The new TV series “Babylon Berlin” and “4 Blocks” might seem a bit of a gamble, plot-wise. Both depart from the proven formula of telling stories about the Nazis or East Germany’s secret police, which continue to attract viewers around the world. But if the number of international distributors snapping up the viewing rights means anything, the productions have the potential of becoming global TV blockbusters. Their draw? Berlin and its seamy, sleazy, scheming underworld.
“Babylon Berlin” is a 16-part, two-season criminal series dedicated to the extolled lifestyle of Berlin in the roaring 1920s, when the German capital was dubbed the most modern city in the world. It features all the excesses of the Weimar Republic: bitter poverty and glamorous wealth, crime and corruption, sex and decadence. With a budget of €40 million ($46 million), it is believed to be the most expensive non-English drama series ever produced in Europe — it’s certainly the costliest TV series ever filmed in Germany. Footing the bill are Germany’s ARD Degeto, X-Filme, Beta Film and Sky Deutschland.
The series, which began airing on the pay-TV channel Sky last month, has been sold to 60 countries: Netflix has snapped the rights to stream it in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Filmed over 180 days, the two seasons were shot simultaneously in 300 different locations in Berlin and nearby Babelsberg Studios, where an entirely new historic backdrop was built with backyards, alleys, shops and clubs. (More than 500 tons of steel were needed for those sets.) About 5,000 extras were employed, and more than 300 speaking roles were assigned. Critics say “Babylon Berlin,” made with a foreign audience in mind, could be a game changer for TV productions made in Germany, competing with hit US series like “Homeland” and “House of Cards.”
Fast-forward to Berlin today: “4 Blocks” is a six-part drama series about an Arabic drug-dealing gang that roams the streets in the city’s edgy, multicultulral Neukölln district. The series depicts a fictionalized version of the real world of the many shisha bars, tea cafes and döner restaurants in a four-block area around the Sonnenallee thoroughfare, using stories of current and former gang members to add authenticity. Even if it’s getting harder today to imagine Neukölln as gang territory, with all the hipsters, cocktail bars and boutiques moving in, it still is. The neighborhood’s extended organized crime families, rooted in the Kurdish-Lebanese immigration wave of the 1970s and 1980s, are alive and thriving, as the headlines of Berlin newspapers regularly attest. With its shocking images against a background of German-Arabic slang and hip-hop music, “4 Blocks” gets you about as close to the Neukölln gangster scene as you ever want to be.
This is the first series that Ted Turner’s premium TNT Serie channel has almost solely financed and self-distributed internationally. It became available last month on Amazon Prime Video in more than 150 countries, including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
What both series have in common besides Berlin are the parallels they show to modern-day Germany. “Babylon Berlin” is set against the social and political upheaval of 1929 when one of the world’s most progressive societies faced the threat of escalating right-wing extremism and a world economy about to tank. Today, the capital is once again international and cosmopolitan. The hippest city in Europe is clearly enjoying its moment in the sun, attracting young people and artists from around the world. Yet there is plenty of unrest, too. Rents and property prices are skyrocketing and the disparities between rich and poor are growing. There is deep concern about the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, a troubled euro zone and a heated global economy.
The “4 Blocks” series is set against the social and political upheaval of Germany in 2017. The country is struggling to cope with the massive influx of 1.6 million refugees over the past three years, and with a rising numbers of prostitutes and homeless people, brutal attacks and burglaries, understaffed police and a general mood of uncertainty, which has fueled support for the anti-immigrant AfD. Smack dab in the middle of it all is Neukölln.
The Berlin gangster show may remind viewers of the popular former American HBO series “The Sopranos,” depicting life inside an organized crime family in New Jersey. Actor Kida Khodr Ramadan, originally from Lebanon, plays the main character Ali “Toni” Hamaday, who wants to turn away from crime but who is pulled back in again when his brother-in-law is arrested. He owes it to his family to take over leadership of the clan, ditching his plans for a lawful future. “Our main actor, Kida Ramandan, was a gift for the series because he grew up as a Libyan immigrant in the area,” producer Quirin Berg told Die Zeit, a sister publication to Handelsblatt. “He opened the door for us. We could speak with many people in Neukölln, hear their stories and check out many sites. It was the key to the tonality of the series.”
For sure, while the structures of a tightly run family mob business like the one in Neukölln may be similar the world over, it is the Berlin tonality that makes the series authentic and entertaining — no stiff German realism or humorless German jokes, just plenty of clan talk, which is mostly rough and tough, sometimes amusing, but never boring.
Nor is there a dull moment in “Babylon Berlin,” depicting a melting pot of immigrants, workers, artists and criminals and the vibrant metropolis where shops and bars stayed open around the clock. Loosely based on the bestselling detective novels of German author Volker Kutscher, the series tells the tale of Gereon Rath, a young detective from Cologne ordered to Berlin on a secret mission. At first shocked by the city, he is soon infected by its pulsating energy, fascinated by the nightlife, clubs and shows. Throughout the series, he moves through a jungle of corruption, prostitution, weapons and drugs.
Amphetamines, to be precise, are what Tom Tykwer, who co-wrote and co-directed the show, plans to explore in the third season. This period of German history, he told the Hollywood Reporter, was marked by lavish drug use. “We’re going to dig deeper into that subject in the upcoming seasons,” he confirmed. “There will be more (seasons); this story can continue for a long time.”
“Babylon Berlin” and “4 Blocks” are two series that promise to be as addictive as the city they depict.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: email@example.com