What TV’s hot in Berlin right now?

As usual, whenever I go away on my travels, I like to take a look at what TV’s popular or important enough in my destination that it warrants having an advertising hoarding. So far, I’ve given you the lowdown on my travels to LA, New York, Lisbon and Athens, but over Christmas, I was in Berlin.

In contrast to Lisbon, which is a city with an obvious love of imported TV, Berlin loves its home-grown German TV (even if the airwaves are as filled with imports as Lisbon’s). True, as I was leaving the city, I spotted a hoarding for Amazon’s Goliath – I couldn’t be bothered to take a photo of it, but imagine this except in German and alternating with an ad for a plumber every three seconds:

But that was a rarity. Otherwise, it was Deutschland all the way.

Also out in suburbs was a hoarding for the German Sat 1 TV series Einstein. Mr Thierry Attard can give you a far better overview of the show, but its basic set-up is:

Actor and singer Tom Beck (Alarm für Cobra 11 – Die Autobahn Polizeï) stars as Felix Winterberg, great-great grandson of Albert Einstein and scientific genius himself, who unwillingly ends up as a police consultant.

Again, I didn’t bother to take a picture of that hoarding but imagine this as a vertical:

Einstein (Sat 1)

And here’s the show itself:

Not exactly world-beating TV, but as I’ve pointed out before, it does at least highlight the inaccuracy of everyone’s stereotype about Germans having no sense of humour. If you know them, then you know that you honestly can’t stop them mucking around.

In central Berlin, though, two shows dominated. In common with Einstein, the first is a crime show – or really the latest in a series of mini-series based on books by popular German mystery author Nele Neuhaus that are collectively known as the ‘Taunuskrimi’ (Taunus crime stories). Based in the rural area of Taunus near Frankfurt, the stories feature two cops – Oliver von Bodenstein (Tim Bergmann) and Pia Kirchhoff (Felicitas Woll) – investigating all kinds of nastiness against a somewhat mystical backdrop that’s all shot very glossily.

Airing on public service broadcaster ZDF/2DF (basically, the BBC of Germany), the series started in 2013 with Schneewittchen muss sterben (Snow White must die) and since then, there’s been Eine unbeliebte Frau (An Unloved Woman), Mordsfreunde (Murder Friends), Tiefe Wunden (Deep Wounds) and Wer Wind sät (Who sows wind). Cheery titles, hey? But the latest, part two of which is airing right now in fact, is Die Lebenden und die Toten (The Living and the Dead), as anyone who’s been walking around Berlin can probably tell you:

Die Lebenden und die Toten

Roughly translated, that catch-line is “It’s better if you don’t watch it alone”. But suprisingly, you can if you want to, since the whole first episode is on YouTube:

Was that the most heavily publicised German TV programme in Berlin? Not in the slightest. That honour belongs to Winnetou. What’s Winnetou? Well, if all you know about Germans is the stereotypes, this’ll come as a shock to you: it’s a German cowboy series about a man and his Native American best friend. And you really couldn’t escape either of them this Christmas in Berlin.


What’s that only 20m up the road? Yes, it’s another advert for Winnetou, just in case you missed the first one.

Winnetou again

Here, the slogan is the somewhat more impressive “The legend lives” because the character of Winnetou is genuinely a legend of German literature:

Winnetou is a fictional Native American hero of several novels written in German by Karl May (1842-1912), one of the best-selling German writers of all time with about 200 million copies worldwide, including the Winnetou trilogy.

According to Karl May’s story, first-person narrator Old Shatterhand encounters the Apache Winnetou, and after initial dramatic events, a true friendship arises between them; on many occasions, they give proof of great fighting skill, but also of compassion for other human beings. It portrays a belief in an innate “goodness” of mankind, albeit constantly threatened by ill-intentioned enemies.

Nondogmatic Christian feelings and values play an important role, and May’s heroes are often described as German Americans.

Winnetou became the chief of the tribe of the Mescalero Apaches (and of the Apaches in general, with the Navajo included) after his father Intschu-tschuna and his sister Nscho-tschi were slain by the white bandit Santer. He rode a horse called Iltschi (“Wind”) and had a famous rifle called Silberbüchse (The Silver Gun, a double-barrelled rifle whose stock and butt were decorated with silver studs). Old Shatterhand became the blood brother of Winnetou and rode the brother of Iltschi, called Hatatitla (Lightning).

There were also no fewer than 11 German Winnetou movies during the 1960s, when he was played by French actor Pierre Brice, who went on to reprise the role in the 1980 TV series Mein Freund Winnetou (My Friend Winnetou) and 1998’s TV mini-series Winnetous Rückkehr (The Return of Winnetou).

So no exaggeration there and commercial, free-to-air broadcaster RTL (think the equivalent of ITV) was hoping that the three-part mini-series (or three TV movies, if you prefer), which aired over Christmas, would do well, particularly since it had invested quite heavily in it. Except it didn’t:

Winnetou, another high-profile German production commissioned by RTL, which aired over the holiday period, was an expensive flop. The three-part limited series, an adaptation of Karl May’s “German Westerns,” started soft — with 5.2 million viewers for the first episode — and slipped sharply. The final episode drew just 2.97 million viewers for a market share of 9.5 percent, well below RTL’s target. The Cologne-based broadcaster has invested heavily in homegrown drama in an effort to compete with the likes of Amazon and Netflix but, so far, has little to show for it. The network remains dependent on shiny-floor reality shows and imported US drama for the bulk of its programming.

So why did it flop? I can’t speak for Germans, obviously – they might have gone off Westerns by now, for all I know – but what I caught actually looked really good: there was some lovely attention to period detail, a fair bit of cash had been spent on it and it even had the Native American characters speaking Lakota.

However, the casting is a bit problematic, shall we say? While the marvellously named and moderately famous Wotan Wilke Möhring obviously has no problems playing German immigrant Old Shatterhand/Karl May, it all gets a bit tricky with the native Americans. While there are plenty of Native Americans in the US, the number in Germany and/or who can speak German is quite small, so RTL chose Albanian actor Nik Xhelilaj to play Winnetou as well as a whole bunch of Croatians to play the rest of his tribe. Which means that while sure, they can do an accent, do they, erm, look the part? Not so much.

Still, if you can watch a Spaghetti Western with a clean conscience, Winnetou will probably cause you no harm and what I saw of it was pretty solidly decent. Here’s a trailer:

UPDATED: I got a bit confused (as did Sat 1) about dates, thanks to the change in year from 2016 to 2017, so I’ve updated the section on Einstein accordingly (HT to Mr Attard!)


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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