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New era of big-budget drama in Berlin

‘I don’t want to be impolite to our actors but the lead is Berlin,’ says Stefan Arndt. The burly German producer stamps the ground on the vast Neue Berliner Strasse backlot set in Babelsberg: ‘You see — real cobblestones. None of that fake stuff.’

We are witnessing the winding up of an immense enterprise: Arndt has been overseeing the back-to-back filming of the first two seasons of Babylon Berlin. Comprising 250 speaking parts and 5,000 extras, it is the most expensive German TV show to date, costing some €40m.

Set in 1929, during the hedonistic heyday of the Weimar Republic, Babylon Berlin is the latest in an increasingly ambitious line-up of German television drama drawing on the country’s tumultuous 20th-century history. Recent shows such as Generation War, which explored the seductive impact of Nazism on a group of young friends during the Second World War and Deutschland 83, about a youthful Stasi agent who crosses into West Berlin from the East and is forced to reconsider his values, have offered new ways of looking at Germany’s past.

‘This is a new generation of German storytellers. Producers now are expressing their own approach to history, perhaps having a different attitude towards it than those back in the 1960s, which was the first generation to deal with German guilt openly,’ says Jan Mojto, the Slovakian-born distributor of Babylon Berlin.

‘For a long time, postwar movies made about what happened in Germany were black-and-white and I don’t mean that they weren’t shot in colour — with these new television series we’re dealing with far more complex characters.’

Arndt and German film director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas), who together founded the production company X Filme Creative Pool 23 years ago, had long dreamt of making a TV series set in Berlin during the 1920s. Both of them were big fans of Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical film Cabaret, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel The Berlin Stories (1939). But unlike Cabaret and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s intensely oneiric 1920s-set TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) which were largely shot using interiors, Tykwer and Arndt wanted to open the action up on to the strife-ridden city.

‘We wanted to go out there on the streets and show Berlin for how it really was,’ says Tykwer, who co-wrote and co-directed the series with his compatriots Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten. ‘People were on the move all the time. They had two or three jobs, then they went to a nightclub and then another. It’s very much like Berlin today in that respect, which makes it feel so alive.’

The idea became a reality when Tykwer and Arndt acquired the rights to a politically acute series of six novels by German crime writer Volker Kutscher about a police inspector, Gereon Rath (played in the series by Generation War’s Volker Bruch), who infiltrates Berlin’s underworld. The first two seasons — 16 45-minute episodes — are based on the first of Kutscher’s novels (the only one translated into English so far).

For von Borries the series echoes the hard-bitten and cynical tone of Kutscher’s novels. ‘Looking ahead [to future seasons] we want to tell the story of how ordinary people like you and me could become fascists,’ he says. ‘This is the big issue we have in mind. Those characters working in the German police will have to take a decision at a certain point about where they stand. Who will choose to be one of the small wheels in the big machine and who will choose to resist the rise of Nazism?’

Initially Tykwer and Arndt debated about whether to make Babylon Berlin in German or in English. The former prevailed after the popularity of shows such as Generation War and Deutschland 83 abroad, particularly in the UK and the US (where both shows won Emmy Awards), proved that exporting subtitled German-language TV drama was not an obstacle to success. Ironically, Deutschland 83 was a relative flop in Germany but when it aired on Channel 4 last year it became the most popular foreign-language drama in British TV history, reaching 2.5m viewers. It also became the first German-language TV series to be aired on a US network when it premiered on SundanceTV in 2015.

A new season of the series, Deutschland 86, is now in the works, largely financed by Amazon Germany. It was created by Anna Winger, an American writer living in Germany, whose English-language scripts were then translated into German by her husband Jörg Winger. A similar creative approach informs the upcoming German-language series The Same Sky, which also features a young Stasi agent (played by Tom Schilling, another alumnus of Generation War) who crosses into West Germany under an assumed identity. The six-part series, whose first two episodes premiered in Berlin last week and which has been acquired by Netflix for the UK, deals with the fates of two families on either sides of the Berlin Wall during the 1970s. Written by British screenwriter Paula Milne, whose credits include the BBC drama The Politician’s Husband, it is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, best known for the 2004 film Downfall about the last days of Hitler.

As a young man, the 59-year-old Hirschbiegel, who grew up in West Germany, was a member of the Communist Party’s youth wing. He often participated in exchanges where people from the West would go to the East and vice versa. ‘What I tried to do with The Same Sky in depicting these two very different worlds was not to judge in an obvious way because both had positive elements,’ Hirschbiegel says. ‘I think it was a tricky time and I wanted to give that a subtle atmosphere in the series.’

For the sake of authenticity Hirschbiegel decided to cast actors from East Germany for the East German roles, likewise for the West. He also spent months scouring contrasting locations in Prague where most of the series was shot. It’s these kinds of creative decisions that Hirschbiegel believes are necessary if German television drama continues to connect with audiences both at home and abroad. ‘For a long time, German TV stations didn’t really dare to treat their audiences as intelligent beings in the way that the BBC always did with their viewers.’ Hirschbiegel says. ‘Only now is it really beginning to change.’

‘Babylon Berlin’ will air on Sky in the autumn.

Volker Kutscher

Volker Kutscher