Netflix ushered in a new TV dawn in distribution. In reaction, Europe’s public broadcasters are driving a less vaunted but still significant revolution in production. Few are pushing the envelope more than Germany’s ZDF.
After “The Typist” and “Shadowplay,” four-hour limited series “The Winemaker,” a MipDrama entry, marks another series from the German state broadcaster which bring cinematic values and a darker edge to its scripted output, thanks in large part to direction by Austria’s Andreas Prochaska, who won an International Emmy for 2013’s “A Day for a Miracle.”
Multi-prized Austrian actor Tobias Moretti (“The Dark Valley”) plays soigné vintner Matteo, a fine upstanding member of his Tyrol valley community, with a lovely loving wife and a daughter whom he is training to one day take over his business.
Then, suddenly, an immigrant is shot but not killed in his vineyards. Nico, a smiling ghost from Matteo’s past when both were mafia enforcers, appears in his village to propose a counterfeit wine scheme. Just days later Matteo’s life in in tailspin as Nino drags him into murder, ghastly moral dilemmas and the need to confess to his wife and daughter that they have been living with a former killer.
Sold by Beta Film, “The Winemaker” is the new banner title of Moritz von der Groeben’s Good Friends Filmproduktion, the company behind groundbreaking dark German comedy “Arthur’s Law,” which was released in the U.S. this January by Warner Media’s HBO Max.
“The Winemaker” is set in the South Tyrol’s picturesque vineyards. The dominant image, however, is Matteo driving alone at night, sunk in a pitch-black nightmare. Variety talked to Von der Groeben and director and co-writer Prochaska, on the eve of “The Winemaker’s” pitch at April’s 9’s MipDrama.
Founded in 2015 by yourself, Moritz, along with Beta Film, Good Friends Production’s mission statement is “new television for new markets.” How does “The Winemaker” illustrate this?
Von der Groeben: Story-wise, this is a very radical series. It’s an archaic story. We’ve seen similar basic plots. But it’s told in a far more complex way than what used to be the case in Germany. The networks were open to this. A couple of years ago, you wouldn’t have had the chance to do a story like this with German broadcast networks or public broadcaster. Also Andreas is one of the few German-speaking directors with international experience, having directed, for example, [Sky One’s] “Das Boot” and [Amazon IMDb TV’s] “Alex Rider.” He brought a very international and visionary approach to storytelling, in his direction of actors and visuals, for instance.
Great psychological thrillers – “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Orphanage” – also explore family dynamics. Freud once said something like that everybody ends up killing their father, in symbolic terms. “The Winemaker’s” exposé of Matteo seems a case in point.
Prochaska: The series was pitched to me as “History of Violence” meets “Cape Fear” which was highly inspirational. In the rewriting, what was most interesting for me was the effect on the family when the past catches up with Matteo. Everybody around him, his wife, his daughter, end up as victims. So I tried to focus on this. The second key question for me was: Can you still love a person when you realize they seem to be somebody else? That’s something that hopefully the audience will think about.
The direction is immediately striking. You focus on mid-shot action converting anything nearer to the camera into blurred dark smudges, lending a noirish chiaroscuro effect to scenes. The Tyrol is a lovely place. But there’s no picture postcard shots in the series…
Prochaska: One of the series’ big challenges was to turn this beautiful landscape into a place where a dark thriller could play out. You’re constantly surrounded by beauty. We also wanted to find a visual approach that would set the series apart from a lot of sharply shot, beautiful TV crime dramas which are a German TV staple. We were also lucky. There was heavy rain the first week when we shot a lot of scenes of the cop going to his apartment, which helped us create a rain continuity for other scenes. We always tried to get as much material at dusk, between day and night, which I think creates a very unique mood.
One recurrent image is people pictured in long corridors or passageways, often in danger, or in dark Alpine wood interiors. The shoot-em-up action scenes take place in cramped interiors. Many scenes – Matteo driving in his car sunk in pitch blackness – take place at night….
Prochaska: It was important to create a kind of close claustrophobic environment. All the characters, the further the story goes, are locked in it. So we tried to find the right images to back up this sense of emotional lockdown.
“The Winemaker” blends three elements: a singular local setting; a sense of genre which international audiences can connect to; Andreas’ auteurist imprint. Putting those together, you can get an upscale international series with local appeal.
Von der Groeben: Very true. I started working with Beta head Jan Mojto when I was young, many years ago, so I always try to make Good Friends’ productions suitable for wider audiences than just the German. In the final analysis, however, it’s quality that gives a series the chance travel.
“The Winemaker” comes as ZDF is allying with France Televisions and RAI to make series at a scale that can compete with platform shows. Do you aim to scale up Good Friends series?
Von der Groeben: I think right now we’re on the edge of being able to do more European series that compete on a worldwide scale. There’s progress in series traveling worldwide, younger audiences that are used to and interested in different cultures. There’s huge potential. Andreas, Satel Film, our Austrian co-production partner, and Good Friends are planning to make one or two more big series like this one in the next few years. It’s worth continuing to work together.