.
“This is the way international shows are done because you do it out of financial terms; you get support and have to spend money in certain areas,” Carlsson says. “Interior apartments in Berlin are shot in Malmo and so on. The beginning of the show is shot in Marrakesh, Morocco. It all starts there.”
In Germany, Anagram was supported by Hamburg-based Network Movie, a company with which Carlsson had also worked while at SVT on shows such as Bron (The Bridge). That Network Movie is owned by German network ZDF meant there was a natural connection to another broadcaster that could support the series with additional financing.
“We went to them and, together with them and the producer and their team, we started to plan how to put this together,” Carlsson says. “When you look at the style of the show, you don’t look at the countries, you look at the people. We found Barbara in Austria and Carl in Sweden. But then later on if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. It worked very well. It was quite easy. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmo and the heads of departments [HODs] we had in Germany followed on but then we had a Swedish team there. If you have the same HODs and DOP, it’s no problem [to keep the same style or tone]. Even the culture in doing stuff in Germany and Sweden doesn’t differ that much. We talk the same, we understand the same stuff. It’s very easy.”
Anagram is suitably experienced in filming Swedish dramas overseas, with credits that include Thailand-set 30 Grader i Februari (30 Degrees in February) and Delhis Vackraste Händer (The Most Beautiful Hands in Delhi), which was shot entirely in New Delhi.
In comparison, there were few challenges filming in Berlin, a relative neighbour to Malmö, the largest city in Southern Sweden and close to Anagram’s base in nearby Lund. The geographical distance was short, for example, and there was no time difference, but working between two countries simply meant things such as financial reports took a little more time. Carlsson says this can cause a two-step development process, instead of one step, “but it’s not a problem as such. Sometimes we have a time delay if you need to make quick decisions. We didn’t have this problem, but you notice it. We have made shows in Thailand and New Dehli and then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference. For us ,this was easy.
“One lesson we learned working with people from other countries is even though we are very much alike, we are different. You have to adapt to the culture and not work against it. That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin. If you don’t work like that, you will have problems. As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if doing a production with partners in Europe.”
The series needed to be filmed in Berlin, however, as Engström describes the city as one of the characters in the story, demanding a level of authenticity that couldn’t be replicated in a studio or another European location. “The story couldn’t take place in a place other than Berlin because it has its traces in the Cold War, and these characters come out of that. Berlin is a very integrated part of the series,” Carlsson adds.
Engström followed West of Liberty with three more novels – South of Hell (2014), North of Paradise (2015) and East of the Abyss (2017). Writers are already working on the second book adaptation, with Carlsson in talks with potential Canadian coproduction partners, as South of Hell unfolds in Washington D.C. and rural Pennsylvania.
If the series’ success continues, Anagram will have further opportunities to flex its international coproduction muscles, with North of Paradise set in Florida and Cuba, while East of the Abyss plays out in Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia.