Based on real events, Netflix miniseries “The Billion Dollar Code” – created by Oliver Ziegenbalg and Robert Thalheim, and set to be released exclusively on Netflix on Thursday – shows the German inventors of 1994 Terravision and their fight to be acknowledged as creators of the Google Earth algorithm. In 2014, Berlin-based ART+COM sued Google for patent infringement, claiming that the system bore remarkable similarities to Google Earth.
“ ‘The Social Network’ was told from the perspective of the winner, or the antagonist: Mark Zuckerberg. We tell our story from the perspective of the Winklevoss brothers, the beautiful losers,” Ziegenbalg tells Variety at Zurich Film Festival following the show’s world premiere, referencing David Fincher’s 2010 take on the troubled origins of Facebook.
“Also, in that film, you don’t really love the guy. You look at him from the outside. We wanted to have characters you would want to accompany through this entire process,” adds Thalheim.
Going back and forth between the trial, the early days of Silicon Valley and the first wave of the internet revolution in the 1990s, the duo first imagined the story as a feature film, quickly embracing the opportunities offered by a much longer format.
“In a feature, everything would need to be significantly reduced. Now, we could devote the whole episode just to the trial, quoting every technical and financial expert. We always mentioned ‘Chernobyl’ as an example, where in one episode this guy shows up because he has to kill all the dogs and then he disappears again. It would have never worked in a film,” says Ziegenbalg.
The bitter fight over Terravision presented them with a chance to tell a broader story about what people thought the internet might be and what it became today, they said, justice in the digital age as well as the “Wild West” of the technical boom in the 1990s.
“We lived in Berlin during that period. We remember that time – we were there! In stories set in the Wild West, there is always the good side and the bad, but there are also no rules. The strongest make up their own, which is what happened here too,” adds Thalheim.
“The most powerful cattle baron takes the law in his own hands and that’s Google, basically. These guys, they were like these poor farmers, going: ‘But this is our land!,’ ” says Ziegenbalg, calling the miniseries “the final episode” of the 20-year-long struggle.
With the help of their protagonists, the artist and the hacker played by Leonard Scheicher and Marius Ahrendt, as well as Mark Waschke and Mišel Matičević as their older incarnations, they also wanted to show the ever-evolving nature of friendship.
“Just like in any love relationship, sometimes one is stronger and then it’s the other one’s turn. You just see it transform,” says Thalheim, also mentioning the men behind it all, some of whom – like Axel Schmidt, Pavel Mayer or Gerd Grueneis – attended the Zurich premiere.
“They didn’t come to us, saying: ‘Please tell our story.’ I just talked to Axel yesterday and he said that after the trial, where they fought to be finally recognized as entrepreneurs, he took all these papers back to the basement, saying: ‘I am done. I never want to think about it again.’ When we came to interview them, it all came back to the surface,” he says.
“I think it’s a new beginning. They are not a part of our story but we are a part of their story now.”
“When they asked Mark Zuckerberg if ‘The Social Network’ was his story, he said: ‘It’s all a lie, it’s an invention.’ He didn’t support it and Google isn’t supporting us either,” adds Ziegenbalg, wondering about possible ramifications in the future.
“We never approached them. They would have never jumped on board anyway, because these big tech companies want to control and protect their company’s image. We just took the risk, deciding to name them, and now we will see. We don’t know how they will react or if they will sue us.”