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Your winter of discontent: A German TV primer

In the dead of winter, Ben Knight and Jacinta Nandi delve into the wacky world of German TV for Exberliner magazine looking for enough entertainment to last until spring. Be warned: this journey gets weird fast.

Your winter of discontent: A German TV primer

Maybe you think you’ve integrated well in this country. You’ve been out and about, made some German friends, consumed your share of extra-mild curry. But for all your efforts to blend in and understand, the real window into the German soul has been under your nose all along. While you spent the summer sowing your wild Haferflocken, the neglected box standing dormant in the corner of your room has held the secrets safe. Now it’s January. You’ve already stopped going out. It’s time to hibernate, i.e. extract yourself from the expat bubble and switch on, shock-treating yourself to all the delirious fantasies German TV can dream up. EXBERLINER took the mind-clogging journey.

Saturday programming requires an especially salty, meaty pizza, because the TV will provide only sugary sustenance. It’s time for Fest der Volksmusik, a huge folk music party broadcast on primetime ARD. In line with Germany’s programming schedule, the show starts at 8:15pm, and seemingly lasts two geological eras.

It is relentless: one saccharine Bavarian melody after another is nailed into your head by a merciless four-by-four beat. In between, singer-presenter Florian Silbereisen, some kind of human-silicon hybrid, interviews special guest singers about how they should torture the viewer next – a cloying fairytale read by a venerable actor, for instance, or an excerpt from The Nutcracker rendered by a troupe of intensely smiley dancers.

Every once in a while, the show gets ‘edgier’ and presents, say, a pre-pubescent singing Prodigy in lederhosen. All this thrown against a backdrop of sets so gaudy they could cause cataracts. The show averages 7 million viewers (8 percent of the German population) and is an experience very similar to being hammered in the face by a pony with soft pink hooves.

After taking several barrages of oompah square in the face, you may want to switch over to the news channel N-TV for some light relief. As it is a weekend, there is no danger of finding any news here, much like on N-TV’s only rival N24. If you are used to the high-pitched astonishment pumped out continuously by Sky or CNN, you may be wondering what is going on.

Here in sober Germany, the 24-hour news-cycle has been reduced to a desultory ticker on N-TV and N24, running beneath extremely foolish time-filler documentaries, like The World Without Humans, which postulates what might happen in the aftermath of a total depopulation of the planet. The Fest der Volksmusik might lend just the right amount of apocalyptic foreboding to make the latter seem relevant. Sleep soundly.

TITTY TITTY BANG BANG

When you wake up, it’s time for Tatort (CrimeScene). Tatort is good. It’s not just a detective series, nor just a 40-year-old institution – it’s a tour of the dark heart of Germany. The geographical structure lures you in: each 90-minute episode is set in a different German city (and produced by the local state broadcaster), with different detectives.

What the various regional detectives have in common is they all have very boring personal problems which they insist on talking about when they should be cross-examining a local shopkeeper/nun/child or checking the corpse’s fingernails. In effect, you end up getting a regional tour of Germany’s psychological problems while, ironically, watching a local psychopath being hunted down.

By the time this has ended and you’re opening your third bag of Erdnussflips, the soft porn is just beginning on RTL2. If you’re like countless other expats who hail from parts of the world more steeped in Anglo-Saxon prudishness, you may be thrown back into those first throes of delight when you found out what happens on continental TV after a certain time. Some part of every Englishman still twitches whenever he sees a breast in an advert.

On German TV, the French or American films are punctuated by phone sex advertisements that run in mesmerizing 20-minute loops, which eventually morph into quizzes where topless women ask you extremely easy questions. Or something like that.

FRAU-BOTS IN STILETTOS

While you’re on the trashy end of the spectrum, dip into reality TV land. Of course, everyone knows that normal, non-clinically insane people don’t volunteer for reality TV shows anyway. If you actually want to be on reality TV, you should be automatically disqualified – you’re like those noblemen in ancient Rome who willingly became gladiators, or like the guy who agreed to get eaten by that cannibal.

The two worst reality TV shows are hosted by women who were probably sent from some diabolical, high-cheekboned Aryan planet. Yes, you guessed it: Heidi Klum and Katia Saalfrank. Heidi, the reptilian über-model who presents Germany’s Next Top Model on Pro 7, judges the vapid, kitten-heeled contestants with an icy dead gaze. As celebrated German feminist Alice Schwarzer put it: “With what coldness she despises those girls!”

“Hey, you,” says Heidi, while some 17-year-old changes into a sufficiently degrading bikini. “Do you know that the other girls think you’re going to be the next chucked off? What do you say to that?” And the unfathomably stupid 17-year-old girls – what do they say back? Well, they just simper and grimace a bit. They never ever say, “Fuck off, Heidi Klum, at least I’m not having consensual sex with fucking Seal, coz he’s about as talented as one of Phil Collins’ farts.” They don’t, but they should.

Still, at least Heidi’s not as bad as Katia of RTL’s Supernanny. We don’t mind getting child-rearing tips. But at least in the British version of Supernanny, the supernanny in question (Jo Frost) has the common decency to be slightly fat. In the German version, Saalfrank is a sort of judgemental stick insect, poking at parents with her antenna and long legs of disapproval.

The trouble with the reality TV format on shows like Supernanny and Frauentausch on RTL 2 is that Germany isn’t really a class-based society. So while on the British show Wife Swap they’ll pair up lower-middle-class socially mobile snobs with middle-middle-class vegans or upper-middle-class culture-vultures, in Germany the whole show functions by pairing up basically normal people with people who are, and we’re being generous here, seriously dysfunctional. There are aubergines more intelligent than some of the candidates on Frauentausch. Are we really meant to judge these people for not cleaning under their beds? We’re seriously impressed they’re still dressing themselves… half the time.

THOSE FUNNY GERMANS

While you’re in the depths of the private channels, you may stumble upon Mensch Markus on Sat.1. German sketch comedy is sometimes a bit strenuous, but it can be funny… if you are prepared to add your own punchlines. Sometimes you are just presented with an odd situation acted in an exaggerated style. Random sample from an episode of Mensch Markus: a man and a woman want to buy condoms from a chemist, the man asks for condoms, and then buys foot spray and other hygiene-based items. The woman gets in a taxi and drives away. That’s the joke. The whole joke.

But there is good German comedy – The Heute Show on ZDF with Oliver Welke, for example. It’s a very good Germanification of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. It is painstakingly similar, even down to the way it immediately becomes rubbish when Oliver/Jon turns to a fake comedy guest and conducts a weird interview-sketch.

STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE

Of course, ZDF also has – quite literally – a flagship: Das Traumschiff, a Love Boat-type show that involves every single famous German TV star ever. It’s set on a cruise ship, and each episode is filmed in a different exotic location. Two things have remained constant in its nearly 30-year history: an ethnic dancing display in the background and an absurdly privileged set of white people floating around the world having maritime melodramas. Since new episodes are now only produced once or twice a year, it has also become Germany’s finest event TV.

Another institution is the Munich-based Lindenstraße, on ARD: a much more prosaic, weekly soap, with the requisite attention to Social Issues, often involving some quite hilarious Bavarian-style violence.

So you’ve had your fill. You are drained, lacking vitamins and at risk of developing sofa-sores. The battery in your remote control has died, so you roll on to the floor and slowly edge towards the TV.

But you can’t quite reach and you find yourself unexpectedly comfortable on the hard floor. Luckily, Space Night is bridging the night-time gap on the Bavarian regional channel BR. It is endless unaltered footage of old NASA space programmes. This is lucky, because it doesn’t matter at what angle your head is, seeing as you are in zero gravity. So the release you have been praying for all weekend comes finally while you are literally staring into space.

PhotobucketCheck out Exberliner’s guide to German TV ‘Promis’ you should know.

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TV

Five of the best German historical dramas to binge watch right now 

What do you do when you're trying to immerse yourself in German history, but public life is shut down due to Covid-19? Find some binge-worthy historical dramas, writes Charlotte Hall.

Five of the best German historical dramas to binge watch right now 
A scene from the Barbarians. Photo: picture alliance/DPA/Netflix/Katalin Vermes

When I moved to Berlin for my year abroad, I was meant to immerse myself in the language, the culture, the history. I was ready to soak up that German influence like a sponge, and take it home with me to England to wring out during my final year of uni. All good, in theory. In practice: well, there was this little thing called Covid-19 that kind of got in the way a bit. 

Since almost everything was shut when I arrived in the German capital at the end of August last year, I needed to get my culture-fix elsewhere. Like many, during this pandemic, I turned to streaming sites. And for reasons I can’t quite explain myself, I found myself drawn to the plethora of historical dramas that German Netflix offers. 

READ ALSO: Ten top films and TV shows to discover Germany from your couch

Historical dramas are often denigrated and belittled. They are a notorious “trash” genre and while “historical” is in the name, “accuracy” is usually not the game.

However, in recent years, the rise of series like Chernobyl – and even Bridgerton – have proven the range and variety that can be found in this genre. Rather than the factual history, history dramas offer a distanced perspective of the anxieties and preoccupations of the present, as well as a tell-all insight into the cultural psyche of a country’s perception of its past.

This, at least, is how I rationalise my “Watch it again” list.

On that note, here are the five most bingeable and/or thought-provoking historical dramas in German right now: 

Die Barbaren (2020) 

In November, the first series of Die Barbaren was so successful that Netflix immediately announced that they are working on a second one. It’s easy to see why: the series’ aesthetics are very seductive, morphing modern beard-grooming with a rough-and-ready, fur-clad fantasy of the Germanic tribes. 

The plot is based (loosely) on the story of the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, when a group of Germanic tribes resisted annexation by the Roman Empire. It’s embellished with a neat check-list of Netflix must-haves: a dynamic love triangle, an outspoken female heroine, and plenty of Game of Thrones-style gratuitous violence and sex scenes. While this might not be what the critics would call “original”, it does make the series very bingeable. 

The story of the Teutoburg Forest is a surprisingly contentious topic in Germany. For a long time, the narrative had been co-opted by nationalists and far-right. Nolting, one of the writers of the series, said he intended to reclaim the narrative from “those forces we detest”.

In a sense, the aim of Die Barbaren is to spark a reconsideration of this part of history, instead of leaving it to stagnate in the realm of alt-right propaganda. 

Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer (2018) 

This recent addition to the Netflix inventory won the 2018 peace prize of German film, Die Brücke – and for good reason. Set in the DDR during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, it’s based on a true story and a book of the same title by Dietrich Garstka. 

READ ALSO: Why it’s time to binge Netflix’s successful German TV series

A group of students in the DDR illegally listen to West-Radio after catching wind of the Hungarian uprising. They hear of the many deaths that happened during the demonstration, including, so the report goes, the famous footballer Ferenc Puskàs – crucially, this later turns out to be untrue. Moved, the classmates decide to hold a moment of silence during class, an idea set in motion by the main character Kurt Wächter (Tom Gramenz). 

At school, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, the naive group find themselves under investigation by the Stasi. Pressured by all the adults surrounding them, they are given a choice: scapegoat Kurt Wächter as the ring-leader, or have their life-prospects ruined by being banned from taking their Abitur (A-levels/final exams). 

The film is a tense but heartening ode to the coming-of-age genre, and a beautifully shot piece to boot.  

Nirgendwo in Afrika (2001) 

Nirgendwo in Afrika approaches themes of culture-shock, colonial trauma and exile in a delicate and refreshingly nuanced way – especially for a film made two decades ago.

It’s 1933: we follow the Jewish family Redlich as they flee Nazi-Germany to settle on a farm in Kenya. While their little daughter Regina acclimatizes quickly to the pace of life in the Kenyan countryside, her parents must learn to let go of the German life, friends and identities they left behind them. Providing a unique perspective on the Jewish experience of the Nazi regime, this film is a fascinating and at times heart-breaking cultural panorama.  

The film also touches upon the parallels and differences between the loss of land and status experienced by native Kenyan tribes under British colonial rule and that of Jewish people under the Nazis. The comparison is implicit – and makes a very interesting historical angle. 

Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (2013)

 

Charlotte, Wilhelm, Greta, Viktor, Friedhelm: five friends, but with five very different experiences. It is Berlin in 1941: they gather, dance, drink and say goodbye. Brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm are being sent to the Eastern Front. But not to worry, the war will soon be over, and they’ll all see each other again at Christmas…

While the two brothers are quickly embroiled in the brutal and pointless war in Russia, Charlotte, a nurse, is following close behind and witnessing the horrors of the casualties at the mobile military hospital. Viktor, a Jewish tailor, tries to flee the country last-minute, and Greta, his lover, is soon tangled in a dangerous web with a married Nazi officer. Christmas in Berlin is looking increasingly unlikely. 

While it’s more revised history than history revision (critics have pointed out chronological inconsistencies), the series has some very powerful moments. It has been praised for its depictions of the bitter war on the Eastern Front. 

Charité (2017-2019) 

In the perfect union of medical and historical drama, this series explores the personal and political conflicts surrounding the Charité Teaching Hospital of Berlin. 

The first season brings together notable historical figures such as Rudolph Virchow, the father of pathology, Paul Ehrlich and Robert Koch, as well as the scientific whirlwinds they created in the 19th century. The second season shifts into the last year of the second-world war, dealing with the traumatised soldiers returning from the front, and the horrific treatment of children with disabilities under the Nazi regime. 

What should be a relatively dry, pseudo-medical period drama has been spun into an exhilarating, and at times thought-provoking, binge-worthy series.

This article was updated on March 15th.

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