The eternal question.
It’s one of those questions that never goes away, but it’s comforting to know you’re not the only one asking it. Germans have been fretting over it for years, the same way they fret about why there are no great German movies. In fact, the same way they fret about most things – nuclear power, data security, the black bits on burnt toast. But with TV, there’s a yearning in the air. Where is Germany’s Breaking Bad? Why does the hoary Tatort still represent the highest achievement for a German TV professional? Except for Alarm for Cobra 11 – the Motorway Police.
The question has become more urgent than ever because, as everyone knows, TV is the new film. The box-set – or the 10-hour Netflix stream – is where the serious dramatic action is nowadays, so they say, and that gets reflected in major film festival programmes. This year’s Berlinale includes cinematic screenings of eight major new TV series – including two from Germany – and yesterday there was an “industry debate” at the European Film Market on the country’s straining efforts.
The panel was full on – heavyweight producers Stefan Arndt, Oliver Berben, and Jan Mojto, the head of ZDF’s drama department, as well as Matthias Glasner, a movie director who has just developed, written, and directed his own five-part TV crime series Blochin – and each and every one of them insisted that we’d got it all wrong about German TV. And even if we might have a point, everything is changing now. There is a new dawn, a brave optimism, among German TV people. They pointed out that Germany is saddled with its own size – it’s all very well for anarchic little Denmark to take artistic risks, but in a country of three million, ratings of 500,000 are all you need. Germany is ruled by its mainstream. If you don’t buy that, said the ZDF lady, then what about the ARD and ZDF’s commitment to “education” (instilled, apparently, by a British army officer after WWII. “We have a very different tradition!” she cried, and claimed that ZDF, as a public broadcaster, had the advantage of not being a slave to ratings.
At this the audience, politely sceptical until now, began to get restless. Finally a woman got up and said, “But you are stuck on the ratings! Don’t tell us that you can take risks! You never take risks!” There was applause, and couple of peevish “Ja”s. This looked like trouble. It was up to Matthias Glasner to calm the mob – “I used to think like you,” he said. “But now is the moment things are changing.”
As if to prove his point, the first episode of his crime series was premiered today at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. It’s definitely a statement – a balls-to-the-wall play for The Wire or Homeland demographic. Glasner’s longtime collaborator Jürgen Vogel is Blochin, an ex-pimp turned cop who moves with increasing confusion between Berlin police headquarters and the world of petty crime, illegal immigrants, and murder in which he was born. At the same time, his nice middle class wife is developing multiple sclerosis and their nine-year-old daughter is struggling with her Spanish vocabulary. Blochin can’t quite handle all these troubles, and at one point decides to invite a former Spanish prostitute and lover to tutor his daughter. He’s clearly struggling. The show is full of things like lost children, affairs, blackmail, arrogant Feds taking over investigations from salt-of-the-earth local cops, oily politicians with spoilt, drug-addict daughters, world-weary police chiefs, and chirpy junior officers making sarcastic quips. In short, it’s everything you need in a TV cop series. It’ll be a hit – maybe it really is part of new dawn in German TV too. People here really want it to be.