For the first time, “A Perfect Crime”, a German docu-miniseries, has been running as an original on Netflix since autumn. In this article, producer Christian Beetz reports exclusively on the genesis and peculiarities of this work.
It’s been a good two years now since an email with the subject “Hi from Netflix” pinged in my inbox:
From: Netflix Inc.
To: To whom it may concern
Subject: Hi from Netflix
I would like to get in touch with the Director of your production company. Could you please put us in contact.
Director, Original Documentary Programming, 5808 W. Sunset Blvd | Los Angeles, CA 9002.
What seemed like spam at first glance was actually meant to be serious.
A German Non-Fiction Series as “Original Docu-Series”
Actually, in our world, we are always in the role of “pitching” and not used to being actively approached. Shortly after that first email, we were on the phone and explained how Netflix now wants to appear in Europe and specifically in Germany.
Basically, there are two categories: a “regional original”, i.e. local content primarily for the individual countries and then for the worldwide release. And then “Originals”, which are intended from the outset for the world market consisting of 200 million subscribers. After Dark already caused a sensation internationally in 2017 as the first German fiction original, a German non-fiction series was finally to be launched as an “original”.
Trailer: “A Perfect Crime” (German language) | © Netflix / YouTube
And so, in this very friendly telephone call, we immediately got down to business:
In two weeks Netflix would come to Berlin and meet some producers and there we could also discuss concrete topics.
Then, in a side sentence, the bar was set high: The production was supposed to compete with the international non-fiction hits Making a Murderer or Wild Wild Country and attract a lot of attention – click figures were not an issue at all for the time being. For us as a company this was of course great at first, after all we had been working towards this moment for years.
A very different Pair of Shoes
We had already started in 2011 with the Grimme Award-winning six-part series Farewell Comrades! by Andrei Nekrasov experimented with horizontal storytelling, later crime dramaturgies into our cultural format. The Culture File built in and in 2018, and at the time of the first conversation with Netflix, we already had our first true-crime series about the mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Nisman with ZDF, Moviestar – and Netflix – in the works.
The four-part documentary series on Netflix (production: beetz brothers filmproduction) analyzes the murder of politician Detlev Rohwedder in 1991 – an unsolved crime that shook reunified Germany.
Press commentaries on “A Perfect Crime”:
- FAZ – “Two generations after the fall of communism, this is a history lesson as seductive, instructive, and dark.”
- DIE ZEIT – “A Perfect Crime touches on big questions.”
- Spiegel Online – “From the crack that never healed: The four-part “A Perfect Crime” is the first German documentary from Netflix. In the style of a true-crime series, it tells of the fractures and upheavals of German unity – stirring, opinionated and haunting!”
More on the production company:
beetz brothers filmproduction
But of course, this project was a different pair of shoes.
Together with our senior producer Georg Tschurtschenthaler, with whom I recently produced the documentaries The Cleaners and Das Forum, we first defined the framework for the next steps: We wanted to develop a material that could work both in Germany and abroad, that was both entertaining and relevant, and that we could tell in a radically different way, in keeping with the genre.
Somewhat slain by our demands, but extraordinarily euphoric, we plunged into topic development and, after a few rounds, had three topics prepared for the meeting with Netflix.
Potential for Documentaries and Docu-Series
Netflix, originally founded as an arthouse DVD rental company, now sees itself as a global entertainment platform. Unlike the public broadcasters – where documentary formats have their home – Netflix has no educational mission, wants to entertain in a high-quality way and has played a decisive role in turning the world of documentaries completely upside down in recent years. This has created a huge buzz around the documentary, including million-dollar acquisitions, for example. at the Sundance International Film Festival.
What’s new here is that a young and, above all, wider audience can also be inspired by long documentaries and even documentary series – if the story is told differently.
Netflix’s regional expansion should be seen against the backdrop of a growing but highly competitive streaming market. Often described with the somewhat martial term streaming war, new players like Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Hulu, but also German providers like Joyn are entering the market. And here, non-fiction formats and regional content are an important element in order to stand out from the competition. Therefore, the premise for the meeting in our Berlin office was that the most sensational series project possible MUST be launched in the fall of 2020. Accordingly, our meeting was also full of verve.
A Favorite – and a Moment of Shock
From the three short pitches, a favourite quickly emerged: based on the still unsolved murder of Treuhand boss Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, we wanted to tell the story of the dark side of German reunification, i.e. the dark months and years after the fall of the Wall. The central question is why this Germany is still so torn apart and has never really grown together.
Who benefits from this murder? Who had motive?
After I went back to Netflix in Los Angeles with my brother Reinhardt, they finally gave me the green light to develop the theme further, at my own risk for now of course – Netflix doesn’t pay development money.
Then the first shock: In addition to the multitude of good documentaries about the Rohwedder case, ZDF announced an elaborate fictional reappraisal of the subject, including an accompanying documentary. Netflix’s response was short and sweet: we don’t care. We are Netflix and we tell stories differently than the public broadcasters.
So much self-confidence and trust was unusual and surprising for us. Otherwise, the “subject” is always looked at first and then assessed as the basis of the evaluation. Unthinkable to take on a topic more often and in different variations. At Netflix, storytelling, HOW a story is told, is at the core.
From left to right: Christian Beetz (producer, writer), Georg Tschurtschenthaler (producer, head writer, showrunner and director) and Jan Peter (director) | © Photos: beetz brothers filmproduction
The Challenge: True Crime Made in Germany
In the development of the content, we were faced with the great challenge of bringing together the two narrative levels that actually function very diametrically: on the one hand, an exciting true-crime story with unexpected twists and ciffhangers. And then there is the historical-political level of the multi-layered history of reunification, all without a narrator’s voice and explanatory graphics and for a young, even international audience, for whom Rohwedder is a breed of dog and the RAF is a hip-hop band.
Especially the first story level, the crime story, gave us more and more headaches. In contrast to the American models, the true-crime genre in Germany stands on thin legs: Court trials are not recorded, nor are parliamentary investigation committees.
“True Crime Made in Germany” works differently.
In addition, the Office of the Attorney General and the Federal Criminal Police Office are very restrictive in their cooperation, which is also a big difference to the USA. Publicly accessible crime scene photos – missing; interview partners must be released by the respective press offices, slow processing of requests included. Moreover, the Rohwedder case is an ongoing proceeding. Our request for access to the file was not granted.
The Rashomon Principle as a Solution to “A Perfect Crime”
So we lacked the classic genre ingredients, and no clear main characters emerged from the preliminary research that would drive the narrative. So willy-nilly, we had to find a narrative form all our own. And we chose the Rashomon principle for this, in which we let different participants tell the story of the Rohwedder murder from different perspectives.
The central dramaturgical element was THE investigator’s question par excellence: Who benefits from the murder, who had a motive?
Moreover, this narrative principle gave us the opportunity to tell Rohwedder’s story from different angles and thus with different facets: as martyr, capitalist, occupier and victim. We ended up adopting these glimpses of Rohwedder as episode titles as well, in order to anchor this multi-perspective narrative approach even more centrally in the series. In this way we were able to leave the tight corset of chronological-causal narration and playfully open up spaces of thought around the dark side of reunification, deep into the complicated German soul.
“A Perfect Crime”: Finances, Talents and Market Value
During this intensive research and work on the treatments for “A Perfect Crime” we had solved central content problems, skilfully circumnavigated others, but also invested a lot of money and work, all at our own risk and without a final commitment. Unlike public broadcasters, Netflix does not pay development costs. After agreeing to a five-part series in November 2018, we now turned our attention to finances – a not-so-insignificant issue.
However, even here, many things went completely differently than I’m used to in over 20 years of producing.
Selfie after the meeting in Los Angeles at Netflix: Christian Beetz and Reinhardt Beetz (right in the picture) | © Photo: beetz brothers filmproduction
You can feel in every moment that “talent” plays a central role at Netflix, and everything should first be calculated according to our vision with German rates. In the first step, we focused on “below the line”, all accruing costs of implementation. The creative team, the talent, should be discussed as “above the line” at a later stage.
This is also highly unusual, as there are practically no commissioned productions in the documentary film and docu-series sector any more – in other words, hardly anyone is interested in what the whole thing costs, as the broadcaster only contributes a lump sum and the rest of the financing is up to the producer.
The other novelty is that you look at talent individually and factor in some market value. We are used to the fact that almost all writers, producers and directors are treated equally at the station, regardless of whether they are complete beginners or seasoned professionals.
Content = green light; budget after a few rounds of voting = green light. Finally, in March 2019, we were told we were going into production. However, not without a friendly reminder from Netflix that the series MUST be released in the fall of 2020!
Documentary meets Fiction: the Best of Both Worlds
In the development of the project we had decided on a genre mix and wanted to organically bring together the “best of both worlds”: a real, documentary story, dramaturgies from horizontal, serial storytelling, archive meets feature film-like staging, even the interviews were shot in a high-quality and feature film-like manner in order to be able to create the atmospheric density necessary for the true-crime genre in the editing.
In Germany, we have to find our own form with our narrative tradition.
Georg Tschurtschenthaler acted as producer and head writer and developed during this phase from showrunner to director. Under his leadership we also put together the core team: first and foremost the director Jan Peter, who created elaborate visual worlds in his documentary drama series 14 – Diaries of the 1st World Warand War of Dreams and thus brought with him the ideal prerequisites for the conception and realisation of the play scenes.
Together with cameraman Jürgen Rehberg he developed a consistent visual style for the interviews and fictional scenes.
The decision to shoot all the interviews at different locations in the Haus des Rundfunks ultimately proved to be spot on and helped to give the series a consistent, high-quality look, sparing viewers an interview journey through German living rooms and book walls.
The filming of “A Perfect Crime” proved to be a massive undertaking, with interviews and re-enacted play scenes to put the viewer right in the middle of the action | © Photos: beetz brothers filmproduction
We also brought the screenwriter Martin Behnke into the project early on, who accompanied the development and production as dramaturge. He had already written a few episodes for Dark, so he was very familiar with modern, serialized storytelling.
Parallel to filming, we repeatedly sat together in creative roundtables – following the model of classic writers’ rooms – and adapted the structure of the series to the reality of the research and interview shoots. It was particularly exciting that in many respects the archive material dictated the narrative – after all, we wanted to tell Rohwedder, as the main character of the series, exclusively from the archive.
We began editing while the elaborate fictional shoot was still underway in December. Quick reminder: the series MUST launch in the fall of 2020….
The Post-Production of “A Perfect Crime” and – yes, unfortunately – Corona
Editing is a big challenge in a documentary series because it is extremely dynamic. The possible narrative depends on very many factors that are constantly in flux and constantly changing: A new interview can throw the entire structure of the narrative out of whack. This is very different from purely fictional storytelling.
Again, in keeping with the basic idea of the series, we wanted to bring together the best of both worlds: André Nier, as an experienced documentary editor, plunged into the enormous archive and interview volumes; and David Gesslbauer, who last mounted the Rammstein video Deutschland in a virtuoso manner, devoted himself to the Jan Peter written and directed episode intros – a mainstay of the Rashomon narrative. Finally, in February 2020, Philip Gromov joined the editing team.
Surprising in a positive sense was the freedom of content in the editing.
When Philip was about to leave for his first short vacation to his family in St. Petersburg at the end of February, we took the precaution of giving him a mirrored hard drive of all the material. A short time later, the lockdown went into effect and then we found ourselves in our apartments.
Luckily, we had already switched our in-house post-production to server-based processes in 2019, so we were able to get into remote editing quickly, struggling through the edit between home-schooling, congested wifi networks, and long zooms.
It’s not the Number of Episodes, but the Quality that counts
Unusual and surprising in a positive sense was the freedom of content in the editing, especially with regard to the lengths of the episodes. It’s not about broadcast minutes or episode count, it’s about the best possible work.
With this in mind, we also took Netflix’s impulse and, after first cut versions, reduced the series by one episode in order not to lose the balance between crime & history.
Now came multi-stage approval processes, from the director’s cut of cut one to the showrunner’s cut for cuts two and three to the producer’s cut for final approval at Netflix, all borne, as always, by a great team effort and with the vision of the series in mind.
Bi-weekly meetings with all contacts – from legal to post-production, monthly cash flow and strict post-production quality control provided a rigorous but productive and high quality framework for the completion of the series.
And finally, despite all the imponderables, conflicts and minor and major disasters, we made it on time: Picture Lock of the series after 14 months of production in May 2020 and completion of post-production two months later in July.
“A Perfect Crime”
On September 25, 2020, the seriestitled A Perfect Crime has now been released to the 200 million Netflix subscribers.
After the strong press response and huge attention for the series (again, mission accomplished), it also immediately hit high on the Netflix daily charts.
Now we’re very excited to see how this dark and unusual look at Germany continues to be received nationally and internationally by Netflix audiences.
The series already has one award. At the Series Festival Berlin, “A Perfect Crime” was awarded the “Best Documentaries Series Award 2020” by the jury, including two-time Oscar winner Nick Vallelonga (Green Book) and journalist and producer Gero von Boehm.
The Netflix series “A Perfect Crime” will be awarded “Best Documentary Series 2020″ at the TV Series Festival Berlin. © brothers beetz filmproduction / YouTube
For me the following conclusion apply
I believe that “True Crime Made in Germany” works differently than the big, powerful US role models.
We have to find our own form with our story, but also with our narrative tradition, in order not to drown in the uniformity of the booming true-crime genre. After all, it was the great Edgar Reitz who shaped, if not invented, modern serial storytelling with his Heimat trilogy almost 40 years ago. With a story from the German province.
What we must not forget: Quality costs. High-end docu-series made in Germany can reach just as large an international audience as their fictional counterparts, if the appropriate conditions are created here too by broadcasters and sponsors.
The hesitant opening of the GMPF (German Motion Picture Fund, an independent film funding programme on the initiative of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, editor’s note) for documentary series is a first important step towards being able to play at the top internationally here as well.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Blickpunkt:Film. The first online publication at filmpulse.info is made with the kind permission of beetz brothers filmproduction. The headlines and structure of the article were adapted to the requirements of a digital medium.
More about “A Perfect Crime”
Workshop discussion on “A Perfect Crime”; recording from October 27, 2020 With in the video: Producer and writer Christian Beetz, writer and showrunner Georg Tschurtschenthaler and director Jan Peter. Moderation: Stephan Ottenbruch, DAfF.
Workshop discussion “A Perfect Crime” | © DAfF – Deutsche Akademie für Fernsehen e. V. / YouTube
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