How the 'Babylon Berlin' Team Broke the Rules to Make the World's Biggest Foreign-Language Series
"All of us had to shed our skins, to leave the old ways behind, to make this work," says veteran producer Stefan Arndt.
There were just a few weeks to go before the start of production on Babylon Berlin, the most ambitious German television series of all time, when Stefan Arndt lost his nerve.
Arndt, a veteran film producer (Run Lola Run, The White Ribbon) has spent years putting together what was his dream project: an epic television series set during the Weimar Republic, the chaotic 15-year era before the Third Reich. It was budgeted at $45 million for two, eight-episode seasons. No one had ever spent that much on a non-English-language TV show before. No one knew if it would work.
"It was just too big, too expensive," he recalls. "We were almost ready to start shooting and I thought, 'If we do it in German, it won't sell.' I panicked."
Arndt was meeting with his longtime partner, and co-owner of Berlin-based production company X Filme, the director Tom Tykwer, who had spent the previous three years developing and co-writing Babylon Berlin with fellow filmmakers Henk Handloegten and Achim von Borries. So when Arndt started to tell him a German series of this size was too risky, he cut him off.
"Tom just pushed his chair back from the table, stood up and said: 'OK then, I'm out. I won't do it unless we do it in German,'" says Arndt. "Of course, he was right."
That was back in 2016. This year, Babylon Berlin premiered on German television, on public broadcaster ARD, with 8.5 million tuning in, an average 24.5 percent market share, the best start for a series in Germany this year. The series had already broken viewership records on pay TV network Sky Deutschland, which co-financed the show. And on Netflix, where it premiered in the U.S. on Jan. 30, it was a critical hit.
"This German television series … is irresistible for many reasons, but one is the way it intersperses a macabre portrait of a doomed society with glints of its promise," noted a rave review from The New York Review of Books.
Based on the series of best-selling novels by German writer Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin is a Raymond Chandler-style noir crime story about a German detective, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and his irrepressible secretary, and co-conspirator, Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), who investigate the gritty underworld of late 1920s Berlin. But the real star of the series is the city itself — the German capital at the time was the world's most modern and progressive society but was threatened by an undercurrent of rising extremism and a world economy teetering on the brink.
Politics — both far right and far left — are waiting in the wings. In the city's jazz clubs, however, Berliners are living it up like there's no tomorrow.
Looking back, it's easy to see how a combination of sex, drugs and crime, mixed in with the mythology of swinging 1920s Berlin and a historic foreboding, would translate into a global hit. But sitting in his office in Berlin — with Tykwer on speakerphone from the season three set of the series (which will premiere in late 2019) — Arndt remembers how much Babylon Berlin broke with convention.
"You have to remember, this was before Netflix even arrived in Germany. That was still way off on the horizon," he recalls. "And the rules of German TV were very strict — it was still one story arc per episode — and you focus on your one hero. … But our story had 157 characters, all very specific, all very individual, and all with their own interacting stories."
The story of Babylon Berlin was actually too big — the initial shoot took six months, with 300 locations using 5,000 extras — for one German network to handle. So Arndt pitched it to two, convincing pay TV channel Sky Deutschland and public broadcaster ARD to cooperate on their first-ever co-production. Beta Film, a world sales group that had success selling foreign series, including Italy's Gomorrah and Grand Hotel from Spain (both on Netflix), came on board Babylon Berlin with a "very significant minimum guarantee to take worldwide rights," says Arndt.
"The biggest challenge, really, was convincing people here in Germany that German audiences were already watching shows like this, that they were ready for it," says Tykwer. "We have a very successful TV culture here focused on crime series — a hundred different variations, all very successful — so it looked like there was no need to change. But we noticed that people we knew were watching fewer and fewer German series because they wanted the long-arc storytelling, the immersive, novel-like stories, and German television wasn't making those shows. … We had to all shed our skins, leave the old ways behind, to make this work."
From the start, Arndt and Tykwer knew they didn't want to make a typical story about the years before 1933, when Adolf Hitler took power. "In most historic dramas, especially about this period, there's usually a sense of anticipation, as if the actors themselves somehow know what's coming," says Tykwer, "but at the time, people had no idea. Partly, they were naive [about Hitler], partly they lacked the historical perspective and partly they were just less reflective. Remember, this was before modern psychology, even the idea of repression, of the subconscious, was unknown."
The name "Hitler" is mentioned once in all 16 episodes of the show's first two seasons, and then in passing. The brown shirts don't make an appearance until close to the very end of season two. This is historically accurate. Berlin at the time was a bastion of left-wing politics. In the 1928 election, the Nazis got only 1.6 percent of the city's votes.
The parallels in the series to current political events — the American election of Donald J. Trump, Brexit and the return of far-right politics in the form of the Alternative for Germany party, elected to the Bundestag last year — weren't planned.
"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 1920s," says co-writer and co-director Henk Handloegten. "The world seemed to be catching up to our scripts."
By not only writing the scripts to Babylon Berlin with Borries and Handloegten, but by co-directing every episode together, Tykwer broke with the approach of nearly every TV series — not just in Europe but worldwide.
"Every single episode was shot by all three of us, together. That never happens, because usually it's one episode, one director," says Tykwer. "But we didn't shoot episodes; we shot locations. All the scenes in one location would be shot by a single director and then combined in the final edit."
Tykwer learned this collaborative technique while shooting the 2012 feature Cloud Atlas, which he co-directed with the Wachowskis. The approach is a cost-cutter — it makes the production more efficient — but Tykwer argues it also gave Babylon Berlin a unique edge.
"In many series, even very good series, there is often a certain directorial style, a way of setting up shots, of shooting scenes, that becomes established over time," he says. "And the audience begins to anticipate what's coming. There's something unpredictable about our show because, within every episode, you have three directors, three different ways of approaching things."
Babylon Berlin's directing trio have already begun shooting season three — ARD and Sky have commissioned a 12-episode season based on Kutcher's second Gereon Rath novel, Der stumme Tod (Silent Death). The plot takes Gereon and Charlotte into the nascent world of the film business. The German movie industry at the time — headquartered at Studio Babelsberg (where Babylon Berlin is shot) — rivaled Hollywood. But the introduction of sound in the late 1920s threatened the German industry.
"We're continuing with the plot lines of the first two seasons — the personal and the political," says Tykwer. "But to be able to take this story to Babelsberg at this pivotal time, at the transition between silent film and sound, is very important for me. Personally, it's the most interesting, and challenging, aspect of the new season."
Fans, however, will have to be patient. Tykwer, Borries and Handloegten aren't set to wrap Babylon Berlin season three until May of next year. And the first episodes won't hit screens until late 2019.