It was almost exactly a year ago, in March 2020, at Studio Babelsberg Germany’s largest film studio, located just outside Berlin. The studio was prepped and ready to go on two major blockbusters: Warner Bros.’ Matrix 4, Lana Wachowski’s eagerly-awaited sequel to the sci-fi franchise, featuring several cast members from the original Matrix trilogy, including Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Jada Pinkett Smith alongside newcomers Priyanka Chopra, Neil Patrick Harris, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II; and Uncharted from Sony Pictures, a video-game adaptation starring Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, and Antonio Banderas. On the TV side, the fourth season of Babylon Berlin —a big-budget period drama set in the 1930s —was also in the starting blocks.
Then, overnight, Germany shut down. The rate of infection of what was then still being called the “novel” coronavirus began to spike. Film and television production in Berlin, went from 100 to zero.
“Everything stopped. We were stunned. Every production was put on hold, the international filmmakers who were here fled the country,” recalls Studio Babelsberg deputy chairman Christoph Fisser. “We were full, literally every square centimeter of the studio was filed and suddenly there was nobody there. And of course, no one knew how things could continue.”
A year on, Germany is still struggling with the pandemic. After initial success, the country was hit hard by a second wave of COVID-19 infections. The national lockdown, which had been loosened last summer, tightened again in November with new restrictions put in place.
Germany’s vaccine rollout has also lagged behind that of the U.S. and the U.K. As of April 29, according to official government figures, only 7.7 percent of the German population was fully vaccinated. That compares to 22 percent in the U.K. and 31 percent in the U.S., though is on par with vaccination levels in most western European countries.
But while the Berlin government has fallen behind, the city’s film and television producers have surged ahead. A year after Babelsberg shut up shop, things on the backlot are back to normal. In fact, they’re better than ever. Both Uncharted and Matrix 4 restarted and wrapped last year, with no interruptions and no additional shooting days. Babylon Berlin series four is currently shooting. Fisser is forecasting a full orders book this year, with “at least three big features and two big series for streaming services.” Although the studio never names, the news has leaked that Keanu is coming back to Berlin this summer to shoot the fourth film in the John Wick action franchise. On May 3, Netflix confirmed that 1899, the new mystery series from Dark creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, has begun shooting on the Babelsberg lot, at the studio’s new cutting edge virtual production studio.
Across the city, while restaurants and bars, cinemas, and concert halls remain closed, film and TV production is booming. You can’t walk two blocks in Berlin these days without stumbling over a film set.
“There’s never been so much in production as there is right now,” says Fisser. “It’s actually a challenge finding crews because everybody is working.”
“Last year, despite the first shutdown, we finished the year at 90 percent of our  pre-Corona budget,” says Nico Hofmann, CEO of German television giant UFA, a subsidiary of Fremantle. “At the moment, we’re at 100 percent!”
UFA was among the first production companies worldwide to restart production post-Corona, beginning with its serial dramas and daily soaps. Just a week after the country entered its first lockdown, UFA had the cameras rolling again on Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, Germany’s number one TV soap, which the company produces on the Babelsberg lot.
Hofmann and UFA have dozens of projects on the go now, including a new drama series, Sam, A Saxon, for Disney+, the period drama Ku’Damm ’63 for public broadcaster ZDF, and Faking H., a limited series about the true story of a man who forged, and successfully sold, a fake diary of Adolf Hitler, starring Lars Eidinger (Personal Shopper) and Moritz Bleibtreu (Woman in Gold) which UFA is producing for German streamer RTLNow.
“When it comes to fighting the pandemic, we have done a lot of things wrong in Germany,” Hofmann admits, “but when it comes to the film and TV industry here working under COVID conditions, we did a lot of things right.”
Hofmann credits Germany’s politicians, in particular Björn Böhning, state secretary at the federal ministry of labor and social affairs, and German labor minister Hubertus Heil, for being “incredibly quick and effective” in helping the local film and TV industries get back to work. Böhning, who spent years as the right-hand man to former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, has close ties to the city’s production companies. When the production alliance, a German association of film and television production companies called after the first lockdown with their strategy on how to reopen, he quickly set a meeting.
The result? The particular needs of the entertainment industry were taken into account as Germany’s shaped its pandemic response. Film and television companies got access to aid to keep out-of-work crews on the payroll, freelancers got assistance with rent and childcare payments. When private insurance companies refused to cover losses to COVID —a star getting sick, for example, or a lockdown measure shutting down a shoot— Germany’s state and federal governments stepped in to fill the gap, setting up two “default funds”—one for film and high-end TV, one for smaller productions, with a total volume of around $120 million — to cover a portion of the costs arising from interruptions or cancellations.
For all productions where the state is a majority investor —quite common for smaller German films and series backed by public broadcaster— producers can apply for compensation for up to 95 percent of the damage incurred, up to a maximum of €1.5 million ($1.8 million). Producers have a co-pay for any claim of 5 percent of the total recognized damages, with a minimum of €10,000 ($12,000). For international co-productions where the German financing share is less than 50 percent, German producers can claim COVID-19 damages up to a maximum of the percentage of the German financing share.
The German system has its flaws. The national default fund was designed primarily to help smaller companies and productions —those deemed most at risk in the coronavirus crisis. It does little to cover the risk of bigger-budget films and series.
“The €1.5 million cap would have been a fraction of the budget of our film, of what we would have lost if we’d had to stop production,” says Jonas Dornbach of Berlin-based producers Komplizen Film, speaking of Spencer, Pablo Larrain’s Lady Di biopic starring Kristen Stewart, which the company recently finished shooting. The project was well-received and pre-sold to much of the world at last year’s virtual Cannes market, with Neon taking U.S. rights, but without proper insurance coverage, Dornbach says it was “a major challenge” to complete bridge financing to bankroll the shoot.
Komplizen also faced the challenge of moving cast, crew, and equipment across multiple borders, bringing in Larrain and his team from Chile and the United States, co-stars such as Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall from the U.K., and cinematographer Claire Mathon from France.
“It was an unbelievable logistical effort and a big challenge for the cast, some of whom spent six weeks here for three shooting days,” says Dornbach. “One cast member, who plays a servant, said two lines in one scene then had to wait five weeks for two more lines in his final scene.”
That the Spencer crew was able to travel at all is done to the German authorities, who agreed to categorize the film team as “essential workers” and give them passage over the border, otherwise shut down for most travel.
When Lisa Blumenberg of Letterbox Filmproduktion needed special approval for actor Dan Stevens to travel from Los Angeles to Berlin for the shoot of Maria Schrader’s sci-fi rom-com I Am Your Man, she asked the German interior ministry to intervene.
“This was last July when L.A. was a hot spot. Nobody was allowed to fly out. But there were some grey areas,” says Blumenberg.
Letterbox shot the entire film —in which Stevens plays a lifelike love robot programmed to be the perfect partner for a romantically-skeptical German scientist, played by Maren Eggert—on location in Berlin with a few exteriors in Denmark. I Am Your Man opens with a scene that seems to come from a lost era: Eggert and Stevens meet for their first date in a packed, 1920s-style dance club.
“We had some 80 extras for that scene, everyone dancing, flirting, and kissing each other. With no masks or social distancing allowed in front of the camera. Then the crew of at least 30 people. Plus the actors. All in that tiny space,” notes Blumenberg. “But we did it, under strict Corona conditions.”
The I Am Your Man producers cast real couples for the dance scene, to keep the number of “households” and possible infection risks, at a minimum.
“We were one of the first films to shoot in German post-COVID, there was nothing to work with—no masks, no tests, and very little information,” Blumenberg says. “But over the past year, the entire production industry has built up a huge body of information. We now have a 40-page catalog of regulations and protocols. It’s an established routine.”
Michael Polle, head of television production at Berlin-based X-Filme, had three series on the go when COVID hit. He was able to test-drive new safety protocols on smaller productions before scaling up to bigger projects, including the German-Norwegian crime drama Furia, produced with Scandinavia’s Monster Scripted, and the new season of Babylon Berlin.
New safety measures cost money. And time. Hofmann at UFA estimates COVID regulations add “10, 15, even 20 percent” to the budget of a drama series. For a big feature film, under the best-case scenario, says Fisser of Studio Babelsberg, COVID adds an additional 5 percent to your costs. “If everything goes according to plan [and] there are no interruptions,” he notes.
Here too, German companies have gotten help, with local broadcasters, and state subsidy bodies, stepping in to shoulder some of the extra cost.
“That’s the good news, that our partners, the networks, the funding bodies, came in very early to accept this extra expense,” says X-Filme’s Polle. “But it’s still a lot more money we have to spend. And refinancing each new project is a challenge.”
Cross-border co-productions —like Furia or Spencer—remain particularly difficult as costs incurred outside of Germany are not covered by the country’s default fund.
But Berlin’s producers aren’t complaining.
“I can’t say anything negative about German policymakers when it comes to our business,” says Hofmann. “I’m on the board at Fremantle, so I have an overview of production around Europe. And I can say Germany is in an absolute privileged position. No other country has such stable, clear regulations, and in no other country did production restart so quickly and has continued without interruption. In France, the situation is again really dire. Even in England, they had a complete lockdown and some productions had to stop for months.”
Hofmann partly credits this “German stability” for the current boom in visiting productions to the German capital.
“Particularly the Americans are coming over to shoot here because they know they can work, and their investment is covered [by the default fund].” Berlin’s producers think what’s worked for the city’s film and television sector could be applied to the rest of the city’s cultural sector. If the government gives theaters, cinemas, and clubs the chance to re-open.
“The cinemas, the theaters, everyone has a concept of how to get back to work [safely] right now, but they’re not able to use it,” notes Polle.
New coronavirus pandemic restrictions set out by the German government could actually make things harder for most of Berlin’s cultural industries. Clubs, concert halls, theaters, and cinemas, not to mention restaurants and bars, remain shut with no clear sign as to when they can re-open. The Berlin Film Festival has said it may have to cancel its planned in-person event this summer after the city tightened rules for public gatherings. It will be a while yet before fans will be able to enjoy Berlin’s legendary nightlife. But for the city’s film and TV industry, the party is just getting started.