Boxset Tuesday: Der Pass (Pagan Peak) (season one) (Germany: Sky 1; UK: Sky Atlantic)

The best Bridge so far

Krampus in Der Pass

In Germany: Aired on Sky Deutschland in January
In the UK: Wednesdays, 8pm, Sky Atlantic

It’s always fascinating to see what countries make of a killer format such as The Bridge – not just to see whether they can do it better, but because it can tell you something about the original, as well as themselves.

The original Bron/Broen was a Swedish-Danish co-production that saw two police officers, one from Sweden, one from Denmark, investigating a dead body found on the bridge between the two countries at the exact border.

It set the world on fire, largely thanks to the performance of Sofia Helin as top Swedish autist detective Saga Norin, but also because of its clever use of Danish and Swedish culture. Both detectives were respective stereotypes of one another’s countries, Norin the icy, rich, unbending Swede of Danish minds, Martin the personable, maybe slightly too greyly shaded, slightly righter wing, over-emotional Dane of Swedish minds.

The show then went on to add nuance to those stereotypes and show how these exaggerated versions weren’t actually representatives of the two countries, but people with their own quirks causing them to be the way they are.

Since then we’ve had lots of different versions lined up around the world, with versions still to come in Africa and Asia.

The first version, set on the US/Mexican border, revealed lots of unconscious biases in the US adaptors’ minds. Norin’s female equivalent might have been autistic, too, but she was clearly a defective detective, unable to match Demián Bichir’s manly Mexican and neuro-typical might – or maintain the writers’ interest. There wasn’t much the show had to say good about Mexico (it’s corrupt and dangerous) or bad about the US (it’s understaffed and overly liberal), either. That maybe tells you a little about the US’s attitudes towards itself, Mexico, the disabled and/or women.

But the French-British The Tunnel proved a much better affair. While largely faithful to the original plot, beyond locating the original body in an, erm, tunnel, it chose to undermine the stereotypes while maintaining the same roles, giving us a much more personable Brit than his icy, computing French counterpart. Quelle surprise, but it was amusing, to be fair.

With a heap of very good British writers on staff, the show had lots to say about Britain, particularly Kent. But it had almost nothing to say about the French or France that couldn’t have been culled from a Daily Mail headline, exposing British self-centredness, ego and unfamiliarity within anything even 30 miles away.

Ellie and Winter

Der Pass (Pagan Peak)

And now we have the next The Bridge in line: the German-Austrian co-production Der Pass (Pagan Peak). And it’s possibly the best – perhaps even better than the original Bron/Broen. It also has a few things to say about Germans and Austrians.

This new version, the third original drama for Sky Deutschland following its superb Babylon Berlin and Das Boot (The Boat), is also the adaptation that diverges most from Bron/Broen. Set in the mountains between Germany and Austria, once again, it sees a body found on the exact border between two countries. As a result, the two nations send their own detectives to investigate: the German Ellie Stocker (Julia Jentsch) and the Austrian Gedeon Winter (Nicholas Ofczarek).

Here, though, storylines diverge quickly as we learn that the murder evokes concepts in ancient pagan rituals, such as the Green Man and the Celtic wood god Cernunnos, as well as the Austro-German Christmas tradition of the Krampus. Who is this Krampus Killer and what does he want?

The answer my friends will involve the phrase ‘liminal boundaries’ and an exploration of the double meaning of the German word ‘Grenze’. It will also be discussed – in only slightly spoilery fashion – after the trailer and the jump. See you in a mo.

Der Pass

Der Pass, but a metaphorical border

To a certain extent, the various Bridges have taken names that homage the original series or have been forced by reality to take on other names (there ain’t no bridge between England and France). Der Pass – annoyingly and deceptively retitled Pagan Peak for English speakers – is the first to do something different. It’s metaphorical and in its bones (and dialogue), Der Pass wants to be Die Grenze – which can mean both ‘border’ and ‘boundaries’ or ‘limits’.

The first four episodes are an explicit exploration of borders and boundaries, particularly with reference to the Krampus and pagan religions. Without wishing to go all Michel Serres and start talking about liminal deities, the Green Man/Wild Man tradition involves a figure who can cross boundaries, including life and death, nature and man, country and town. You get the idea.

Here, we have the German and Austrian investigators who represent two countries – but they also represent town and country. Jentsch’s Stocker is a country girl, uncorrupted by the city. She’s to some extent a German stereotype, as Saga was a Swedish stereotype, but her uptightness and her love of rules and everything being in Ordnung comes from her desire to do the right thing and catch the bad guy. She has no shades of grey, just shades of white. Indeed, in some ways she’s how modern Germans want to be portrayed, as she takes on a lot of The Bridge‘s Danish traits, being personable and sociable, having oodles of fun in her spare time with all her many friends.

Meanwhile, Ofczarek’s Winter is nothing but city and corruption. He’s also an Austrian stereotype: a debauched, morbid, old-fashioned, chain-smoking, laid back, politically incorrect bender of rules who speaks German with a funny accent. He has only shades of black, no longer even able to understand why he comes to work in the morning any more. He gets some of Bron/Broen‘s equivalent Swedish traits, including unsociability and an old car, but passed through a dark prism.

Initially, Winter wants nothing to do with the investigation, while Stocker is super-keen. It’s the Krampus killer who is able to make them cross their borders. The longer they spend investigating him, indulging in big chunks of True Detective “dark conversations in cars”, the more they take on each other’s roles. Stocker is corrupted, Winter is redeemed.

Ellie and Winter

Atmosphere by the boat-load

All of this is thematically rich and beautifully realised. The photography is beautiful, the performances first-rate, the dialogue by turns funny and insightful. There’s copious playing around with the timeline, as we jump forward and backward between scenes, giving the show greater narrative variety than its predecessors. We also have certain elements of the original dialled back, such as the tabloid journalist of the original show who here is a much less clichéd contribution.

There’s also a stentorian soundtrack produced by none other than Hans Zimmer – every Christopher Nolan soundtrack you can think of, including Batman Begins, is a Zimmer track – that greatly adds to the dark dread of the set-up.

The next three episodes then throw a lot of that in the bin, along with much of Bron/Broen‘s original plotting, to undermine it and make the text the sub-text. Suddenly, we know who the Krampus Killer is and we get to see what makes him tick.

We also switch away from everything pagan – despite the show’s English-language name – do deal with cybercrime and hacking instead. It all becomes a reasonably astute commentary on the far right and domestic terrorism in Northern Europe, as well as on the patriarchy and the need for control. We even get an Eastern Europe refugee, an attempted rape and more abductions of women, just to emphasise the point.

It’s all very well handled, with Krampus (Franz Hartwig) being particularly interesting to watch in action. But it almost feels like a different, far more conventional, less enjoyable show, particularly once Krampus starts taking an interest in Stocker.

Yawn. Been here, done that, thankfully not in Bron/Broen.

Franz Hartwig in Der Pass

Saved by the third act

This second act fortunately ends well, with a couple of surprises that push the narrative in an unexpected direction. While we never quite head towards the explicit pagan thrust of the first act, we do get more of the same concerns, with explicit contextualising of the action in the Krampus traditional. With Stocker and Winter having swapped places in the story, it takes the Krampus to start them heading back towards their respective borders again. We also get an unexpected return to the Bron/Broen source material.

This means that the second act no longer feels like a misstep, rather just a step on the path to a new, less lurid, but still related story.

The season ends with resolutions of sorts, but unlike Bron/Broen, the series obviously has eyes for a second season, something left open by its cliffhanger. It has already been granted that second season, but if it hadn’t, that cliffhanger would nevertheless have been a thematically apt conclusion to the story. As it is, we have something very satisfying yet unexpected in the way it is told.

The Krampus killer

Separate but equal

Der Pass is by no means perfect. Some of its mistakes stem from its source material, some are its own.

In particular, it has the same problems with its central female character that Bron/Broen notably didn’t. While it does keep her front and central, constantly doing good policework, Stocker’s ‘whiteness’ does her no favours (Krampus/angel references aside), particularly in contrast with the wonderfully louche debauchery of Ofczarek/Winter, who is really the star of the show – as much as Saga was of Bron/Broen, although for very different reasons.

Her personal story, as well as Krampus’ interest in her, also reduces her to ‘female stories’: children, relationships, being gazed upon by men, victim of men. That’s also something she has in common with most of the other women in the show. Unconsciously reflective of the country where ‘Rabenmutter‘ is returning as insult? Perhaps…

Ellie and Winter in Der Pass

The best Bridge

Nevertheless, in many ways, Der Pass is at least as good as Bron/Broen, if not better. The story itself is stronger and more plausible – no “I will have plastic surgery so I can seduce your wife and become your nemesis, Martin, without you recognising me or my voice!” for Der Pass. It has far more to say that’s relevant, choosing to reflect on killers and society, migration and the changes in society it brings, the resurgent far right and its exploitation of tradition, domestic terrorism close to home, and even the rigid thinking of technology experts and its proximity to that of the serial killer.

I loved it. I hope you do, too – particularly since next week, I’m going to be running a competition to win it on DVD. Tune in again on Monday to find out how!


  • 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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