Hungarian broadcaster RTL Klub has boarded “Balaton Brigade,” a Cold War spy drama set on the shores of Hungary’s Lake Balaton in the summer of ’86, Variety has learned exclusively. The series is among the projects that will be pitched this week at the Berlinale Series Market’s Co-Pro Series.
The show follows a secret agent in the elite Stasi unit codenamed the Balaton Brigade, a team tasked with observing East German holidaymakers as they meet their relatives from west of the Iron Curtain on the sun-kissed shores of the “Hungarian Sea.” Forging an uneasy alliance with a local counterpart, he engages in increasingly intense psychological warfare against their target, only to realize that the tables are being turned—even as he hatches his own plot to escape with his family to the West.
“Balaton Brigade” is created by Gábor Krigler, Balázs Lengyel and Balázs Lovas, and directed by Oscar nominee Ildikó Enyedi (“On Body and Soul”). The series is part of a slate of high-end titles being developed by Budapest-based production outfit Joyrider, which was launched in 2019 by the former HBO Europe creative executive Krigler.
Other upcoming projects include “Frust,” a co-production with Serbia’s Firefly Prods. slated to go into production later this year, and “School of Courage,” a YA historical thriller being developed with the support of the Hungarian National Film Institute, and co-developed with Poland’s Apple Film Production, which is also looking at a winter ‘21 production date.
Krigler spoke with Variety about “Balaton Brigade” and his plans for Joyrider ahead of the Co-Pro Series pitching sessions and meetings, which take place online March 2-5.
Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind “Balaton Brigade,” and what made you and your creative team want to tell this story?
The original idea dates back to 2015. I was at HBO Europe, as creative executive, working with an Austrian producer on the development of a historical crime thriller series set during the 1956 uprising in Budapest. The producer brought my attention to the little-known Stasi unit stationed at Lake Balaton, the place affectionately known as the “Hungarian Sea” by the holidaymakers swarming its beaches. This was one of the few places where East Germans were allowed to meet friends and families from the West. I grew up at the lake, and the realization that under the bright and sunny façade it was in fact a covert warzone immediately appealed to me.
Two brilliant local writers, Balazs Lovas and Balazs Lengyel, were engaged to come up with the basics of the proposal. During the ensuing years the project stalled and ultimately was scrapped, owing to the seismic changes in the industry and within the organization. When I left to form Joyrider, and we started putting together the opening development slate of the company, I once again thought of “Balaton Brigade.” I reached out to “Balazs and Balazs,” as the two writers are sometimes referred to, and we started rethinking and updating the story. We wanted it to reflect the impossible choices people in our part of the globe have been routinely required to make, in order to survive in the name of higher ideologies.
Oscar-nominated director Ildikó Enyedi is attached to direct. How did she get involved in the project, and how do you think her artistic vision will help bring the story to life?
I’ve known Ildikó since around 2008, when she reached out to me to consult on some of her feature film projects in development. Of course I had been a fan of her films and loved talking about her stories and ideas. She has such a unique point of view, and a beautifully obtuse way of approaching anything from the most mundane subjects to completely out-there ideas.
When I was hired by HBO Europe, my first job was to adapt the juggernaut Israeli format “In Treatment” to the Hungarian market. Ildikó was my very first choice for director. We made three seasons together and she directed some of the most stellar episodes. When the development of “Balaton Brigade” started kicking into gear I thought of her again—she has a lot of ties to Germany and of course lived through the communist days, so she has a lot to say about the era and the arena. Luckily she loved the idea and felt she could bring something special to the table. Ildikó observes everything through a very special lens, and I believe her perspective will further elevate this character-driven thriller.
Audiences in Europe and across the world still seem to be drawn to Cold War stories, such as “The Americans” and “The Little Drummer Girl.” Why do you think a story like “Balaton Brigade” still feels so relevant today?
We took it for granted that some ideas and ideologies had been consigned to the dustbin of history. As they have been slowly creeping back into the public consciousness, we feel we need to talk about this in an entertaining but thought-provoking manner.
What sets “Balaton Brigade” apart from other spy dramas?
Our perspective as creators. Growing up then and there I witnessed that it was not some hellish wasteland beyond the Iron Curtain. It was actually a nice place. And though now everyone who lived then seems to claim they hated the system, in reality a lot of the people thought it wasn’t that bad. In the story we mainly show the points of view of people who would be considered the villains in traditional spy dramas. And they were not evil, but people with dreams and ambitions and deep love for their countries and families. The way they dealt with the moral compromises they were required to make on a daily basis makes for fascinating drama.
“Balaton Brigade” is one of three projects currently in development from Joyrider, which you launched in 2019. Can you tell us about the company’s creative philosophy, and how “Balaton” fits into that?
We love thought-provoking stories that use genre to make them universally accessible to audiences everywhere. All our projects have a strong thematic core and we strive to make them unexpected and fun. “Balaton Brigade “is a thorough exploration of the human psyche within individuals stuck in a horrible system, but also a thriller with big twists set in a fascinating arena, not yet presented in high-end TV drama.
Can you tell us what foreign partners you’re looking for during the EFM, and what you hope they’ll bring to the table?
We would like to team up with a strong German partner who can help us access broadcasters for German-speaking territories, funding in Germany, and world sales, as well as talent who wants to come along for this amazing ride. The most important thing is to share our vision and enthusiasm for universally appealing storytelling with a distinct voice.