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Show of the week: Babylon Berlin

Germany is one of the more recent of the international markets to become a drama exporter, and the country’s biggest ever series (financially speaking) Babylon Berlin, looks set to continue putting the country on the scripted television map.

A 180-day shoot, mostly taking place in the titular German city, wrapped late last year, with the series bowing on pubcaster ARD and pay TV operator Sky Germany thanks to an innovative funding deal.

The story is based on the crime novel series by German bestselling novelist Volker Kutscher and combines fiction with the real history of the end of the roaring 1920s as the Nazi movement gained strength.

“It is the first large-scale series for German television from Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas),” says Moritz von Kruedener, managing director of series coproducer and distributor Beta Film. “He is working at eye level with the other two directors and showrunners: Henk Handloetgen and Achim von Borries.

“Of course, Tykwer comes from feature films and his cinematic roots are clearly visible in Babylon Berlin. What he and his team are doing here looks very much like grand cinema, with one big difference: you can tell the story in much more detail.”

The first trailer went down well at MIPCOM.

“From the start, it was designed to be a very unusual project, and it is still today,” von Kreudener says. “We are shooting 16 episodes at the same time – two seasons of eight episodes. The budget is very close to €2.5 million (US$2.6 million) per episode; that’s €40 million for the entire project.

“Financing was generated by German players, with two major broadcasters on board, ARD and Sky, and us a coproducer.”

It’s the first time that Beta Film has invested so heavily in a domestic coproduction, although Kruedener will not divulge the exact level of Beta’s investment.

“We committed ourselves because we believe in Tom Tykwer and his team of directors, Stefan Arndt from X-Films, and the German coproduction partners,” he says.

“With Babylon Berlin, we are entering new ground. Up until now, recoupment of such a large budget was only possible with English-language productions. Now, we are backing a German-language series, because we were convinced of the quality. Looking at the early footage proves us right.”

Shot in German, the partners expect it to have an impact on international markets. “We have already sold it to all major Scandinavian broadcasters,” says von Kreudener. “At the moment we are closing deals in almost all key international markets.”

The series’ budget and ambition puts it up at the highest end of international drama. “It’s the largest production office I’ve seen in my career, with huge numbers of props and costumes,” von Kreudener says. “It has a total of 250 speaking roles within 180 shooting days.

A commitment for 16 episodes at once is also something only global players like Netflix have done so far. The equipment available at Studio Babelsberg [in Potsdam, where the majority of footage was shot] is at the same level as of any US studio. The newly-built Berliner Strasse is one of the largest backlots in Europe.”

He adds that the on-location shooting was important and gives the show its unique look and feel, with Prague or Budapest often used as Berlin in TV and film.

“Most of the shooting was done in Berlin on location and at the Babelsberg Studio and approximately 30 shooting days were done in North Rhine-Westphalia in west Germany,” the Beta boss notes.

“When you look at the scenes already available, you see ‘Alexanderplatz’ really is Alexanderplatz – providing a high degree of authenticity, even for those who are not familiar with Berlin themselves.”

The show: Babylon Berlin
The producers: Beta Film, X-Films
The distributor: Beta Film
The broadcaster: ARD, Sky (Germany)
The concept: Mega-budget period thriller