Ten Must-See Series From Berlin
Did you know The Queen’s Gambit was filmed in Berlin? Here are some of the best mini-series set or shot in Berlin.
You may be surprised how often Berlin is involved in big international film productions. For instance, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, and some of the Avengers know Berlin well, as do Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hanks, and Cate Blanchett. Today, let’s zoom in on some of the best series and mini-series made in Berlin.
Ten Series You Should Know
These shows are all so different, we declined to rank them. So here they are in alphabetical order.
1. 4 Blocks
British comedian Ricky Gervais is also a self-confessed fan of this landmark series (his tweet led to actor Kida Ramadan and Gervais' collaboration for the Sky series “German Genius”). 4 Blocks was to German TV what The Wire was to broadcasting in the US. It’s a very urban, very tough parallel story of a criminal clan pitted against the police. The storytelling takes its time and the characters seriously, with no cardboard cutout stereotypes or simple solutions per episode. The writers and directors researched the mafia-style activities with a considerable degree of cooperation from real clan families in Neukoelln, creating an unprecedented sense of authenticity. For the most part, original settings in the neighborhoods of Neukoelln and Kreuzberg were used as filming locations, such as the High-Deck development, the Sonnenallee, Kottbusser Tor, or Görlitzer Park. Three seasons were produced. Look for 4 Blocks on iTunes or Amazon Prime.
2. Babylon Berlin
The roaring twenties, the time of the Weimar Republic, a golden age in Berlin, is the setting of the most expensive TV series made in Germany to date. The period provides plenty of material – an urban jungle of drugs, murder and art, emancipation and extremism, political power and machinations, frustrated workers, and an underlying sense of fear since we know what happened to the whole fragile system. Based on crime novels by Volker Kutscher, the series goes more for dramatic effect than historical accuracy. A whole “new Berlin street” and 8000 square meters of outdoor locations were created in the backlot of Studio Babelsberg, though some real places around Berlin and Brandenburg were used too. Rbb put together a map of shooting locations. Four seasons have been produced so far. Look for Babylon Berlin on Sky, HBO, or Prime.
3. Bad Banks (2nd season)
Who would have thought that investment banking could be so entertaining? The European “cultural” channel arte, who broadcast in French and German, co-produced this series, which is set in Luxembourg, Leipzig, Frankfurt, and especially in the second season, Berlin. Here, heroine Jana dives into the fintech scene and must decide how far she can stretch her morals in order to succeed in a world dominated by machismo and money. The German Motion Picture Fund and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg were among the backers of this high-end series, of which two seasons have been shot. Prominent locations include Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg and bars in Charlottenburg. Look for Bad Banks on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
4. Berlin Station
Many years after Harry Palmer visited both parts of the divided city, CIA analyst Daniel Miller hunts for moles in Berlin streets such as Hohenzollerndamm, Bleibtreustraße, and Straße des 17. Juni. Filming of this spy series began right after Homeland season five was in the can, and the makers of Berlin Station swore to themselves that Berliners would not spot such glaring errors where a character turns a corner in City West and arrives in the Nikolai quarter next step. Three seasons of the show were made. Look for it on Prime or Apple TV.
Dark is one of the most successful German series internationally. It’s a supernatural science fiction mystery tale that is, as the name suggests, pretty gloomy. Two young children disappear in a fictitious town which could be in the south or the north of Germany, but many scenes were actually shot in and around Berlin. For instance the school in the first episode is to be found in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, and Grunewald is the haunted forest. Places that might usually be overlooked, such as Frohnau, provide atmospheric shots. Fans have gone to great lengths to find the locations.
6. Deutschland 83 / 86 / 89
The cold war provides ample material for stories even long afterwards, though usually the perspective is from west to east. In this series, the protagonist is an East German rookie spy who goes undercover as a West German soldier. The sequels lead right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Produced by UFA and shot in and around Berlin, the series was initially bought by Sundance TV in the US and Channel 4 in the UK, and can now be viewed on Amazon Prime.
7. Homeland (the Berlin season)
“Saw Claire Danes jogging in the park today,” a friend of ours tweeted enthusiastically back in 2015. “I was faster.”
No list of series shot in Berlin would be complete without mention of Homeland’s fifth season. The Emmy awarding show homed in on European topics and chose the Babelsberg Film Studios as its base. Homeland being so massively popular at the time, production was shrouded in secrecy and security. Rarely did anything leak out about where in town the team would be shooting. Claire Danes later admitted that she learnt to love Techno music in Berlin’s famous Berghain club.
This offbeat, satirical thriller set after the fall of the Berlin Wall focuses on East German assassin Kleo, played by rising star Jella Haase, and her attempts to get revenge on her superiors for leaving her in jail for years. A failed west German reporter gets involved in the string of murders Kleo commits, thinking he is on to a big story, and their relationship provides much of the humor and humanity in this wild tale. Actually, it is impeccably researched by the same writer team responsible for 4 Blocks and manages to pull off a rare feat: it is as much appreciated by east Germans as west Germans, and it avoids the pitfalls of evoking a sense of false nostalgia or kitsch. Enjoy Kleo on Netflix.
9. The Queen’s Gambit
The popular period drama The Queen’s Gambit, about chess players, is set in Kentucky. As a US production, you wouldn’t suspect that much of it was filmed in Berlin. However, interiors and exteriors found in Berlin stood in for many of the show's locations, including Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Mexico City, Moscow, and Paris. For instance, the Kino International Panorama Bar, also featured in Kleo, doubled as a restaurant in Moscow, and Berlin Zoo stood in for Mexico’s. Berlin city magazine Tip gathers some of the prominent locations. Spot them on Netflix.
Rather more serious is the drama Unorthodox. While the American part of the story is based on true events, the Berlin plotline is fictitious. Orthodox New York Jew Esther „Esty“ Shapiro flees from her unhappy marriage and ends up in Berlin, where she discovers previously unknown freedom. The fictional music academy in Unorthodox is inspired by the real Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, though it was filmed at the Kulturforum. Interiors were filmed in the CCC studios in Spandau, and locations in Reinickendorf and Moabit also appear. Find Unorthodox on Netflix.
That’s Not All, Folks!
Other notable Berlin series include:
- 1899 – After their success with three seasons of Dark on Netflix, the makers made Babelsberg film history with their next project “1899”. This new mystery show is set on a ship full of émigrés on the open ocean and was filmed in front of a huge LED screen in the Marlene Dietrich Hall in Studio Babelsberg, at 5,400 m² one of the biggest studios in Europe.
- Beat – the Amazon Prime crime story set in Berlin’s techno scene features some of the famous clubs.
- Berlin, Berlin – a popular sitcom for teens and twens that lasted for four seasons and spawned a Netflix movie in 2021.
- Dogs of Berlin – the new cop thriller, also on Netflix.
- Ku’damm 56, Ku’damm 59, and Ku’damm 63 – the historical cold war drama in three seasons can be seen on HBO Max.
- Turkish for Beginners – a lighthearted sitcom in which German and Turkish families clash, which also gave rise to a movie version, all on Netflix.
- We Children From Bahnhof Zoo – a glitzy remake as a series of the 1981 shocker based on the autobiography of a young drug addict.
- Weissensee – this drama series set in the GDR was popular in Germany, Italy, and Portugal.
- You Are Wanted – the first foreign-language Amazon Original Series to be released globally. The original season was written by the same Berliners that wrote Kleo and 4 Blocks (see above).
Berlin has always evoked cinematic associations, from Fritz Lang to Cabaret. Popular locations for film shoots include the former Tempelhof Airport, the International Congress Centre ICC, the area around Chamisso Square in Kreuzberg, and the Baerensaal (Bear Hall) in the old city hall.
The heart of Berlin’s film industry still beats in Babelsberg near Potsdam, where DEFA, the most important film studio of the GDR, had also been based. You’ll find the UFA here, the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, Studio Babelsberg, and sundry film tech and service companies. If you’re looking to finance a production, the Creative Europe Desk shares an office with the institution responsible for film funding and media business development, the Medienboard:
If you have any questions about the great opportunities Berlin has to offer the film industry, do not hesitate to contact Birgit Reuter at Berlin Partner, the city’s business development agency, and take advantage of Berlin Partner’s free business services.
Text: Olaf Bryan Wielk, ideenmanufaktur
Header image: © Frédéric Batier/X Filme