With ‘Babylon Berlin,’ German TV Moves Beyond Nazi Stories

For years, one of Sarah Doole’s pet goals was to put a German-language show before English-speaking viewers. A veteran of European TV, Doole admired many of Germany’s small-screen dramas. Unfortunately, it was mostly just Germans who saw them.

That changed radically two years ago when FremantleMedia, where Doole is head of global drama, picked up Cold War spy series “Deutschland 83.” The show became a breakout hit, infiltrating more than 100 territories, including the U.S., and nabbing an International Emmy. “The world watched it even more than Germany watched it,” says Nico Hofmann, CEO of UFA Group, which produced the series.

Now, Germany is surging into the high-end international TV market, with its most ambitious project to date about to be unleashed. “Babylon Berlin,” a 16-part, two-season drama set in the seamy, steamy, scheming underworld of 1920s and ’30s Berlin, makes its highly anticipated debut on Sky Deutschland on Oct. 13. A special premiere of the show’s first two episodes will be held Oct. 6 in Los Angeles.

With a reported budget of €40 million ($47 million), “Babylon Berlin” is the most expensive non-English-language drama in European history. It’s directed by Tom Tykwer and produced by X Filme, Sky Deutschland, ARD Degeto and Beta Film.

The show is not just a gamble financially but also subject-wise. German films and TV shows that travel well mostly hew to what could be called the “Nazi or Stasi” formula: stories of the Holocaust or the East German surveillance state, which continue to fascinate audiences worldwide. “Babylon Berlin” deviates from that. Based on the novels by Volker Kutscher, the show follows police inspector Gereon Rath into a tangled web of crime and intrigue in the wild days of the Weimar Republic, when some people dance the Charleston, others have fetishistic sex, and fascism starts to rear its ugly head.

“I always thought it was a little too easy to locate a story in the Nazi era … where everyone knows early on, oh, this is the evil guy,” says Stefan Arndt, one of the show’s producers. “Babylon Berlin” follows in the footsteps of “Cabaret.” “Everyone knows this movie,” he notes. “Why isn’t there another story told out of this period of time?”

Despite the source material, the team was divided on whether the show should be in English or German. The idea of a German-language international TV hit still seemed almost a contradiction in terms, and partners needed to be convinced to bankroll the project. “As a producer, I was really scared,” Arndt says. “Then exactly in the moment where I turned around and thought, ‘Perhaps let’s do it in English because it’s easier,’ Tom [Tykwer] said, ‘I’ll only do it in German.’”

The two seasons were shot at the same time, over seven months, in 300 locations. A third season is already in development. Key European markets have taken the show; Netflix has U.S. rights and will probably make it available early next year.

Other big-budget German series in the pipeline include the $30 million “Das Boot,” a spinoff of the 1981 movie, from Sonar Entertainment, Sky and Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, and “Deutschland 86,” whose globetrotting storyline is a nod to the worldwide fan base of “Deutschland 83.” “The Same Sky,” a family drama set in 1970s Berlin, came out earlier this year.

Helping to fuel the drive into event drama are pay-TV and digital players such as Sky and Netflix, whose appetite for high-concept series has nudged German writers and directors out of their comfort zones. Free-TV remains a huge and profitable industry in Germany, but that has fostered complacent programming, with broadcasters offering an unimaginative menu of procedurals and talk shows.

I always thought it was a little too easy to locate a story in the Nazi era … where everyone knows early on, oh, this is the evil guy.”
Stefan Arndt, “Babylon Berlin” producer

“Germans are not a very daring people,” says Anke Greifeneder, director of original productions for TNT in Germany. “It took a while … to encourage the talent to really dare to tell something else.”

TNT is hoping to demonstrate that German dramas don’t have to delve into the country’s past to attract international audiences. Its show “4 Blocks,” which
begins rolling out worldwide Oct. 4 on Amazon Prime Video, focuses on an Arab-German crime ring in present-day Berlin. “The Valley,” a mystery thriller, has been picked up by Shudder, the niche streaming service run by AMC Networks. “What we’re seeing now is the variety of German dramas,” says Hannes Heyelmann, Turner’s senior VP for international original programming strategy. “It’s not just one genre we can cover.”

FremantleMedia’s Doole says that “the world is looking at Germany now,” because many of the big issues facing the West — immigration and refugees, the rise of the far right, tensions with Russia — converge in Germany. That should make the country a rich vein of compelling contemporary stories.

But with all the warnings of Peak TV’s saturation point, has Germany entered the game too late? UFA’s Hofmann doesn’t think so. “Americans might be past the peak, but for Germany, it starts now,” he declares. “The big momentum for the German market still lies ahead.”

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