Boxset Monday: 4 Blocks (season 1) (Germany: TNT Series; UK: Amazon)

Germany's answer to The Wire

4 Blocks

In Germany: Aired on TNT Serie in May 2017
In the UK: Available on Amazon

The Wire is one of those shows that casts huge shadow over TV. Arguably one of the best TV shows ever made, if not the best, it’s a novelistic, many-layered show as Charlie Brooker will happily explain to you (you’re welcome, Charlie):

Naturally, every new, vaguely similar TV show wants to be “the new The Wire” to bask in inherited glory. As soon as international distributors want to export their gritty cop show to another country, said cop show becomes the country in question’s “answer to The Wire“. So Engrenages (Spiral) was “France’s answer to The Wire“, for example, even though it’s better to think of its first season, at least, more as Law & Order meets Scandal.

However, I think it’s fair to say that the multiple award-winning 4 Blocks is the first show that you could call “somewhere’s answer to The Wire” (that somewhere being Germany) and for that genuinely to be the case, both in terms of themes and general quality of production – all without being a straight carbon copy. Even if the Süddeutsche Zeitung thinks it’s more like The Sopranos and Die Zeit thinks it’s the ‘German Gomorra‘.

Here’s a highly NSFW trailer. Slightly spoilery discussion of the whole season after the jump.

Herr Stringer Bell

Lebanese-German immigrant Toni Hamady (the marvellously Alfred Molina-esque Kida Khodr Ramadan) is a gangster whose family runs ‘four blocks’ in the Neukölln district of Berlin. If you run a business within those blocks, legitimate or otherwise, you have to pay him for protection and also accept his slot machines on your premises, even if you are an English-speaking hipster.

He also runs a night club as well as the local drug network, selling cocaine, heroin and anything else you need.

But he’s not your normal gangster – he’s a Muslim gangster. He believes in the sanctity of marriage and doesn’t sleep around. He bans his employees from killing anyone, although a little ultraviolence is okay in the line of duty. And if he promises by Allah to do something, it will happen.

Importantly, Toni wants to go legit and hand everything over to his brother Abbas (Veysel) and brother-in-law Latif (Massif). After 26 years of trying, he’s finally going to get permanent residency, after which he’s going to buy property and run a legitimate real estate business, which pleases his wife (Maryam Zaree) no end.

Will he be able to escape the drugs trade or is the system as incapable of change as Baltimore’s? Will white-supremacist biker gang the Cthulhus take advantage of his perceived weakness? Will the (potentially corrupt) cops do anything to get him behind bars? What will happen when Latif is arrested? And why is old pal Vince (Frederick Lau – think a German Tom Hardy) suddenly back on the scene?

4 Wires

Thematically, although the police side of things barely gets an explicit look-in for most of the show’s six episodes, 4 Blocks has a lot in common with The Wire with regards to the criminal side. Obviously, it focuses on the minority equivalent in Berlin to Baltimore’s black population – the Middle Eastern immigrant community. But as with The Wire, it takes a nuanced view that is also specific to its location: crims are not all bad; not all Middle Easterners are criminals; Syrians and Turks don’t necessarily have the same values or get on with each other; different generations have different views on what’s acceptable behaviour; Arabs who speak German think themselves better than others; and so on.

It’s also as blunt about racism as The Wire, with everyone hating on other groups for being different. Yet at the same time, it’s aware that simply because someone seems to be racist, it doesn’t mean they are – or at least there might be some hidden depths and contradictions. Abbas may constantly question Vince and his mere presence in the group because Vince is German, not an Arab, but at the same time, Abbas is married to a Polish woman; the Cthulhus may be butch on the streets, but they often have different tastes between the sheets; the police might hate Arabs, but at the same time they can appreciate the stability Toni brings.

There’s also the show’s unflinching depiction of poverty and life on the estates. While its portrayal of Neukölln may be a bit stereotypical, it’s a decidedly non-tourist view of Berlin that we get, with lawlessness, drug addicts, grotty housing, dangerous underpasses, porn cinemas, strip clubs and more, all of it filmed on location in the areas concerned.

Vince in 4 Blocks

Its two hip hop stars (Veysel and Massif) and the soundtrack they appear on also give the show a great air of street authenticity, as does the inclusion of members of the Berlin police among the extras.

Yet at the same time, there are moments of joy, such as simple trips to cafés for tea, two teenagers dating each other and one buying the other a small dog as a present to make up for some bad sex, or Vince tasting baklava for the first time with a childhood crush. It doesn’t go well, but there are friendships, romance, trips to leafy Berlin parks and simple acts of kindness to prevent the show becoming a simple vaccinated grimdark holiday into the land of the poor and destitute.

4 Blocks

Above all, 4 Blocks is also a look at what causes this lawlessness, from Germany’s legal system and policing methods through to the prospects for the younger generation. Toni and his family may be criminals, but Germany’s immigration laws have stopped him from getting work – for 26 years, that permanent residency application always just a couple of weeks away from being granted. German prisons don’t exactly help their inmate. Kids want respect and money, and think dealing will help them get both as part of a larger family. Toni went to prison when he was 15 and your first arrest is a mark of maturity, particularly if you’re taking the fall for one of the organisation’s higher-ups, who’ll look after you better than your own family would in the long run. The police’s attitudes don’t exactly help prevent crime and it would help if some weren’t corrupt or wanting to stir up trouble themselves.

Who can you trust?

The main story of drug deals, establishing reliable supplies et al is also familiar from The Wire. But it’s also a story of relationships. Toni is the ‘head’ of the business and wants to get out, but his violent, law-breaking brother (‘the fist’) and brother-in-law have few qualms about disturbing the peace that Toni has maintained. Abbas’ reactions to constant Cthulhu transgressions are as similar to Avon Barksdale’s were while Stringer Bell was advising restraint – he simply can’t understand anything greater than the constant application of violence to achieve respect. When Vince shows up and demonstrates there are peaceful ways of continuing Toni’s business and that he can do as he’s told better than Abbas, he earns favour over Toni’s brother, provoking Abbas into greater acts of violence to regain respect.

Vince’s peaceful ways also earn the attention of Latif’s wife (Almila Bağrıaçık), who wants to get away from both crime and her husband. Will she end up as trapped as Toni, though, or will Vince provide a way out somehow – assuming she can trust him? And can Toni still trust the man who went to prison for him back in the day or has Vince got his own agenda?

Flawed

Given its six-episode, single-season run, 4 Block‘s concertinaed narrative means it’s not able (yet) to explore in as much depth as The Wire the issues both shows raise. Neither does it have the forensic, journalistic detail of that glorious show and there are also occasional misfires, usually caused by narrative shortcuts, such as when someone goes for a secret rendezvous with the police but does so just round the corner from the ‘four blocks’ so is tailed – and then handily leaves the meeting place as the same time as the cop, despite their leaving separately following all previous encounters.

The paucity of lethal violence between drug dealers also feels a bit odd. Berlin isn’t Baltimore and the show’s mainly about Toni trying to prevent a war between the two sides, but the fact that the Cthulhus and the Hamadys seem to know exactly where each other lives and then take it turns to visit and attack each other with baseball bats and steam irons feels a bit tame, even though the portrayal of the violence that does take place is frequently extremely graphic. It doesn’t help that the Cthulhus seem a bit silly, to be honest, although given their name, maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise.

Conclusion

4 Blocks isn’t The Wire. But if that’s something you’re looking for, it’s close enough without being a retread and the German/Arabic setting gives it a hugely different feel. If you’re not, you may be tempted more by a family story of favoured brothers and trust, or its depiction of German society from the point of view of the least advantaged stratum. It’s a really interesting piece of work that follows surprising turns, just as you think you can see where it’s going.

Season two has already been commissioned and should air next year, so why not give season one a whirl?