From spies to sci-fi to more spies, Berlin is burning up the international small screen and the world is taking notice, following some unexpected success in the US. Unlike Vancouver or LA, Berlin doesn't just serve as a convenient shooting location. The city itself is more and more featured in TV series all over the world.
So you’ve got a smoking hot pitch for a new TV series lying on your producer’s desk, and you just know it’ll be the next big thing around the globe. Where do you go to shoot the bastard? LA? Too mainstream. Vancouver? No room among the approximately seven thousand other shows currently shooting there. New Zealand? Last you checked, there weren’t any wizards or elves in the storyline. Berlin? Now there’s an idea! It’s one that has become increasingly popular over the past few years, as more and more large international productions from around the world have flocked here to film. Of course, the presence of the Babelsberg studios helps, giving enormously budgeted Hollywood productions a base from which to shoot. Famously, this includes the fifth season of American political thriller series Homeland, in which protagonist Carrie Mathison leaves her job at the CIA to work for a philanthropic foundation in Berlin. She also takes on a lover, played by lifelong Berliner Alexander Fehling.
Also making use of Babelsberg: Lana and Andy Wachowski’s (of The Matrix fame) sprawling Netflix series Sense8, which involves eight otherwise completely unrelated people from around the globe becoming telepathically linked with each other. The show’s unique selling point is that it was actually shot at all eight locations involved, including Nairobi, Seoul and, yes, Berlin, with local actor Max Riemelt playing the role of the German “sensate” Wolfgang Bogdanow. The Berlin segments are directed by Tom Tykwer, friend and collaborator to the Wachowskis since their similarly far-flung ambitious failure Cloud Atlas in 2012. In a series that otherwise indulges in more than a few stereotypes (its vision of Mumbai is full of Hindu iconography and Bollywood costumes), Tykwer’s portrait of the German capital feels refreshingly realistic despite a telepathic orgy in Stadtbad Neukölln.
So, why Berlin? “It’s the centre of Europe – physically, geographically and also psychologically,” says Anna Winger, an American writer who has been based in Berlin since 2002. “All my work is about the city. I love it here!” The author of the novel This Must Be the Place and creator of the radio series Berlin Stories for NPR has now turned her hand to screenwriting, collaborating with her German husband Joerg, an executive producer at UFA Fiction, to create the Cold War spy drama Deutschland 83. The German series (translated from Winger’s English draft) sees Martin Rauch, a young East German border patrol guard played by Jonas Nay, press-ganged into masquerading as an aide-de-camp to a West German general in order to spy for the Stasi. It’s set in both Berlin and Bonn, but all shooting was done in the capital – even the interiors, for which the former GDR Ministry of the Interior on Mauerstraße was used as an impromptu studio.
According to Winger, shows don’t come here just because it’s particularly convenient or inexpensive, or because Babelsberg is nearby. “The traditional thing would have been to shoot in Budapest or Prague,” she says, pointing out that those places actually look more like the GDR of the 1980s than former East Berlin does now. “If you’re shooting here, it’s because you want to shoot Berlin. You don’t come here to pretend to be someplace else, like [you would in] Prague or Vancouver.” It’s the intrigue of Berlin itself that has attracted the world’s cameras – not to mention the world’s actors, “I think that’s also one of the big attractions,” Winger says. “People really want to come and spend six months here” – which is how you end up with Homeland’s Claire Danes talking about Berghain with Ellen DeGeneres. But since Deutschland 83 is a German series, isn’t it natural for it to be filmed here? True, but the series has had an impact far beyond these borders – if anything, a greater impact abroad than in its home country! It’s been enjoying incredible critical success (100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) since its first two episodes premiered at the 2015 Berlinale, followed by a broadcast on SundanceTV in the USA in June. A small-scale run, peaking at just 143,000 viewers, but enough to create a heady buzz and a historic milestone to boot – the firstever German series to be broadcast in America in its original language (with subtitles).When it finally came back home, though, it barely caused a ripple. Its run on RTL in November and December was undeniably disappointing, dropping rapidly from 3.19 million opening episode viewers (already considered modest) to barely half that by the end of the season. By comparison, 2.13 million UK viewers tuned in to Channel 4 to watch the first episode on January 3 – again, in German, with English subtitles. Testament to the series’ international acceptance, yes, but also to its domestic indifference.
So how do you explain a German-language, German-set TV show doing better abroad? Maybe it’s Cold War fatigue: the show might give fresh perspective to an American or British viewer, but Germany and Berlin especially lived through what Deutschland 83 depicts, and the show is not likely to open many eyes here (or, for that matter, get away with whatever inaccuracies it may or may not have). It also covers territory already tackled by long-running German shows such as Weißensee. And then there’s the channel broadcasting it. With a reputation for mindless entertainment – Deutschland sucht den Superstar and its ilk – RTL feels like an odd fit for an acclaimed dramatic series. Winger stresses that the channel was always supportive, but admits it was an “experiment” for them. “Germany doesn’t have so many straight dramatic shows, and I think it was a difficult transition,” she observes, pointing out that the season-spanning story structure and production values of Deutschland 83 more closely resemble the loyalty-demanding serial format of American shows like Breaking Bad than the episodic, tune-in-whenever-you-like nature of, say, Tatort.
Nevertheless, Berlin’s future on the international small screen looks bright. The overseas popularity of Deutschland 83 has been enough to make Winger consider a second season (tentatively called Deutschland 86). Filming for the second season of Sense8 already took place here over Christmas, and Tom Tykwer is working on the Weimar-era crime series Babylon Berlin, another German production with international ambition. Winger herself is currently developing a new show for BBC America set in Berlin. And American TV network Epix has announced a new high-profile Berlin-set series starring Richard Armitage, called Berlin Station, with Winger once again on hand as a consulting producer. The premise of that last one? Spies again – modern-day ones this time, the CIA hunting a whistleblower – but we can work on shaking that stereotype later. For now, expect to see the Brandenburg Gate lighting up living rooms around the world for a while yet.