'Babylon Berlin': How the German Series Could Change High-End TV

Babylon Berlin
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"It feels like we’re living in a pre-war period," says Henk Handloegten, director of the ambitious drama that offers a timely look at pre-WWII Germany.

Is the world ready for Babylon Berlin?

The German TV series, a crime drama set in pre-World War II Berlin, is crazily ambitious. With a reported budget of $45 million, the period epic, co-written and co-directed by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries and Henk Handloegten, can lay claim to being the most expensive non-English language series ever made. If it works, it could change how Europe makes TV.

“It’s never been done before,” says producer Jan Mojto, whose Beta Film is co-financing Babylon Berlin with German public network ARD and pay TV group Sky and is selling the series worldwide. “This is new model for creating television ... but it’s the only model — because mediocrity, ordinary fare, has no chance in the marketplace.”

Babylon Berlin certainly is not ordinary. Based on a series of novels by German writer Volker Kutscher, the Raymond Chandleresque crime story — about a German detective, Gereon Rath (played by Volker Bruch), sent to Berlin to investigate a porn ring run by the Russian mafia — is set against the social and political upheaval of Germany in 1929, when the world’s most modern and progressive society is threatened by rising right-wing extremism and a world economy teetering on the brink.

“The trick is to try to create the sense that the people at the time don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Tykwer. “No one in 1929 could have imagined what would become of Germany.”

The parallels to the modern world — the financial crisis and the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing parties across Europe — are obvious but, according to the directors, completely accidental.

“We started to work on the series in 2013 and the longer we worked, the more the world of today started to resemble the end of the 1920,” says Handloegten. “We had the parallel already between the financial crash of the 1929 and the crash of 2008-2009. Then their was the Euro crisis. And the rise in populism, the call for simple solutions and for a strong man to take charge. The world seemed to be catching up to our scripts.”

The rise of the Nazis, and the devastation of WWII and the Holocaust, have been widely depicted in film and TV. Rarely seen is the period just before, when democracy — in the form of the idealistic, if flawed, Weimar Republic — was still fresh in Germany and the country was in the midst of a cultural, political and social revolution.

“The 1920s was a crazy time, society wasn't fixed, conservative and cautious but experimental,” says von Borries. “Berlin was a international, cosmopolitan capital, attracting young people and artists from around the world, much like it is again today. They all came together on Berlin's streets: communists, Nazis, feminists, homosexuals.”

That wild mix of the modern and the new is the backdrop for Babylon Berlin, which, according to Tykwer, used the plot of Kutscher's novels “as a jumping-off point” to explore the world of 1920s Berlin.

All three directors make a link between that world and their experience of Berlin in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It felt like the patriarchy had fallen away, like Dad's gone and the son can party,” says Handloegten. “That was the '90s and, I imagine, that was the '20s as well. For women, for outsiders, it was a time they could express themselves. Emancipation, gay culture, artists of all kinds, flourished.”

Making such an ambitious series in Germany — the directors had a full 180 shoot, often working with two or three units in parallel — would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. Marcus Ammon, the Sky Deutschland executive in charge of original production, admitted when he first heard of the project, he knew it would be too big for any one German channel to handle.

“You knew, just from the vision that Tom had, that it was going to be very, very expensive,” Ammon says. “We couldn't have afforded it on our own.”

What made Babylon Berlin possible was a one-of-a-kind partnership between Sky, German public broadcaster ARD and producer/sales agent Beta Film, whose credits include German miniseries Generation War and hit Italian mafia drama Gomorrah. They greenlighted a two-season, 16-episode order of the show.

“This had never been done before — a German TV series with this sort of budget, and a 16-episode order,” says Beta Film's Mojto. “It was the change in the international market that made it possible and the decision by ARD in particular, as well as Sky, to take the risk.”

The change in the market that Mojto mentions was the rise of Netflix and the boom in high-end TV series. Binge-watching viewers across the world had gotten used to TV made on a feature-film budget. Ordinary European series, made for a fraction of the budget of a big U.S. show, were finding it harder to compete. What audiences, and channels, worldwide wanted was bigger, more ambitious shows that stood out from the pack. For European producers, that meant cooperation was essential. Channels in different countries — or different outlets in one country — would have to pool their resources.

The Young Pope, the papal drama series from Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino starring Jude Law as the first American pontiff, is an example of this kind of economic collaboration. The show was bankrolled by HBO, Sky Italia and France's CanalPlus. Such cross-border teamwork has become commonplace in international TV.

But Babylon Berlin is the first non-English language series to attempt to use this model on such a scale. The collaboration between Germany's leading pay-TV channel, Sky, and its biggest public broadcaster, ARD, is also unique. The two have agreed to a staggered release of the show. Sky will debut Babylon Berlin on Oct. 13 this year exclusively on its pay-TV platform in Germany. ARD will wait a year before premiering the first season on free TV.

“If it works, it could be a model for the future,” says Ammon. “It definitely allows us to do projects we'd be hard-pressed to do alone.”

Sky's U.K. and Italian channels have also snatched up Babylon Berlin, and Beta on Wednesday announced they have already sold the series across much of Europe, including to public broadcasters SVT in Sweden, DR in Denmark and NRK in Norway. Spain's Moviestar+/Telefonica pay-TV platform and Belgium's Telenet have also grabbed local rights for Babylon Berlin. A U.S. deal is expected soon.

“Anticipation is incredibly high for this series,” admits Mojto. “But I think the results will exceed the expectations.”