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Berlin for binge-watchers

From glamourous period pieces to Cold War spy dramas, Berlin is front and centre in the new crop of German prestige series. We watched them all – here's your guide.

Image for Berlin for binge-watchers Looking for some value for your Rundfunkbeitrag money? No longer content with stale police procedurals and slapstick sitcoms, German producers are finally getting in on television’s golden age with lavish period pieces,tightly plotted spy thrillers and gritty mob dramas. Here are seven series you should know about. Babylon Berlin: High-end Weimar glamour Premiered Oct 2017 on Sky Germany; two seasons of eight 45-minute episodes; English subtitles available THE PLOT: Weimar Berlin, with its destructive mix of decadence and poverty, is the backdrop as PTSD-suffering police officer Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch, The Reader) is sent to Berlin to investigate a porn ring run by the Russian mafia. Along with “assistant” Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) and ruthless sergeant Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), he gets drawn into a sprawling underworld of crime, military conspiracies and smouldering Russian revolutionaries. KEY FACTS: Co-financed by German public network ARD, premium channel Sky and X Filme Creative Pool to the tune of €40 million, this adaptation of Volker Kutscher’s best-selling crime novels is Germany’s most expensive TV production – in fact, it’s the priciest non-English language series ever made. The project was actually initiated by homegrown Hollywood A-lister Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Sense8) who acquired the book rights back in 2013 and went on to enlist Goodbye Lenin! writers Achim von Borries and Henk Handloegten to co-direct. BERLIN LOCATIONS: Aside from the already famed “Neue Berliner Straße” – a 9000sqm set constructed specifically for the series in the Babelsberg studios – some key scenes were shot on location: Neukölln’s Hermannplatz serves as a backdrop to the May 1929 Blutmai riots, and Weissensee’s 1929-era silent film theatre Stummfilmkino Delphi stands in for debaucherous café/ballroom Moka Efti (which was on Friedrichstraße in its real-life 1920s heyday). RECEPTION: Reviews were generally positive, and US critics fell over themselves to praise the series’ political significance, eager to parallel our troubled times to the chaotic 15-year era that preceded the Third Reich. According to Sky, the show had an estimated 2.3 million viewers and around a million views on demand, making it their second most popular series in Germany after Game of Thrones. OUR TAKE: Babylon Berlin is a visual tour-deforce, but the darkly glamorous setting can’t make up for what the script is lacking – a compelling, substantial main plot. But fans of the Weimar era and stylish costume epics will enjoy. WHAT’S NEXT? Third and fourth seasons have been confirmed already. ARD will air the current series in the second half of 2018; it’s also coming to American Netflix this year.
Image for Berlin for binge-watchers Ku’damm 56: Post-war West Berlin sister act Premiered Mar 2016 on ZDF (available on German Netflix); three 90-minute episodes; German only THE PLOT: Before the Wirtschaftswunder would transform Kurfürstendamm into Berlin’s wealthiest street, 56 weaves a story of crumbling family structures in the ruins of the post-WWII West. Conservative dance school owner Caterina Schöllack (Claudia Michelsen) holds high societal expectations for her three daughters. Helga (Maria Ehrich) is set to marry, while psychiatry assistant Eva (Emilia Schüle) is painfully smitten with her boss and rebellious Monika (Sonja Gerhardt, also of Deutschland 83) spends her nights in smoky underground joints trying to become a rock ’n’ roll dancer. KEY FACTS: The series was produced by Potsdam’s UFA Fiction GmbH and commissioned by ZDF, with director Sven Bohse (Das Maß der Dinge) at the helm. Annette Hess (Weissensee) wrote the script, inspired by stories from her mother’s teenage years. The shoot – comprising 73 days and 270 garter belts – cost an estimated €7.5 million. BERLIN LOCATIONS: With the actual Ku’damm too overgrown with greenery and luxury brands to film on, Charlottenburg’s Richard-Wagner-Straße had to play the part. Schöllack’s fictional dance school Galant currently sits between a Vietnamese takeaway and an antiques shop. RECEPTION: The series was an unlikely hit, with the first season finale garnering 6.35 million viewers and a 19.5 percent market share. After scooping up German Television Prizes for Best Script (Hess) and Best Actress (Gerhardt) it won Best European Fictional Production at France’s Festival de la Fiction TV. OUR TAKE: If you’ve got the German skills, this is a universal easy-watcher – an aesthetically pleasing yet gripping three-parter of three women trying to unchain themselves from suffocating social conventions in the backdrop of 1950s City West. WHAT’S NEXT? Taking a page out of Deutschland 83’s “three years later” playbook, second series Ku’damm 59 airs on ZDF on March 18.
Image for Berlin for binge-watchers Dark: Germany’s Stranger Things Premiered Dec 2017 on Netflix; 10 episodes, 45-57 minutes each; English subs available PLOT: Two children go missing in the fictional small town of Winden, kicking off a chain of events that reveals the fractured relationships and dark secrets between four families across three different time periods. Teenager Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann) and police chief Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci) are among the first to uncover the supernatural twist hinted at by the show’s tagline: “The question is not where, but when”. KEY FACTS: For Germany’s first-ever Netflix series, the Berlin-based Swiss writer-director team Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar were originally tapped to create a TV version of their 2014 hacker thriller Who Am I; unconvinced, they pitched the idea for Dark instead. Netflix hasn’t revealed the budget, although Bild put it at €18 million. BERLIN LOCATIONS: Winden is supposedly somewhere in western Germany, but its rural roads and dense woods 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 both present-day and 1980s Winden. RECEPTION: With rave reviews in the US and UK and an 83 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, the show touted as “the German Stranger Things” was an international success. Critics at home were less enthusiastic, with Süddeutsche Zeitung calling the show “underwhelming”. OUR TAKE: Despite the small-town setting, the missing kids and the 1980s nostalgia (swap Nena for The Clash), the Stranger Things comparison doesn’t actually 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. Just steer clear if you’re sick of Loststyle tropes about fate versus free will. WHAT’S NEXT? The ending cliffhanger definitely begs for a second season – and one is indeed on the way, release date TBD.
Image for Berlin for binge-watchers You Are Wanted: Schweighöfer gets serious Premiered Mar 2017 on Amazon Prime; six episodes, 44-48 minutes each; English subs available THE PLOT: Berlin hotel manager Lukas Franke (Matthias Schweighöfer) falls victim to a hacker attack, with the perpetrators rewriting his identity to implicate him in an eco-terrorist group. In the midst of trying to prove his innocence to his friends, colleagues and family, he comes across another victim, Lena Arandt (Karoline Herfurth), and the two team up to put an end to the cyber attacks. KEY FACTS: You Are Wanted is not only Germany’s first Amazon Prime original series; it’s A-lister Matthias Schweighöfer’s bid to jettison his reputation as a goofy comedy star and do some “serious” acting. His company Pantaleon Films produced the series together with Warner Brothers. BERLIN LOCATIONS: Present-day City West gets the spotlight here. Lukas works at the Waldorf-Astoria near Zoo station, and important scenes take place around the Onkel Toms Hütte U-Bahn station in Dahlem and the former spy station Teufelsberg in Grunewald. RECEPTION: Despite mixed reviews, You Are Wanted was a domestic hit, becoming Germany’s most-streamed Amazon Prime series of 2017. But aside from one Guardian endorsement, the show barely made headlines internationally. OUR TAKE: The storyline is a nicely balanced mix of crime, action and drama that favourably recalls Mr. Robot. But Schweighöfer is clearly out of his acting wheelhouse, lacking the sense of realness and relatability needed to pull the character off. WHAT’S NEXT? A second season is in the works, which Schweighöfer promises will be “faster, more fascinating and more breathtaking”.
Image for Berlin for binge-watchers Deutschland 83: Cold War spy pop Premiered June 2015 on SundanceTV in the US, November 2015 on RTL in Germany; eight 45-minute episodes; English subtitles available THE PLOT: Young GDR citizen Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is chosen by the foreign intelligence service to be a spy in West Germany. Here, he is stationed as General Edel’s (Ulrich Noethen, Downfall) aide-de-camp and is tasked with collecting classified information about NATO operations, but continuously comes close to blowing his own cover as love affairs, a guilty conscience and a sick mother interfere with his mission. KEY FACTS: American writer and longtime Berlin expat Anna Winger penned the screenplay in English; her German husband Jörg, an executive producer at UFA Fiction in Babelsberg, translated it. A co-production between UFA Fiction, RTL and AMC, it had a budget of €1 million per episode and was the first original German-language series to air on US television. BERLIN LOCATIONS: Berlin mostly plays 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 reenacts the 1983 Carlos the Jackal Stasi-supported terrorist attack on the French cultural centre Maison de France. RECEPTION: Americans gobbled up the Wingers’ Cold War intrigue; the show scored a 2015 Peabody Award, a 2016 International Emmy and a stunning 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Reactions in Germany were chillier by comparison, with viewership dropping from 3.19 million to 1.63 million over the show’s run on RTL. OUR TAKE: Between the high-speed, Bournestyle editing and the 1980s pop soundtrack (Nena, Bowie, Springsteen, Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom”), it’s easy to see the international appeal. Germans might not be able to overlook the ludicrousness of the plot, in which Rauch repeatedly blows his own cover and the GDR intelligence is both wildly incompetent and paranoid beyond belief. But the script does a good job of supporting the strong actors, making Deutschland 83, if not a realistic spy drama, at least an entertaining one. WHAT’S NEXT? Second season Deutschland 86 premieres this year. The Wingers promise a globetrotting plot that takes Rauch to South Africa and back to Berlin, plus new characters like a closeted American GI played by Chris Veres. Rights for a third season, Deutschland 89, were picked up by Amazon last year.
4 Blocks: Sopranos on Sonnenallee Premiered May 2017 on TNT Germany; six hour-long episodes; German only THE PLOT: Lebanese 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. KEY FACTS: Production company Wiedmann & Berg, also responsible for Dark, scored financing from TNT and Berlin-Brandenburg’s Medienboard to the tune of €4 million. For authenticity, director Marvin Kren and his writing team (including Hanno Hackfort, Bob Konrad and Richard Kropf, who also wrote You Are Wanted) spent months talking to Neukölln’s real-life Arab gangsters after having the “door opened” for them by star Ramadan. BERLIN LOCATIONS: Kreuzberg’s Cafe Übersee was apparently the base of the production, but the bulk of the show is set on and around the Arab-dominated 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. RECEPTION: The German media loved it. Kino.de claimed it was “the best German television series of all time”; Die Zeit compared it to the series Gomorrah and Süddeutsche Zeitung proclaimed it “more enthralling than much else on television”. So basically, it’s amazing… for a German show. OUR TAKE: Neukölln expats will thrill to the depictions of thug life taking place around their favourite falafel joints and coffee shops – shame about the lack of English subs, but Mobile Kino has been known to hold subtitled screenings at Griessmühle. Non-Neuköllners won’t be quite as impressed, but might appreciate the talented actors, crisp dialogue and gorgeous cinematography. As a major television programme with principal roles played by what the AfD would consider “non-Germans”, it’s also politically relevant. Bonus points!  WHAT’S NEXT? Rumour has it that the second season will be released in May of this year, and may even include 10 episodes this time around. Dogs of Berlin What we know so far about Germany’s hyped second Netflix series. With 10 hour-long episodes set to hit the screen at an undisclosed date this year (some sources hint at a May 15 premiere), Dogs of Berlin is a crime drama in which two Berlin detectives investigate the death of a Turkish- German football star. Christian Alvert, director of Antibodies and Case 39 directed and co-produced the 10- part series, with principal actors Felix Kramer and Fahri Yardim (the former acted in three episodes of Dark, while the latter worked with Alvart on his upcoming film Steig.Nicht.Aus.). Neither Netflix or Syrreal would give us much info, but talk of neo-Nazis, treason and culture clashes between east and west Berlin has got expectations running high. The German media already seems poised to review this 4 Blocks competitor through the roof, while Netflix VP of International Original Series Erik Barmack said that he was “very happy to let the dogs off the leash with the start of production.” That’s a good sign, right? Like Dark, Dogs will have English subtitles, so stay tuned.