Matthew Bell hears the makers of the acclaimed TNT Serie drama 4 Blocks explain how they broke the mould of the TV crime show
Since its debut in 2017, Berlin gangster series 4 Blocks has been pocketing awards and thrilling audiences. The TNT Serie drama has also shaken up the sometimes cosy world of German television.
4 Blocks tells the story of the Hamady crime family, which is engaged in a bloody fight with the rival al-Saafi clan for control of the drug trade in the Neukölln district of the city.
At an early-evening screening in central London at the end of January, the RTS – in partnership with TNT Serie and Turner – celebrated the release of the show’s second season.
The first series launched on TNT Serie, a German pay-TV channel that primarily airs drama and comedy series and is owned by Turner Broadcasting System Europe. Internationally, the drama is available on Amazon Prime Video; season 2 was released on Amazon in December.
After the screening of the first two episodes of season 2, some of the key creative team were interviewed on stage by CNN International reporter Anna Stewart.
Anke Greifeneder, who is in charge of original production at TNT Serie, explained that German indie Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion had pitched her an idea for a drama about a Lebanese-German drug gang in Berlin.
Three writers – Hanno Hackfort, Bob Konrad and Richard Kropf – “had done a lot of research with police, judges and journalists, but I wanted to [tell the story] from the angle of the clans. I wanted to know about their universe – it was a story that had not yet been told,” she said.
The drama reflects the reality of life in Berlin’s Neukölln district, which contains the eponymous “four blocks” – a no-go area for police, claimed Greifeneder.
Drug dealing and violence is only part – a significant part, admittedly – of 4 Blocks. “It is also a family story, and the women have an important role,” said Greifeneder. “To me, it was really important – and sometimes I had to push a little, I have to say – because the main plot is about drugs and the daily life on the street, and so the focus is on the men.”
She noted that she is the only woman creative working on the series – the other executive producers, writers and directors are all male.
“I thought it was really important to see their family side and how they relate to their wives. Family is such an important thing to these clans,” she said.
Hannes Heyelmann, who is Managing Director of Turner in central and eastern Europe and also an executive producer on 4 Blocks, suggested that the depiction of an unknown Berlin was instrumental in the show’s success.
“A lot of international audiences are tired of the same LA beach, the streets of New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris – they want to explore new cities and cultures,” he said. “To couple this with a suspense-driven drama is a great mix. It’s a very authentic drama, which hasn’t been done in this way before.
“Some of the lead cast don’t have traditional [acting backgrounds],” he added. Two of the main characters, Latif and Abbas Hamady, are played by actors – who are better known as rappers in Germany – Wasiem Taha, aka Massiv, and Veysel Gelin, aka Veysel.
The gangster story has received acclaim from German critics, winning Kida Khodr Ramadan, who plays clan head Ali “Toni” Hamady, the prestigious Grimme-Preis and Deutscher Fernsehpreis acting prizes. The show itself has won a clutch of awards, too.
“In Germany, it is phenomenal – last year, it was the number-one bought series on iTunes in Germany, beating all the American series,” said Heyelmann. The executive producer revealed that he has learnt a number of important lessons from the success of 4 Blocks: “Be daring and keep pushing the boundaries, because there are so many series being produced in the US, and in Great Britain as well, that to stand out from the crowd you need to be different.”
"Fear is the worst enemy of creativity"
Greifeneder praised TNT Serie’s owner, Turner, for the “creative freedom” it allows the channel. “Fear is the worst enemy of creativity,” she argued.
Heyelmann also revealed that a “fully lip-synched dubbed version in English” would be available in February – to good-natured tutting from the audience. Unlike many European audiences, Brits remain wedded to subtitles.
Turner has ordered a third and final season of 4 Blocks, which starts shooting in the spring and will be directed by Özgür Yıldırım.
“It was very tempting to do it for ever,” conceded Greifeneder. “That would be a very German thing to do. We like security – we’re the most over-insured people in the world.” But, she added, “we want to end on a high note. It will be the third and last series.”
Yıldırım declined to give the audience any clues about the denouement of 4 Blocks, other than promising to “be very honest” and “realistic”. Greifeneder said: “It’s not Game of Thrones, but some people are going to die.”
4 Blocks was screened by the RTS and TNT Serie/Turner at the Soho Curzon cinema in central London on 23 January.
4 Blocks: The directors’ take
Oliver Hirschbiegel shared directing duties with Özgür Yıldırım: the former directed the first three episodes and the latter the final four episodes of the seven-part second season.
Although the leading characters are played by trained actors, many small parts are filled by people with no acting experience. ‘Half the people that you see on screen are not actors – they grew up there and pretty much are what they are on screen in real life. That’s your research right there, every day of shooting,’ said Hirschbiegel, who took an apartment in Neukölln while he was prepping the series.
Hirschbiegel, who directed the Oscar-nominated historical drama Downfall, about the last days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker, was attracted to 4 Blocks by its ‘rawness and authenticity’. And, he added, it offered ‘the opportunity to do, finally, something that I also wanted to do – dealing with gangsters’.
He had another, rather more personal, reason. Hirschbiegel had been something of a mentor – ‘I had him under my wings’ – to the director of the first series, Marvin Kren. ‘I gave him some advice and he proved very soon that he was a talent,’ said Hirschbiegel. ‘It was a sweet idea to take over from my former pupil.’
Yıldırım, who has helmed the long-running German cop show Tatort, was drawn to the subject matter of 4 Blocks, which he described as ‘about [Lebanese-German] family, religion and traditions – things about which a German audience has no idea. [With the] violence, it’s a very interesting cocktail.’
Hirschbiegel enjoys working with other directors: “We worked very well together. I enjoy exchanging opinions and secrets with co-directors. It’s always the material and the characters that pretty much tell us, the directors, what to do with [a series].… ‘Directors then add their personal style to the raw material.’