Cyber Crime Thriller 'Hackerville' Marks New Direction in European TV

Hackerville Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Bogdan Comanescu

HBO Europe and Germany channel TNT Serie teamed up for the series, which follows German police investigating a community of professional hackers in Romania.

The sun is just beginning to slip behind the horizon and a golden light streams in from all sides of the glass-encased office building up top one of the bank towers that dominate the Frankfurt skyline. The office is bustling, but not with bankers, suits and hedge-fund managers. Instead a motley group of gaffers, second-unit crews, sound technicians and the occasional actor mull about.

German star Ronald Zehrfeld, his husky frame straining against the confines of a well-tailored suit, paces back and forth, taking an occasional vape from an e-cigarette, waiting for his cue. As the crew set up, director Anca Miruna Lazarescu, slips back and forth between German — instructing Zehrfeld and co-star Nina Kunzendorf on their upcoming scene — and Romanian, in what seems like playful asides to the technicians.

It's the final few days shooting for Hackerville, a new series from HBO Europe and German pay TV channel TNT Serie. The team has spent the last few weeks hustling back and forth between Frankfurt and Lazarescu's hometown of Timisoara, Romania in a rush to finish the crime drama in which a German detectives is sent to investigate a gang of Romanian cyber criminals behind a hacking attack on a major German bank. The storyline was inspired by communities of real-life Romanian hackers, many of whom come from small, isolated communities within the former communist state.

The series — co-created by Joerg Winger and Ralph Martin, who worked together on Amazon Prime's Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86 — was originally planned as an English-language show. “A few years back, a high-end German drama was a tough sell, says Winger. But when he pitched the project to Jonathan Young at HBO Europe, Young convinced him to repackage Hackerville as a German-Romanian series, putting particular focus on the journey of young German-Romanian cop Lisa Metz (Anna Schumacher) forced to confront her own family history when she travels back to Romanian to investigate the cyber attack.

“The idea of the hacking, and how these major attacks from these small isolated communities was interesting, but what really fascinated me was the personal journey of this woman,” says Antony Root, executive vp original programming and production at HBO Europe. “It's both a action/crime tale that also is a humorous, fish-out-of-water story at the same time.”

Lisa Metz's personal journey — back to the Romanian village her family emigrated to Germany from — is mirrored in that of actress Schumacher and director Lazarescu, both of whom grew up in Romania, as part of the country's German-language minority community, before coming with their families to Germany.

“It was the first time I was back in Timisoara in 16 years, since we came here (to Germany),” says Lazarescu, about shooting Hackerville in Romania. “I grew up there but we all went to the German school — learning to recite Goethe and Schiller. Then we came to Germany, and having a Gameboy was more important than being able to quote Faust.”

“Before we went, I thought: 'I'm going home' I always felt sooo Romanian,” says Schumacher, who emigrated to Germany when she was 9. “A few days in and I felt 'oh, I'm sooo German.' It went back and forth. Now I've decided, I'm the perfect mix.”

For Winger, Hackerville is an opportunity to shine a light on a forgotten piece of European history. “The German-Romanians are almost an invisible group,” he says, “I remember in West Germany in the 80s, when (Romanian dictator) Ceausescu allowed families to emigrate and suddenly there were these new kids in school, who spoke this oddly-accented German, but the community has been almost invisible, at least in popular culture.”

Hackerville is HBO Europe's first-ever co-production, with TNT Serie, like HBO a Time Warner subsidiary, also on board. “There wasn't a pressing financial need to do a co-production but it made editorial sense to have a German partner who could bring authenticity to the project,” says Root.

When it comes to European series, HBO Europe has plenty of local cred of its own, with acclaimed and award-winning shows including Romanian gangster drama Umbra, Polish police thriller The Pack and Czech social drama Wasteland. Hackerville, Root notes, is “lighter and more accessible” than much of its eastern Europe output to date, part of a move by HBO Europe to broaden its programming beyond the dark and dreary. The company recently greenlit the Swedish dramedy Gosta from director Lukas Moodysson (Together) and has had success with local-language comedies including the Hungarian and Czech versions of rom-com Shall We Kiss. It's also expanded well beyond Eastern Europe, with operations in Scandinavia and Spain. Just this week, HBO Europe ordered Patria, its first-ever Spanish-language series.

All of the company's originals now go out day-and-date across HBO Europe's territories and often on HBO Go in the U.S. But the main market, Root says, is still local.

“It's highly desirable that these series play outside their home territories but the goal is always, first to make a series that plays in the local territory. For Hackerville, the Romanian audience should see this series as Romanian and recognize Lisa Metz as one of their own, at least partially. For the German audience it's about watching someone from their world — Frankfurt — travel into a completely different world, Romania.”

Turner International, which is selling Hackerville worldwide, is also hoping the series can tap into the global appetite for foreign-language drama evidenced at this year's Mipcom in Cannes. The Italian period drama My Brilliant Friend, the first-ever foreign-language series from HBO's U.S. network, sold to more than 56 territories ahead of its global bow.

“People are definitely interested in non-English shows now,” says Winger. “You can pitch a German show in L.A. and people listen. That wasn't the case five years ago.”

Hackerville will premiere day-and-date Nov. 4 across HBO Europe services in Central Europe, Scandinavia and Spain, as well as on HBO’s U.S. platforms HBO Go, HBO Now and HBO On Demand. TNT Serie will bow the series in Germany, Austria and Switzerland on Nov. 8.