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There’s (Another) American Series Starring Berlin

I didn’t even know there was a broadcaster (channel? station?) called EPiX and, had I known, I probably would have thought: If you call yourself EPiX with a little “i” and an “X”, you are probably anything but epic. Do people even say “epic” anymore? Hasn’t it been replaced with “legit” or an emoji of a poop unicorn? Or an emoji of poop and unicorns? I’m so old.

Anyway, turns out this new channel/station/broadcaster has made this new series called Berlin Station about – wait for it – American spies in Berlin. The creators were really going out on a limb on this one. Really taking a risk with the concept.

But anyway my little Roku pitched me this series one Portland night during a deep bout of homesickness and both my German wife and I thought: Let’s watch this teaser episode and see how much it sucks while seeing a bit of Berlin. Sentimental Schadenfreude, if you will.

Berlin series
This is an actual publicity photo from Berlin Station. It’s just Berlin. They get Berlin. And they’re taking the M2.

And we were surprised when it didn’t suck. Well not so bad as naming your channel/station/broadcaster “EPiX”. It was surprisingly intriguing, even though it treads across a carpet more worn than the rejection line at Berghain.

What Berlin Station does really well is show Berlin. Like all the time. I watched Homeland in Berlin and it could have been filmed anywhere with a few establishing shots below the Fernsehturm or on Oberbaumbrücke. The point of Homeland in Berlin – beyond capitalizing on the Hauptstadt hype and covering the tired ground of a spook past – seemed to be seeing if Carrie could look even more anguished in a country known for its anguish.

Berlin was an afterthought to Claire Dane’s furrowed brow.

Another real Berlin series

But Berlin Station seems to be filmed by people who know and love Germany’s biggest city, rather than creative types on a stopover from London or Hollywood. As someone who misses his Wahlheimat (adopted home), Berlin Station does an amazing job of showing diverse corners of the city.

It also lets its characters speak German. Like, whenever there would be an interaction in German in Berlin, that’s the language the characters speak. However, this also underlines the film as a work of fiction since the American dude played by Richard Armitage speaks almost fluent German. An American speaking German! Nice joke! But bilingual programming is a refreshing upgrade.

Of course they go out to the tattered radar domes of Teufelsberg but they also spend an amazing amount of time on Kotti – including a chase scene through those elaborate balconies and staircases above and around Kaisers, Monarch, Paloma and West Germany. You know, the ones you’ve always sworn you would explore more but never did out of fear for your personal safety?

We liked the teaser episode so much we watched the second one. The season debuts Oct. 16 — wherever you can get EPiX.

“It’s like sightseeing,” my wife said. “If you want Berlin, here’s your series. If you want story, not so much.”

But the creators’ knowledge of the bear city goes even further: In one scene especially poignant for Wahlberliner (voluntary Berliners), a spy operative played by Rhys Ifans notes that the avocados at the Turkish grocer aren’t even ripe.

It’s like the producers of Berlin Station know our pain. They are us. And they’ve given up on good guacamole too.

There’s plenty of overacting and goofy plot turns and a bit too much time spent in the sort of slick, high-priced nightclubs Berlin doesn’t have, but the thing has a great feel – and (did I mention?) a lot of Berlin. Though lacking depth, its texture is reminiscent of A Most Wanted Man – one of my most favorite Berlin films next to the 1985 Anthony Edwards spy epic, Gotcha!.

I’m going to have to subscribe to EPiX long enough to watch the other eight episodes.

And then epically cancel my subscription.

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Michael Moore and Me

Michael Moore’s newest film is coming out this week in the U.S. (and two weeks later in Germany). It means I can’t go to any theatre showing it for at least a month. Maybe two. Because people always confuse me with Michael Moore.


Micheal Moore and Me
Photo thanks Michael’s Instagram and Gene Glover.

When I started doing comedy, I came off the stage one night and a German comedian told me the horrible news:

“You know who you look like?”

“Well, when I was a kid, people said Michael J. Fox but …”

“No. That American author, Michael Moore.”

In Germany, Michael Moore is an author first and a filmmaker second. In America, people don’t even know he writes books.

But from that moment on, for about three years, I had my opening line: No, I’m not Michael Moore. Several people were always visibly disappointed. One time a woman left. It may have been because of my opening line. It may have also been because she had to pee. You decide.

Michael Moore, really

I had almost forgotten about it until we went out to lunch here in Portland after we’d lived here for a few months. It was a small Japanese place teeming with just my wife and I. We were getting pretty good service. The aging waitress served us sometimes. The aging cook served us other times. They smiled a lot and I would say they were a couple but I don’t want to make any presumptions.

Maybe they weren’t a couple then but are now. Who knows?

In any case, halfway through our meal and apropos of nothing (do we say that in English?), the cook smiled nervously and said, “Of course! We know the gentleman!” Which seemed weird.

My wife looked at me and shrugged but I immediately knew what was up: He thought I was Michael Moore. It was in that part of Portland where, if Michael Moore were in Portland, he would be. There is actually a Hollywood in Portland (I live there) and stars sometimes show up there but it’s not the kind of place they’d go to lunch.

From here on out I’m just going to call Michael Moore “Michael” because, if you’re someone’s doppelgänger, you get to call them by their first name. It’s in the rule book. I looked. Anyway, like anytime someone makes the Michael mistake, I got really nervous. Because now I’m the buffoon who gets to point out that I am not, in fact, Michael. And everyone is embarrassed.

Also, it’s not so flattering to be confused for arguably one of the more frumpy directors. At least it’s not George Lucas, I guess. But even Werner Herzog would be an improvement.

When I tell people how I get mistaken for Michael they always say the same thing: “But you’re not that fat!” I know but apparently it doesn’t matter. I’m overweight enough.

Two weeks later we were at a friend’s birthday party. A woman I’d never met sat down next to me. “I’m Drew,” I said.

“I’m Alexandra,” she said and then asked me my last name.

She seemed disappointed when I told her.

“I thought it would be Moore,” she said.

Which, again, seemed weird.

It can be worse

If it’s this bad when Michael isn’t in the spotlight, imagine how it is when he is. Maybe I should sign autographs.

The Berlinale – Berlin’s film fest – starts this week too. I pretty much quit going because of the Michael thing. During the Berlinale, the town is full of movie wannabes and they all seem to want something from me. Or, actually, Michael.

Waiting to get into a Casey Affleck film a woman once got all nervous standing next to me.

“And you’re going to see this film because …” Her hands were shaking and she had a goofy smirk.

Which seemed weird.

“Because my friend here got me tickets,” I said because it was true. My friend looks like himself. She slinked off. I still don’t know if she realized her mistake. Or thinks Michael just goes to any film his friends get him tickets for.

Afterward we went to a fave bar around the corner and as soon as I walked in it felt like a Western where the music stops playing and everyone looks up at the hero as he enters, unwanted. Or like when Eddie Murphy’s Reggie Hammond walks into the honky tonk bar in 48 Hours.

We weren’t a new sheriff in town. We just wanted a beer. We slunk to the back and hid until everyone had forgotten.

You should probably go see Michael Moore’s new film.

I can’t.

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Building Bowie in Berlin

Bowie, it always seemed to me, was more important to Berlin than Berlin to Bowie. But that’s what happens when you create greatness: It takes on a meaning independent of its creator. Like how a Hasselhoff song brought down the Wall. Or how someday, someone will finally open the Berlin airport.

But Bowie’s importance to Berlin should be honored in some way more than by just replaying his records (and replaying them and replaying them). Shortly after his death, everyone suggested renaming Hauptstrasse  where he lived in Schöneberg to David Bowie Strasse. RadioEins (Radio1) even had a street sign made.

A Bowie statue like this.
Pic: Michael Jackson and Bubbles from Jeff Koons (Versailles) via free images (license)

I’m against it. Hauptstrasse (and its extension Potsdamer) play a big role in my Berlin and they should keep their original names. I lived in Germany so long I’m afraid of change too.

And, anyway, the killjoys over at the Rote Rathaus (town hall) broke up that party: Streets can only be named after people who’ve been dead for half a decade. David’s only got a week. And since the city’s trying to give women their due, even if we could get a street named after him, he wouldn’t be high on the list.

But I have a different idea. Let’s honor David Bowie the way the city has honored tons of other Berlin promis: Let’s build a David Bowie statue. It could be at Hauptstr. 155 but it could also be north on Hauptstrasse at Kleistpark or next to the Schöneberg swimming pool in the adjacent park with a name I’m too lazy to look up.

Several years ago I was jogging around the Siegesäule (victory column) with a Danish friend and she asked me who all the statues represented.

“Dead generals,” I said. She was flabbergasted that Germany still celebrated the generals, partly because of Germany’s – you know – history and partly because the country had plenty of other people to celebrate.

Like David Bowie.

I muttered something about history and truth and Berlin’s history and truth and then wished she’d jog a little slower.

But it’s something that could be done without waiting five years, could be done through crowdfunding (I don’t need to hear another Berlin politician talk about finanzen) and would give all Stardustians (Bowenators? David Devouts?) a place to gather.

Anybody can get a street named after them in Berlin: Marlene Dietrich. Ben Gurion. Some guy named 17. Juni. But only generals seem to get statues. And hopefully David Bowie.




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My Own Private Deutschland 83

Do you know what they call really good TV in America? TV.

Do you know what they call it in Germany? Qualitätsfernsehen. Quality TV. Already it sounds uninteresting. But don’t worry, there isn’t much of it, which is something worrying Germany’s television producers.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great German TV. Most of it Scandinavian: The Killing. The Bridge. And that tubby Wallander guy.

Foto thanks UFA Fiction.
Foto thanks UFA Fiction.


Part of it’s the country’s creatively stagnant public TV infrastructure, which skews toward retirees, but it’s also because of the country’s taste for character (Klaus Kinski anyone?) over story.

When The Wire got huge in the U.S., suddenly a mini-series called Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (The Face of the Crime) appeared and it was pretty great, if only because it showcased neighborhoods and a corner of Berlin rarely acknowledged.

But with the success of things like Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Girls, Germany’s TV production companies are trying to bring out more Qualitätsfernsehen – and snag some of that production $$$. And they’re succeeding, sort of. Im Angesicht des Verbrechens was a good start. Then there’s Weissensee, about a sometimes-ignored suburb of Berlin (and the former East Berlin). And now Deutschland 83.

What’s it about (for anyone who hasn’t seen it)? Germany in 1983, dummkopf. More specifically, an East German spy in Bonn for a couple of key days.

And it’s pretty great. We binge-watched it over Christmas and it’s got everything I love about Cold War Germany: the Stasi. American generals. Mean Russians and clownish East German officials. Deutschland 83 even picked up the American Qualitätsfernsehen habit of ending on a tune – usually some New Wave ditty.

But just like how much of the best German TV is Scandinavian, Deutschland 83 is conceived pretty much by an American: Berlin novelist Anna Winger and her German husband. Acquaintance and fellow American journalist Ralph Martin even wrote an episode (private to Ralph: nice job on the brothel!).

It’s like the executives at broadcaster RTL were so panicked by the American TV invasion they couldn’t even trust their local heroes. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The show is a hit abroad and a yawner at home.

I’m not surprised. RTL’s audience rarely has an attention span longer than the word Qualitätsfernsehen. And, anyway, everything us aging Americans and Brits love about Cold War Germany has been done more times than a Hasselhoff gag in Germany. They lived it. Some subtleties are bound to go missing.

But the question now is, will there be a Deutschland 1984? I hope so! And hats off to RTL for making it easy to watch the German-language version from rainy Portland, Oregon for a laughable $0.99 an episode (otherwise I would have just stolen it from some dodgy Russian site).

I’d love if Qualitätsfernsehen became Fernsehen.