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German Series in India
The Billion Dollar Code

Key Atrt from the Netflix series "The Billion Dollar Code"
Photo (Detail): © Netflix

Based on a true story, the Netflix miniseries The Billion Dollar Code recounts how two German developers sued Google for patent infringement, arguing that Google Earth blatantly appropriated their own Terravision program from the 1990s. The show makes the case into an enthralling, if sobering courtroom drama, and also a kind of parable, using parallel timelines to contrast the utopian dreams of the ‘90s with the disillusionment surrounding ‘Big Tech’ today.

By Josef Markus

The first episode presents the audience with an intriguing question. In early ‘90s Berlin, the young Carsten Schlüter (Leonard Scheicher), an art student of visionary ambition but few resources, partners with the young Juri Müller (Marius Ahrendt) to create the global 3D mapping program Terravision. The two complement each other, for Müller is a part-time hacker whose programming talents far exceed his social skills. Almost puppy-like in their eagerness, the two bond over a shared dream of an Internet that dissolves borders and conflicts. (Their computer-nerd bona fides are also assured by their terrible haircuts, and how oblivious they are about same.)

Standbild aus der Netflix series "The Billion Dollar Code": Carsten und Juri im Silicon Valley © Netflix

But in a parallel timeline, circa 2017, a middle-aged Schlüter (Mark Waschke) and Müller (Mišel Matičević) give separate depositions in a law firm’s conference room. The mood is tense, the lighting evokes a police interrogation out of vintage film noir, and anytime the opposing counsel opens his mouth the room suddenly becomes a shark tank. Schlüter and Müller both seem shell-shocked by the passage of time, and moreover it comes out they’re no longer on speaking terms. The viewer can’t help asking, what has happened to these two former friends and their glorious ‘90s ideals?

From no-man’s-land to land of opportunity

True Berliners, the young Carsten and Juri are fond of brainstorming at a doner kebab stand in the middle of an urban wasteland. The space is presumably a former site of the Wall, now unclaimed territory where anything can happen. Once they stumble into becoming entrepreneurs with their plan for Terravision, they set up shop just off the Ku’damm, with the bomb-scarred Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church looming just outside. (A potent symbol of the history this generation seeks to cast off its shoulders.) But it’s when they visit the offices of Deutsche Telekom in search of funding that The Billion Dollar Code unveils its most memorable locale: a grandiose, beautiful-ugly hall that could not be more evocative of the Cold War era.

Szene aus der Netflix-Serie "The Billion Dollar Code": Art+COM präsentieren ihr Projekt TerraVision auf der Konferenz der International Telecommunication Union in Kyoto, 1995. ©Netflix

This Berlin, grey and full of jagged edges yet somehow febrile, thumping to an early techno beat, makes the contrast all the more jarring when Schlüter and Müller eventually travel to the sunny paradise of Silicon Graphics in California. There the vibe is strenuously laid-back, even as low-level staffers stroll past with bins full of cash. Director Robert Thalheim and screenwriter Oliver Ziegenbalg might lay it on thick here, but it’s clear we’re meant to register the birth of start-up culture, and how it’s a world apart from the obtuse bureaucracies Schlüter and Müller are fighting back home. 

Standbild aus der Netflix series "The Billion Dollar Code" © Netflix

It’s here that the two Germans first meet one Brian Andersson (Lukas Loughran), the programmer who comes on like a bohemian teddy bear, but who takes on an increasingly Mephistophelean air as the series progresses. Naïve Juri sees in Andersson a fellow tech idealist, and unthinkingly shares with him all the details of his code for Terravision. This lays the seeds for the betrayal that will derail Juri and Carsten’s business plan, not to mention their lives.

Money changes everything

In their suit against Google, the older Schlüter and Müller (now a professor and gardener, respectively) are a pair of underfunded, uncredentialed Davids up against the ultimate Silicon Valley Goliath, and they know it. As Schlüter deadpans in voice-over: “Two German hackers taking on an American success story. Admittedly the odds could have been better.” The trial takes place in Delaware: a rare moment of levity comes when the two Germans, cooling their heels in a local bar, decide they can’t take any more of what passes for American country music nowadays.
© Netflix

The Billion Dollar Code becomes more engrossing with each episode, building up to the finale. At the climax of the testimony, Thalheim and Ziegenbalg set the viewer up for the sort of fist-pumping triumph we’re conditioned to expect from courtroom dramas, only to then brutally subvert the Hollywood cliché. Lightly fictionalized as it is, this is a story that deals in harsh truths. Audiences might love feel-good endings, but when has capitalism ever needed them?
Standbild aus der Netflix series "The Billion Dollar Code": Carsten, Juri und die Anwältin Lea spielen nach der Urteilsverkündung noch einmal Pong in einer Bar.

Standbild aus der Netflix series "The Billion Dollar Code": Carsten, Juri und die Anwältin Lea spielen nach der Urteilsverkündung noch einmal Pong in einer Bar. | © Netflix

As an account of Google Earth’s contested origins, The Billion Dollar Code ranks as a companion to The Social Network’s scrutiny of Facebook. Schlüter and Müller’s story stands in for the larger history of the tech industry, and how the optimism of the ‘90s and the utopian rhetoric that once swirled around the Internet have a very different cast now.

Wir haben den Blick auf die Welt für immer verändert. Nur unsere Geschichte kennt kein Mensch. Aber das werden wir jetzt ändern...

The Billion Dollar Code

The character of Carsten Schlüter is partly based on computer art pioneer Joachim Sauter (1959–2021). To learn more about Sauter, seeArt from the Future 
Also read the primer on the Design Agency Art+ComArt and Communication blended into one

Four episodes, 58 to 77 min each.
Created by Oliver Ziegenbalg (screenwriter) and Robert Thalheim (director)
Cast: Mark Waschke, Mišel Matičević, Leonard Scheicher, Marius Ahrendt, Lavinia Wilson, Seumas Sargent, Lukas Loughran



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