Streaming: German series in the USA, and where to watch them.
Only a few years ago, German television was a strictly regional affair. The native dramas were mostly conventional procedurals made up of standalone episodes – the TV equivalent of comfort food. Certainly nothing that would inspire binge-watching in the manner of Breaking Bad. Few German-language series traveled beyond the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland – with that market of 100 million people, why would TV networks or producers have needed to think internationally, or change anything at all?
Fast-forward to 2020, and it’s a very different story, getting livelier by the minute. The competition for audiences and prestige from international series combined with the arrival of streaming services hungry for original content has transformed the German television industry. With a mandate to innovate, writers and showrunners are discarding the old formulas and discovering a new creative reach. Just like in the US, the new opportunities are luring big-name acting and directing talent to the TV medium like never before. Audiences are the clear winner with the debut of ambitious and sophisticated serials like Dark, Deutschland 83 and Babylon Berlin, to name just a few of the shows that are both critics’ darlings and a hit with viewers.
In this dossier, we highlight German serials that you can stream in the US and clue you in on where to watch them. Caution: these series are addictive! If you’re not careful, you’ll catch some serious binge fever!
A New Genre
“Streaming TV Is not just a new way to watch. It's a new genre.”
- James Poniewozik / NY Times
Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Video or Hulu allow unrestricted access to a large number of German films and television programs in subtitled versions in the United States. Providers give subscribers of these services unlimited access to new movies and series that would seldom have made it into US theatrical distribution, standard cable networks or traditional commercial broadcasting networks. The internet is becoming more and more the standard method by which television is consumed.
These new distribution channels have not only changed the user behavior dramatically (linear television gives way to the “binge” behavior) but also the quality and formats of the productions created under these new parameters. International streaming services and German production companies as well as regional broadcasters have understood the sea change and are currently generating a lot of attention to German television with series that appeal to global audiences through intelligent and original writing, diverse themes, talented lineups and opulent productions. Conversely, this development means decidedly more high-quality productions developed in Germany, which, in turn, enriches the domestic market and promotes German talents.
If you suffer from claustrophobia, then this series might cause some anxiety. Das Boot retells the events that took place aboard German Kriegsmarine U-612 submarine in 1942, and realistically recreates the oppressive atmosphere on board. The price tag is not for the faint of heart either: the 2018 series sequel to Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 film cost 26.5 million euros. So Das Boot was even more expensive per episode than pay-TV channel Sky’s mammoth Babylon Berlin.
Weissensee is a series about the decline of the GDR and two East Berlin families who could not be more different: while one is loyal to the regime and works closely with the Stasi, the other is part of the dissident underground. It’s a story of love between members of two warring families, of betrayal, greed, struggle and power. But Weissensee is also a political thriller in which German history plays an important role before, during and after reunification.
At the end of the 19th century, doctors, nurses and researchers worked under tough conditions at Charité Hospital in Berlin. Simple infections were often fatal and half of all newborns did not survive. In 1888, the year of the Three Emperors, the Charité is fighting diseases such as syphilis, diphtheria and tuberculosis. The story is densely atmospheric, and today’s Charité board praised the historical accuracy director Sönke Wortmann used to tell the story of doctors like Rudolf Virchow and Robert Koch, who were making medical history at the time.
Deutschland 83 / 86
Like Weissensee, Deutschland 83 is the story of a divided Germany. The focus here though shifts away from the personal to the political: espionage, the Cold War and the possible outbreak of a third world war. In Deutschland 83 viewers watch as the world powers play a tricky game of chess. A sequel has since been released: Deutschland 86. The follow-up explores whether the practicality of capitalism could be used to save communism.
Ku’damm 56/ 59
Another series with a simple title: Ku’damm 56 and 59. Strictly speaking, it is more a three-part TV mini-series about emancipation in the 1950s. It reflects on German society in the post-war period and during the economic miracle illustrated through the family-run Galant dance school on the famous Ku’damm, where guests go to sound out the limits of prudery and live out their sexuality.