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CULTURE

Why ‘made in Germany’ TV has captured the imagination of the world

From Babylon Berlin to 4 Blocks, series made in Germany are enjoying a moment in the spotlight. We analyze why German TV is sexy right now and ask if its popularity can continue.

Why 'made in Germany' TV has captured the imagination of the world
Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), star of ARD's Babylon Berlin.Photo: Frederic Batier/X Filme Creative Pool Entertainment/Degeto Film/Beta Film/Sky/dpa

At a recent family reunion I was surprised at one of the first topics my uncle, who lives in Australia, wanted to talk about. “Have you seen Babylon Berlin?” he asked, ready to discuss what he called his favourite TV show of the year so far.

It’s not unusual for my family to discuss TV, but I hadn’t quite realized the global appeal of this period drama set in the Weimar Republic between two world wars until that moment.

When it comes to movies, Germany has excelled over the years throughout the world, with films like Stasi thriller The Lives of Others to comedy Goodbye, Lenin! or Christiane F., which featured David Bowie.

But on the small screen, the country has failed to make waves on the world stage.

That’s changed. Today Germany is sexy and being watched by viewers all over the world – even by my family in Oz. It’s down to a slew of popular shows such as Babylon Berlin, Dark, Bad Banks, 4 Blocks and the Deutschland 83 series, which have captured the imaginations of a global audience.

But why is ‘made in Germany’ so desirable now and is the change as sudden as it seems?

Yes, according to Torsten Zarges, a senior reporter at German publication DWDL, which specializes in TV and media.

“First of all it’s important to state it’s a very new and recent development,” he says.

“To us here in the German market it still feels very special. For decades it was the other way 'round: we ordered lots of British and American series and the German market was very self sufficient. There wasn’t much stuff that was interesting to outside buyers.”

The way we watch TV has changed

The change could be boiled down to several things: one of them is that the landscape of TV has changed entirely in recent years, providing demand and therefore a boost to the industry.

“The main reason is probably the development driven by the likes of Netflix and Amazon,” says Zarges, referring to the popularity of so-called pay-TV providers. “There are so many more platforms that need good content.”

Zarges says creatives in Germany were previously limited to ideas that could only work on mainstream television channels but they were now “able to think outside the box”.

So those unconventional ideas that might not have been in demand before now have a time to shine.

Why Germany?

It’s evident that writers and producers have benefited in many ways from technology that allows more people to consume TV shows, but what isn’t so clear is why this has sparked a particularly interest in Germany.

Of course it must be partly down to excellent storylines, slick sets and in-depth characters, if a programme doesn’t have that it won’t be watched. But is there something more?

Hanno Hochmuth, of the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung/ZZF) says the German public has become fascinated by slow-burn US series like Mad Men, Fargo or Homeland – and producers here are now trying their own versions of it.

“It was kind of logical and natural that German producers started to produce these series and to copy this kind of storytelling,” says Hochmuth, who also teaches at the Free University.

But the difference is, he says, that German content is added to these storytelling models.

German stereotypes

When I was growing up in the UK in the 1990s, German characters were featured in TV shows but it seemed to be only connected to Hitler or the war in general.

The characters were stereotypically stern with strong German accents and usually the butt of jokes, such as in Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers or Monty Python.

“There are certain types of German history that have always interested people, even internationally – everything with regards to Hitler, Nazis, Second World War,” says Zarges.

SEE ALSO: A laughing matter – looking beyond the stereotype of the serious German

He adds that this historical period has “always had a hit potential” and why you’ll find a lot of films and TV series on this time period “even without Germans’ cooperation”.

Hochmuth says there’s a been a general interest globally in looking at the past from a cultural perspective since the 1970s, and Germany’s unique history and place in the world is extremely interesting, from a TV viewpoint.

“The appeal of historical series and movies is ongoing and ever-growing,” he adds.

What’s the secret?

Let’s go back to Babylon Berlin: the 16-part TV series aired in Germany on Sky last year, but it’s currently being shown again on public TV (ARD) and is pulling in large audiences of around 8 million viewers.

With it’s big budget and complicated storylines, “it’s a little bit like other Netflix series,” says Hochmuth, who is a historical adviser for the show. But he adds:“The producers didn’t know if the German public would accept this kind of storytelling.”

It’s true that Deutschland 83, the American/German series based on the Cold War initially didn’t take off in Germany, but was a hit elsewhere in the world.

“Many people thought this failure could result in producers not doing this kind of series again,” says Hochmuth.

The risk has paid off.

Hochmuth says the show looks at German history in a new light by honing in on the Weimar Republic – and the marketing has been good: “You can’t escape Babylon Berlin,” he says.

The show has also been sold to 60 countries worldwide, indicating the wider interest in Germany’s history and culture.

For Hochmuth, the appeal of Berlin as a party hotspot past and present has been a key component of the series global success.

“Today Berlin is depicted as a party city and in a way Babylon Berlin pre-dates this, it’s the golden twenties.”

He also adds that had the show been named something different – The Crisis of Weimar Republic for example – “it wouldn’t be half as successful as it is”.

“Berlin’s got a very big appeal to international tourists and it’s marketing and exploiting Berlin as a global benchmark,” he says.

Zarges adds that the new breed of German shows also appeal to a wider demographic.

“Now there is reason to dare to deliver those things and reach out, not only to German broadcasters, but international platforms and to tell stories that, let’s say, specifically younger audiences globally like to watch,” adds Zarges.

More than history

The past is still in vogue and topics about the war haven’t completely disappeared. But successful German stories don’t even need to have a historical angle anymore.

This is evident when you look at Dark, the first original German Netflix production. Set in a small German town located next to a power plant, it has echoes of the supernatural-focused Stranger Things and the OA, as well having that moody Nordic noir feel.

Notably, there’s no mention of the war or history (although there is a touch of time travel).

“Sure there are interesting periods in German history but, personally, I think the series that are even better and more interesting are set in today’s world,” says Zarges.

He says Bad Banks is another good example of German TV climbing out of its comfort zone. The financial thriller, told from the perspective of a woman who becomes an investment banker in Frankfurt, was produced for ZDF and has been successfully sold to several countries.

“It’s not something you would have expected from Germany,” says Zarges, who adds: “I would say personally it’s the best German series of 2018 so far.”

The power of great stories can’t be underestimated – and that requires a lot of work and research, something that’s happened in Bad Banks.

Digging deeper, perhaps the striving to be prepared, that's arguably part of the German psyche, lends itself well to these kinds of binge-worthy series.

Similarly 4 Blocks, a gangster thriller set in Berlin-Neukölln, has been lauded for its true-to-life depiction of the gang scene in the German capital.The TNT Series Original show has been snapped up by Amazon Prime and is now available worldwide.

“It’s a German thing to always dig deep, try to be very prepared, try to be efficient,” says Zarges. “So this kind of (thriller) genre that’s not new to international audiences is rather new to German creators.

“That’s why they want to do a very good job, that’s why they prepare with a lot of research,” he says. “That’s what maybe pays off in the end.”

There’s a host of new German shows that will likely light up the world TV stage. Among them are Deutschland 86, the sequel to Deutschland 83, and Dogs of Berlin, a gritty drama about the German capital's underworld. 

Can it continue?

Zarges believes there’s “still a lot of potential for German stories and series” but that money issues could get in the way.

“It’s economically very difficult to produce high end quality drama in Germany because you have to pay relatively high wages to everyone involved,” he says.

Production companies who want to cut costs could move to sites where wages are lower – such as the Czech Republic.

“It’s kind of a sad thing if that happens, says Zarges. “There’s a lot of discussion now on how we can improve the situation.”

Let’s hope for all our sake – including my uncle in Australia who’s looking for a new TV series to watch after Babylon Berlin – that Germany can continue to remain a star on small screen. 

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OPINION & ANALYISIS

What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”

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