High-end television series are on the rise in Germany, where they have been enthusiastically embraced by leading feature film talent and supported by federal and regional funders.
All of Germany’s major players — ARD, ZDF, RTL, ProSiebenSat.1, Sky, Netflix and Amazon — are developing and producing ambitious series and miniseries. Contributing to this seemingly unprecedented level of production are such notable filmmakers as Tom Tykwer, Oliver Hirschbiegel, Baran bo Odar and Matthias Schweighofer. Majors like UFA and Constantin Film have also joined the fray.
Tykwer’s €40 million ($44.2 million) “Babylon Berlin,” co-produced by Sky, ARD Degeto, X Filme and Beta Film, is an adaptation of German author Volker Kutscher’s “Der nasse fisch” (The Wet Fish), the first in a book series about a police inspector in 1920s Berlin. The series marks the first collaboration between Sky and pubcaster ARD. The 16-episode series will air on Sky in 2017 and on ARD in 2018.
Tykwer describes the series as an epic historical crime drama that is “broadly diverse and rich in character and that reflects modern-day Germany and Europe in surprising ways.”
Beta CEO Jan Mojto says more and more filmmakers are interested in doing long-running series and attracting top acting talent because series offer unique narrative advantages, not to mention the strength of Germany’s TV market and its myriad financing possibilities. “It’s interesting to tell certain stories on television which could not be told in a feature film,” Mojto says. “The quality of German TV is quite often similar to that of theatrical productions.”
Germany’s federal government unveiled its €10 million-a-year ($11 million) German Motion Picture Fund in December aimed at supporting international co-productions and high-end series. Regional funder Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg also launched a special financing program for TV series last year, following a 2014 development funding scheme. In addition, Germany’s rich history, Cold War division, literary offerings and modern society have also continued to prove fertile ground for scripted TV productions.
UFA Fiction, part of RTL’s FremantleMedia group, is partnering with Beta on pubcaster ZDF’s “The Same Sky.” Directed by Hirschbiegel and starring Tom Schilling (“A Coffee in Berlin”) and Ben Becker, the miniseries is set in a divided Berlin in 1974 and revolves around an East Berlin family, including a young spy on assignment in West Berlin, an Olympic hopeful who falls prey to East Germany’s notorious doping practices and a gay teacher looking for love in all the wrong places.
“The Same Sky” follows “Deutschland 83,” UFA’s internationally acclaimed eight-hour Cold War series that aired on RTL in December. The award-winning series sold to more than 20 broadcasters and SVOD services worldwide, including SundanceTV in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K., where it became the highest rated foreign-language drama in British television history.
Tackling a violent story ripped from current headlines, ARD’s “NSU — German History X” traces the bloody trail of a neo-Nazi cell — the National Socialist Underground — that murdered 10 people in Germany. Gabriela Sperl and Wiedemann & Berg Television are producing the fact-based miniseries, which focuses on Beate Zschaepe, a suspect in the killings who is currently on trial.
For “NSU” director Christian Schwochow, this dark episode in Germany’s recent history is rooted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the country.
“I don’t think you can tell the story of Beate Zschaepe and the NSU without this turning point. Beate Zschaepe was 14 years old when the Wall fell. I have a feeling that it was a generation that was left all alone. They had to deal with a great many difficulties. Everything was reassessed. And no one really cared about them.”
Smaller up-and-coming companies are also eagerly developing cutting-edge drama for television. Stefan Aretz and Michael Merschmeier’s Berlin-based Connor Film is developing what could soon be Germany’s first TV series about a gay family. “Sorry Guys,” which has secured backing from Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, revolves around a boy growing up with his gay fathers and biological mother. European pubcaster Arte has expressed interest in the show, which is aiming for the dramatic gravitas of such works as Amazon’s “Transparent” and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” with the planned initial 12-episode season chronicling the first decade in the boy’s life.
“The subject matter is absolutely new for German television,” says Merschmeier. The series will examine “the normal problems of a small family as well as the distinct difficulties facing such a constellation. The time for this topic is ripe for a broad audience.”
Netflix and Amazon, meanwhile, have also tapped leading filmmakers for their first original German series. Wiedemann & Berg is reteaming with director Odar (“Who Am I”) on “Dark” for Netflix. The 10-hour supernatural-tinged mystery series is set to debut worldwide next year. At Amazon, Schweighofer, one of Germany’s most successful actor-directors, will direct and star in “Wanted,” which his Pantaleon Entertainment will produce with Warner Bros. The Berlin-set suspense skein premieres on Amazon Prime in Germany and Austria in 2017.