Germany has been a source of shows for the international market for decades, but with series like “Deutschland 83” in 2015, and “Babylon Berlin” and “Dark” in 2017, the bar was raised and the sense of what constituted German drama shifted, and international buyers took note.
One of them was Christian Vesper, who bought “Deutschland 83” when he was drama chief at Sundance TV. Vesper remembers that at that time it was unheard of for a U.S. channel to buy a German drama. “That was an outlier. It was a really, really, really, really hard thing to get approval on, because it was a German show. Who buys a German show for American television?”
One of the issues was that German broadcasters and the producers who supplied them primarily focused on the local audience. “The difficulty was that they have such a big domestic market that they haven’t felt that pressure to do anything but for the domestic market, which is also quite an older market,” says Vesper, who is now president of global drama at Fremantle, the owner of “Deutschland 83” production house UFA, as well as drama producers in many other territories.
“At a somewhat different pace than the rest of Europe, there is an energy to the shows that are being developed there,” he adds. “One of the things we are really focused on is supporting talent and being more talent-driven. Typically, Germany had been a producer-oriented business, whereas in the U.S. it was always a writer-driven business, and I think that Germany is finding more of a balance now in that and that’s been exciting. There is a renewed energy and creativity that is scaling them up a bit in terms of their reach.”
The arrival of the global streamers in Germany has spurred the local broadcasters to raise their game. “It’s about all this competition you have in the market, with everybody entering the market in Germany in the last three years,” says Nico Hofmann, CEO of UFA. “That gives an enormous push for the broadcasters to say ‘Let’s make [our drama series] better, and let’s do it in a way that we can really produce them not only for Germany, but also for the world market. Fundamentally that competition — as well as a new generation of filmmakers — have been producing the energy in the past two or three years.”
Now German producers and their shows get the respect they deserve from buyers across the board. Hofmann says over the past decade German drama series “have changed dramatically.” He adds: “I think it has to do with having far more freedom and creativity.” As a result, “We are far more successful on the international landscape.”
“German series today, and that’s the significant development of these last years, are on par with big American or international productions, when it comes to production quality and also, increasingly, budgets,” says Moritz von Kruedener, managing director at sales agency Beta Film, whose slate includes “House of Promises,” centering on a glamorous department store in 1920s Berlin, produced by “Babylon Berlin” creators X Filme Creative Pool.
The expectations of the German audience has changed as local shows sit alongside those of other countries on the streaming platforms. “To persist and thrive, German series now have to be on the same level as foreign shows, in terms of the quality of storytelling over all episodes, interesting and multi-layered characters, a well-known cast, technical production quality, all whilst upholding a strong local grounding,” von Kruedener says.
Tim Gerhartz, president and managing director at sales agency Red Arrow Studios Intl., concurs that one of the key drivers for the evolution in German drama is the plethora of streaming services that have set up in Germany. He adds that it’s not just the global operators, but the local broadcasters’ own video-on-demand platforms that are pushing things forward. “Rarely, these days, would you see a new drama series getting commissioned by only a linear channel,” Gerhartz says, citing Red Arrow’s “The Friedmanns,” which was co-commissioned by commercial broadcaster RTL and its streaming service, RTL Plus. “Everything is somehow connected to VOD these days.”
Julia Weber, head of international acquisitions and sales at production and sales house Global Screen, says the international market has changed, too, with a boom in the number of buyers.
“Now that we have a much broader source of clients, platforms, all kinds of smaller channels, that has increased the variety of content that’s needed. So the cake has gotten more pieces in a way. The broad variety of series has never been larger than it is now.”
Among Global Screen’s slate is “The Palace,” directed by Uli Edel, and produced by Constantin Television for German broadcaster ZDF, about two sisters living on different sides of the Berlin Wall — one in the capitalist West, the other in the communist East — in the late 1980s.
The streaming services allow a show’s audience to build over time, and permit new types of show to exist. They may not have survived in the linear universe, especially those that appeal to a younger audience, who tend to prefer non-linear. On VOD platforms, “there’s a big chance for stories that are a little bit more edgy, louder and controversial,” Gerhartz says.
Marcus Ammon, managing director, content, Bavaria Fiction, who was formerly senior VP of original production at pay TV operator Sky Deutschland, says the streamers are seeking out “shows that are clearly and very aggressively focusing on these young audiences.” Ammon says the briefings he receives from the global streamers and the broadcaster’s VOD platforms are “pretty similar.”
“It’s going more into stories that are contemporary, that are taken out of young people’s actual lives… we’re talking about coming-of-age stories, young adults and their experiences,” he says.
Constantin’s “We Children From Bahnhof Zoo” is an example of the edgier youth-focused content. It follows a group of Berlin teenagers in the 1970s whose lives unravel as they become hooked on heroin, paid for by prostitution.
Genres such as horror and supernatural — once rarely produced by German companies — are being explored more actively, thanks to demand from the streamers. Examples include Bavaria Fiction’s horror film “The Privilege,” and Constantin’s action horror “Blood Red Sky,” both produced for Netflix.
German series have become more diverse in the stories they tell. UFA, for example, is producing “Sam — A Saxon,” based on the true story of Samuel Meffire, Eastern Germany’s first Black police officer, for Disney Plus. As well as a greater diversity in content, the talent pool has also become more diverse. Iraqi-born German Soleen Yusef is the lead director and writer on the show.
One of UFA’s recent hits is “All You Need,” with its second season set to stream this month on broadcaster ARD’s VOD platform. The Berlin-set dramedy, which has Benjamin Gutsche as director and head writer, is Germany’s first mainstream series to focus primarily on gay characters.
Weber says: “Where [German drama series] needed improvement was in the way of storytelling, and also the stories that were told. We are much more diverse now, and I don’t just mean diverse in cultural ways, I mean diverse in any way. Now you can finally have a much larger creative freedom without being filtered.”
One trend in German production — as elsewhere — is toward shows with a more cinematic approach and high production values. “If you want to stand out and if you want to get attention you need to pay attention to not only the storytelling but the picture itself. You need a big, premium look. These kinds of shows are getting more and more expensive. Quality is expensive,” Ammon says.
“We Children From Bahnhof Zoo,” released by Amazon in the U.S. and other markets last year, had a €25 million ($27.5 million) budget — making it the biggest German-language show ever produced. “Five years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to finance and produce a German-language show of this size,” Oliver Berben, Constantin Film’s deputy CEO, told Variety last year.
Von Kruedener says: “There is another development that has accelerated also in Germany these last few years: with growing budgets, financing of large-scale series projects is increasingly only possible via international partnerships.” One example is Beta’s production of environmental sci-fi thriller “The Swarm,” created by Frank Doelger, which is being co-produced by the European Alliance, headed by Germany’s ZDF, France Télévisions and Italy’s RAI, among others.
Another aspect of the streaming universe is the ability to binge watch, and this favors shows with intricate storytelling, complex characters and absorbing worlds to escape into, which Ammon sees as strengths for shows he oversaw at Sky, such as globe-trotting raunchy thriller “Funeral for a Dog,” based on the novel by Thomas Pletzinger. NBCUniversal Global Distribution is handling international sales.
One of the big successes at Sky is “Das Boot,” a World War II series inspired by Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 movie, and produced by Bavaria Fiction, with a fourth season commissioned. But period dramas are becoming less popular. “What we’ve been hearing from the streamers and the networks is when it comes to history, it should have a big brand attached,” Ammon says. “So the premium focus is rather on contemporary shows, or shows that are placed in the not-too-distant future.”
German writers are becoming more innovative and braver in terms of the ideas they’re coming up with, Berben says, however, it is a work in progress. One limiting factor is that there are few showrunners in Germany, in the American sense of the word, although this is changing gradually.
“It’s not because they are not capable of doing it, but they were never trained as such,” he says. Similarly, writers’ rooms are less common than in the U.S., but are gaining in popularity.
But in terms of creative bravery, this is certainly evident. “And the creativity is coming from all ends now. You can really feel people opening up and not being too narrow-minded,” he says. Social media has allowed writers to know how viewers are reacting to their work, which is spurring their creativity. “I think we will have wonderful years ahead of us, because there’s so much going on, and there’s so much willingness to try — and also to fail, which is totally OK — and just move in other directions.”
This new era of innovation in German drama is bringing in creators from other areas, such as cinema, documentaries, podcasts and music. Film school students no longer insist on making movies, but want to make series instead, Berben says. Constantin just wrapped a show for youth-skewing channel ZDFneo called “Another Monday,” in which a group of people live through the same Monday again and again, unable to escape. The idea for the series came from a group of student writers at Munich film school, and although the time-loop concept is not novel, the way the students crafted the show keeps the audience engaged, Berben says. It was perfect for ZDFneo, he says, a cutting-edge channel where many younger creatives who are trying to think outside the box have gravitated.
Hofmann, who teaches at Baden-Württemberg Film Academy, says: “For the students, streaming is as important as cinema was 10 years ago.” He points to alumnus Christian Schwochow, whose credits include “Bad Banks,” Netflix’s “Munich — The Edge of War” and “The Crown,” as an example of the young generation of directors who are as at home making series as films. Other alumni include Yusef and Sven Bohse, who directed local and global hits “Dark Woods” and “Sisi.”
“All these people, 10 years ago, would have gone into cinema, and now they’re very open-minded about doing streaming and TV series. They’re really talented,” Hofmann says.
The rising demand for series in Germany has sparked a talent war, he says, with production companies vying to secure the best producers, writers, directors and actors. Like its rivals, UFA is doing everything it can to team with up-and-coming talent. “There are start-ups that we have invested in with Fremantle to get the talent right from the beginning, and we also try to get exclusive deals with directors and writers,” he says.
Global Screen has a different approach. It looks to work with producers “on a project-by-project basis,” but the intention is “to be a partner within that team” at an early stage in the development of a project as a co-producer, Weber says. “We can bring value to the production with the experience that we have from all the international markets, maybe also pre-sell to countries upfront to find commissioning broadcasters together.”
German drama will continue to evolve in the future, says von Kruedener. “In times of a growing offer and rapid change of viewership behavior, especially from the younger audiences, there will no longer be ‘the one’ [type of] German drama series. We will see many renditions of great German drama, depending on commissioners, budget and target audience.”
German Drama Highlights at MipTV
• Between Two Worlds
Set in the 1950s in a German town close to a U.S. military base, it’s the story of two young women during a time of upheaval.
Sales: ZDF Studios
• Faking Hitler
The true story of how a global media frenzy is sparked when a journalist claims to have found Adolf Hitler’s diaries.
• The Friedmanns
After Emma’s death, husband Mischko and their three children must cope with the devastating grief, and rebuild their lives.
Sales: Red Arrow Studios Intl.
• Funeral for a Dog
A journalist delves into the complicated relationship between three friends whose journey across the world ends with a catastrophic loss.
Sales: NBCUniversal Global Distribution
• House of Promises
The story of the glamorous Jonass department store in 1920s Berlin, and the crime and poverty that haunt the city’s underbelly.
Sales: Beta Film
• The Palace
Against the backdrop of Berlin’s Revue Theater in a divided Germany, two women search for their roots.
Sales: Global Screen