CANNES — Crime thrillers, missing girl mysteries: Both are staples of German TV. But, backed by Germany ’s TV industry drivers – producer Oliver Berben, at Constantin’s Moovie, broadcaster ZDF, sales company Beta Film – Nina Grosse’s “The Typist” underscores the new edge of scripted drama on European free-to-air TV, one of the big trends in Canneseries. That was already seen, when it comes to Germany, in “Shades of Guilt,” another Moovie, ZDF, Beta collaboration involving Grosse and also starring Iris Berben (“Eddie the Eagle”) and Moritz Bleibtreu (“Run. Lola, Run”). But that played second primetime.
“The Typist is a show which usually would have been aimed at a second primetime window, but the high quality and the star-character of the protagonists made it eligible for primetime TV,” said Jan Motjo, Beta Film CEO.
He added: “What’s interesting is the combination of the ambition to do something different, but still have elements which make it possible for the program to be successful in primetime. It’s a big step forward that ZDF is consciously taking.”
In “The Typist,” Berben plays Freya, a dowdy Berlin police criminal interrogation officer who, spurred by flowering love with her flamboyant new boss (Babylon Berlin’s” Peter Kurth), determines to get to the bottom of her own daughter’s disappearance 11 years prior. Paralyzed by grief, traumatized by her own family’s violent past and the confessions she types, living a reclusive life in a flat which has hardly changed since her daughter went missing, Freya is a hugely sympathetic character. But she hides her own dark secrets as indeed may any number of characters. Variety chatted to writer Nina Grosse, who co-directed with “Deutschland ’83’s” Samira Radsi, as Canneseries began.
You have worked in TV and film since 1985. In what way does “The Typist” reflect the new realities – and opportunities, artistic, commercial – of Germany’s current scripted drama industry?
The international hype about series challenged and changed the German TV industry for good. I remember in the beginning when the big series came, like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Man,” “House of Cards,” everybody was so excited here in Germany. But nobody dared to do something similar and I wondered why. I think it was first the complex storytelling. Second, and this is even more important, the fact that you talk about ambivalent and even bad central characters, which can be a main characteristic of a good series. That seemed impossible for Germany. But it has changed now, because of the good series like “Babylon, Berlin” or “Four Blocks,” “Bad Banks” which all have ambivalent characters, like “The Typist,” whose main character is rather dark.
I sense that one of the challenges in writing “The Typist” was to drive ever deeper into the character of Freya, while maintaining and creative lines of narrative suspense. Could you comment?
I was interested in exploring the central character, Freya, which started from a very strong image of a woman sitting in a dark room in a Berlin police homicide division typing out every day the interrogations of murderer, rapists, child molesters, of male violence. I wanted to ask what happens to someone who does this every day of her life. She takes justice into her own hands. But I had to surround her with people who make this believable: a daughter, missing for 11 years, a brother with a dubious past, and above all Henry Slowoski, her new boss in the homicide division, who challenges her death vision with a potential love story. He confronts her with an essential question: Is love stronger that death?
With sales opportunities opening up abroad for German series, and even in domestic, series playing multiple platforms, the old free to air/cable divide seems to be breaking down. “The Typist” seems an example of this. Again, could you comment?
You feel this very strongly, there are new opportunities now. The market is opening up. We were really struck by what we heard from people who worked on “Dark,” Netflix’s first German original. The creative freedom they were given seems to be amazing. We’re used to a lot of heavy script sessions with broadcasters and often endless discussions to find a compromise, but we all know that compromise is not always the best solution. Now you can feel a new energy, sense the new possibilities of working in a different way, which is highly positive. Writers have more power now. This is what has changed with drama series.
Did any other series influence “The Typist”?
Not really. Freya’s character is rather unique so there was no real role model for the series. I haven’t really seen such a dark character in German television yet. Freya is a locked and harsh woman with a dark mission. I think the role dovetails withe the new emancipation thrust, that women are just demanding and experiencing. We are battling for new role models for women, not only in movies, but everywhere. That we are not just lovers, brides or mothers. That women can have and play the same range of heroes and characters as men, be sinners, killers, betrayers. It’s a new landscape.
Iris Berben is one of the younger grand dames of German TV. How did you direct such an experienced performer?
To propose Iris Berben the role of an elderly and haggard figure was at first regarded as a no-go. One argument was that it would destroy her image. But the producers Oliver Berben and Jan Ehlert and I knew, that she loved the script. Iris said: “At my age, what do I have to lose? Do whatever you want. I will follow.” We did a lot of preparation, rehearsal, talked very precisely about the turning points of the screenplay. We were completely one vision. It was really great working with her.