Set to air in April on Germany’s ARD, Beta Film has sold Dreamtool series “The Turncoat” throughout Scandinavia to public broadcasters NRK in Norway, SVT in Sweden, DR in Denmark and YLE in Finland. Negotiations are underway in the U.K. and U.S.
Directed by Florian Gallenberger who co-wrote with Bernd Lange (“Criminal: Germany”), the four-hour series is an adaptation of Siegfried Lenz’ novel of the same name. The book, which was only found after its author’s death as a hidden manuscript, follows the story of Walter Proska (Jannis Niewöhner), a German soldier who by 1944 starts questioning his duty.
As the Red Army approaches, he struggles with the idea of deserting. The relationship with Polish partisan Wanda (Małgorzata Mikołajczak) and his comrade Kürschner impact heavily on his life as Germany enters a new era which Walter faces with hope, but a growing concern.
Led by Stefan Raiser and Felix Zackor, Dreamtool has acquired the rights to other Lenz IPs as the the great German writer’s hundredth birthday approaches. A collaboration is on the way for an adaptation of ‘Heimatmuseum,’ one of the author’s largest works.
Variety talked with Gallenberger, Raiser and Günter Berg, the editor of Lenz’ collected works and representative of the Lenz heirs.
What was the main challenge when adapting the book to a four-hour series?
Galleberger: I only got on board this project a year ago, three months before production. It was totally crazy. Along those three months Bernd and I sat down and completely re-wrote the script up to that point. The first 90 min are very close to the novel, meanwhile the second part takes a lot of freedom to develop parts that Lenz left loose. The last chapter of the film, in Hamburg, is not part of the book. That was totally our invention. We thought if we tell a story about guilt and duty, struggling and running to a new system, we wanted to have a short glance to the aftermath of all this, which is 1960’s Germany. The Wirstchaftwunder, an economic boom, was also a way of dealing with the past and focusing on prosperity instead of dealing with the dark side of everybody’s experiences.
Lenz uses a very dry language and yet finds immensely cinematic moments when reading the book what caught your attention as filmmaker?
Gallenberger: A tool that Lenz used, and what drew my attention to the book, was that it’s a story during the war but doesn’t actually focus on the war itself. Very little war happens. We all know the second world war, but the book looks at the people and how they dealt with it. The boredom, the absence of sense, they are sitting in a swamp and nothing happens. After five years of war is pointless to even think about why they are there.
Most of your work shares a thematic thread line. You always handle figures of authority and put characters into very complex contexts were there are no easy answers. This one I think follows that same pattern.
Gallenberger: You’re right. Of course it is not a conscious thing, but what speaks to me. It seems mine are stories that deal with questions of integrity, or how do you keep integrity in a situation that intense, that contradictory, where everything that you do seems wrong. How do you keep your personal integrity and how do you deal with your responsibilities as a human being, not as a soldier, not as the role that you are acting but as the person that you are. Another thing that intrigues me is time. I like stories where time can say something. I our development through life is only understandable if we look how time shapes things. Something taking weeks or years, and how it unfolds we call destiny, but it’s actually the time passing and the work of time.
Only after Lenz’ death was the manuscript found. How did the book come to be?
Berg: He wrote it in 1951, sent it to the publisher who handled his first novel. They read the first 90 pages and wrote him back saying: “This is very very good, we must publish this book,”, and sent him a contract for the second novel and continued to read it. The first part is a story written by a young writer who returns after the war at the age of 19 so even if it’s not autobiographical, the experience of Lenz in the war went straight to the first part of the book. But the second part that dealt with the turncoat story, the deserter was for a publisher in the early ‘50s, impossible to do. So finally, they decided not to publish the book and the author decided to take it away and never touched it since then.
It feels very much as if Lenz’s work taps into a current zeitgeist – the turmoil of the ’20’s. What appealed to you about the book?
Raiser: Somehow the book spoke to me. It felt so current even though it’s really old, partly because we are living in the turmoil, like you said: the rise of the right and even leftwing populism, highly radical views, the shutdown of the E.U. because everybody wants to do their own thing again. And we are the generation that had it all, you and I, we didn’t experience war, we had freedom, we had prosperity, we had it all but still everything turned to this, Why’s that? Why do we have to keep reminding ourselves that all the freedom, all the prosperity that we enjoy nowadays is not a given, is not just there and we still have to fight for it. Walter immediately caught on to, that even though the war is over, something else is going on, something is not right, and we are headed in the same direction.