Sex, drugs and rock & roll don’t go out of style, but the new series Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo about Christiane F., is just one of many that use Berlin as a backdrop. From the coming-of-age story of Unorthodox to Neukölln street life in 4 Blocks, here are the Berlin series that should be on every Berliner’s radar.
Watch on: Sky Germany, Netflix
Based on the bestselling books by German author Volker Kutscher (Der nasse Fisch), neo-noir series Babylon Berlin reimagines Berlin’s roaring Weimar days shortly before the rise of fascism. The show stars Volker Bruch as war-damaged Inspector Gereon Rath and Liv Lisa Fries as Lotte Ritter, an aspiring typist who quickly learns what good investigative work means.
Co-financed by German public network ARD, premium channel Sky and X Filme Creative Pool to the tune of €40 million, the series is Germany’s most expensive TV production – in fact, it’s the priciest non-English language series ever made. According to Sky Germany, the show had an estimated 2.3 million viewers and around a million views on demand for the first season, making it their second most popular series in Germany after Game of Thrones.
Watch on: Netflix
Thanks to Navalny and the pandemic, Charité is now one of the most famous hospitals in the world. It’s now also the subject of a series that retells the hospital’s history. The first season, directed by Sönke Wortmann, took us back to the 19th century, when Rudolph Virchow, Emil Behring, Paul Ehrlich and Robert Koch tried to conquer tuberculosis. The second season is set in the late stages of World War II, while the the third season, aired in January 2021, takes place in the GDR.
Watch on: Netflix
This series was a surprise success in 2016, mainly because no one had actually expected much from the story of a dance school in the elegant West Berlin of the early 1950s. And then came the Emmy nomination alongside a slew of other industry nods. The series was produced by Pots-dam’s UFA Fiction GmbH and commissioned by ZDF, with director Sven Bohse (Das Maßder Dinge) at the helm. Annette Hess (Weis-sensee) wrote the script, inspired by stories from her mother’s teenage years.
The mixture of muddied bourgeoisie and timid rebellion was convincing, quickly leading to the first sequel, Ku’damm 59, in which the characters move with rapid strides towards a less uptight decade. If you’ve got the German skills, this is a universal easy-watcher – an aesthetically pleasing yet gripping show.
Deutschland 83, Deutschland 86, Deutschland 89
Watch on: RTL, Amazon Prime
A co-production between UFA Fiction, RTL and AMC, this show was a coup for the German series industry, even if the audience in Berlin and elsewhere had to be patient: after the Berlinale premiere in 2015, the series Deutschland 83 by Jörg and Anna Winger could only be seen on US TV at first. It had a budget of €1 million per episode and was the first original German-language series to air on US television.
Jonas Nay plays border guard sergeant Martin Rauch, smuggled into the West as a spy by the HVA, the GDR’s foreign intelligence service. In the second season, Deutschland 86, he helps his agent aunt Lenora Rauch (Maria Schrader) arrange secret arms deals with the apartheid regime in South Africa – because the GDR is almost bankrupt and needs the foreign currency. In Deutschland 89, the third season of the series, the regime is on the verge of collapse; with the fall of the Wall, a world collapses for the agents.
Though it’s filmed in Berlin, the series is set in Bonn, where Rauch is stationed. The former GDR Ministry of the Interior on Mauerstraße is used for many indoor shots, while Lichtenberg’s old Stasi HQ stands in for the Foreign Intelligence Service. There are shots of Ku’damm as the series re-enacts the 1983 Stasi-supported terrorist attack by Carlos the Jackal on the French cultural centre Maison de France.
Watch on: Netflix
Esther Shapiro, known as Esty, lives in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York City. She longs to escape her conservative Hasidic community, especially the outdated gender hierarchies. She moves to Berlin, which is chosen here as a cosmopolitan city of freedom.
Unorthodox is the series adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s autobiographical debut as a writer. Behind the filming are creator Anna Winger (Deutschland 83), filmmaker and author Alexa Karolinski (Lebenszeichen) and director (and actress) Maria Schrader. Unorthodox was celebrated internationally, with director Maria Schrader earning an Emmy for the four episodes.
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Counterpart is a sci-fi thriller set in two Berlins: the one we know and another a parallel world that developed completely differently since 1987. The well-hidden transition is guarded by a Kafkaesque secret service, and there’s a diplomatic ice age between the two worlds.
The series stars J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd and Nazanin Boniadi in double roles, and explores in a psychologically appealing way how differently life could have turned out thanks to the tiniest changes. Moreover, Counterpart makes Berlin the city of spies again: the Cold War with a sci-fi upgrade includes monitored flats in Friedenau, a hidden border crossing under Tempelhof Airport and agents meeting at the Kulturforum.
The series was filmed in various European locations, chiefly Berlin and Potsdam (Babelsberg Studio, which co-produced the series). When American premium cable network Starz opted not to order more episodes after the show’s second season, the series production company Media Rights Capital sought another home for the show. The effort was not successful, meaning Counterpart ended in 2019 after two seasons.
Watch on: Netflix
Berlin Station is a US drama series created by Olen Steinhauer. It sees Daniel Miller, a CIA analyst, on his way to expose a whistleblower in Berlin. What sounds relatively harmless quickly turns into a bloody debacle. In the second season, the agent then embarks on an undercover mission to infiltrate the fictional German party ‘Perspective for Germany’, which is suspected of terrorist intent. For its third season, Berlin Station then enters the global stage of geopolitics and deals with a pro-Russian conspiracy in Estonia.
The US channel Epix produced the show, alongside Studio Babelsberg. While the production is a little too slick and the scripts a tad predictable, the cast (Richard Armitage, Richard Jenkins, Rhys Ifans, Michelle Forbes) easily makes up for it. As does the intro, which features David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans”. After 3 seasons and 29 episodes, it ended in 2019.
Watch on: Netflix
Strong visuals, street slang and hip-hop characterise this series about crime in Berlin. 4 Blocks takes an unusual angle by German standards: the police perspective does not play a role – instead the series works with inside views from Berlin’s underworld. Drug kingpin Ali “Toni” Hamady (Kida Khodr Ramadan) is looking to get out of the game to protect his family, but his plans are thrown into disarray after his friend Vince (Victoria’s Frederick Lau) reappears after a long absence and his brother Abbas (German rapper Veysel) shoots a police officer.
Production company Wiedmann & Berg, also responsible for Dark, scored financing from TNT and Berlin-Brandenburg’s Medienboard to the tune of €4 million. Most of the show is set on and around Sonnenallee, with other scenes filmed at Görli and Kotti. Most amusingly, the Scottish-owned bar Das Gift hosts an attempted hipster drowning in episode one. The show ended in 2019 after three seasons.
Watch on: Netflix
Dark was filmed in and around Berlin, but the fictional small town of Winden, where it’s set, feels far away. The series’ premise sees two children go missing in the fictional small town of Winden. This begins a chain of events that reveals the fractured relationships and dark secrets between four families across three different time periods. Dubbed Germany’s Stranger Things, the comparison doesn’t really apply: this show is far more convoluted, more humourless and a lot, well, darker. But as long as you manage to keep track of who’s related to whom and whose younger self is which, it’s not hard to get hooked.
For eagle-eyed viewers, the rural roads of Winden (supposedly somewhere in western Germany), bear a suspicious resemblance to the area around Potsdam. You might recognise the town church, Stahnsdorf’s Südwestkirchhof, from Cate Blanchett’s Manifesto. Meanwhile, Charlottenburg’s Reinfelder-Schule stands in for the high school, which plays a pivotal part in the narrative of the first season.