How Canneseries Buzz Title ‘The Punishment’ Underscores RTL Plus’ Large Ambitions

Hamburg 1982. Andreas, in the family bathroom, spies his mother’s stockings, pulls one over his head breathing in deeply. His mother, still in a dressing gown, calls him to breakfast. As she makes him cheese on toast, he oggles her breasts. 

Cut to the present. Andreas lives in a deeply religious Bavarian hamlet with Claudia, his besotted, church-frequenting, apron dress wearing wife. But he sinks into sexual reverie and perversion, unable to escape the distant past. Tragedy ensues, near inevitably, it could be argued. 

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, helmer of the Oscar-nominated “Downfall,” “The Diver” is one of six episodes in anthology series “The Punishment,” in which six of Germany’s most exciting directors, established and up-and-coming, adapt six short stories by Ferdinand von Schirach collected in his latest anthology, “Punishment” (“Strafe”).  

Few writers have plumbed with such terse and knowing nuance the distinction of public and private guild and punishment than von Schirach, a former criminal defence lawyer turned best-selling writer whose drama series “The Allegation,” which he wrote, dazzled at2021’s Canneseries, winning its Dior Grand Prize and best screenplay.

Produced by Oliver Berben for Moovie, part of Constantin Film, in a longstanding partnership between Berben and von Schirach, “The Punishment” is backed by RTL Plus. It has come at exactly the right time for the hugely ambitious new VOD service. 

Breaking down RTL Group 2021 full year results, CEO Thomas Rabe referred to its growth businesses as “content and streaming.” “Punishment” lies on the intersection of both. A classy, compelling showcase of German directorial talent taking on one of the biggest writing talents in modern Germany, it may not hit the audience numbers of mainstream cop shows but its screening on RTL Plus certainly does hone the service’s brand.

Variety talked to Hauke Bartel, RTL head of fiction, in the run-up to Canneseries where “The Punishment” world premiered on Tuesday, receiving a standing ovation.     

Could you put “The Punishment” in the context of RTL Group growth?

We started a new content initiative two years ago preparing for the relaunch of RTL Plus. We’re heavily investing in content mainly for the streaming service but also a combination of streaming service, linear and inter-linear broadcast. We currently invest €1 billion [$1.1 billion] in Germany – more than any global player. Scripted fiction plays a big role in that. Over the last three years, we’ve more or less tripled our investment both in overall budget, number of shows and hours commissioned.

Going forward, do you aim to make more series or bigger series or a combination? 

That’s a very good question. Especially after the last two years, I’d say that in the future we’ll most probably make fewer but more outstanding shows especially for the streaming service that’s really core to the strategy. 

“The Punishment” and “Sisi,” another RTL Plus Original, are in many ways like chalk and cheese. How do both fit into your production strategy?

Our streaming service rests on two pillars. One is very big spectacular shows with outstanding production values, many focusing on existing brands or cultural phenomena. “Sisi” was a huge success for us – by far the most successful scripted show on our streaming service to date. It also worked really well on linear and really pushed [subscription] numbers on the streaming service. Other spectacular big shows: “House of Promises,” sold by Beta Film, coming second half of this year; “The King of Palma,” which I talked about at the Berlinale; and “Gute Freunde” [“Good Friends”] about the first golden era of FC Bayern Munich, the Beckenbauer generation. 

And the other pillar?

The other is shows that are really outstanding creatively, but not really aiming for mainstream audiences. Shows people talk about and say: “I’ve never seen a show like that.” “Punishment” is the perfect example. We have Ferdinand von Schirach probably the most successful crime writer in Germany, and six of the most fascinating directors in Germany. “Diver” is an episode people will care and talk about. It’s so ambitious and unusual in its directing, a great example of how far we’re willing to take the RTL brand, a show which doesn’t really match the image RTL had just five years ago. It’s really something else.

The Diver’s” extraordinary cinematic style cuts multiple ways. One instance: How Hirschbiegel shoots social setting – the church, the courtroom, Clara and Andreas’ home – using anamorphic lens. There’s a physical sense of constriction, a lack of freedom, and horror overtones, which are confirmed by events.

Another is the focus on punishment: A legal sentence is one thing, real punishment is an individual’s conviction of their own guilt. 

Exactly, that’s probably the core of all of von Schirach’s work. An individual’s self-punishment and punishment by the state sometimes are more or less the same, sometimes completely different. Regarding style, there are many things about these movies that you won’t have on traditional TV. Obviously “Punishment” is not a prime-time RTL show but we do want to offer the whole range of outstanding scripted content to audiences. Making these shows for specific audiences broadens our brand. We don’t try to be straightforward creatively nor make everyone happy, but rather follow a certain vision as far as possible. 

Do you have other shows which push the envelope like “Punishment”?

Another great example is a show called “Wrong,” that we also commissioned straight for the platform. A young, very edgy comedy that we launched about one month ago, about a group of friends, late 20’s early 30s, who are flatmates, who are flatmates, pretend to be woke but are really just looking out for themselves. We have already commissioned Season 2. 

One of my last questions is on the state of the industry in Germany itself. It’s the only country with two shows in Canneseries main competition. There’s a strong sense of an industry making ever bolder plays, shaking off the shackles of the past.  

I absolutely agree. It’s beautiful for the production industry, for creatives, everything seems to be possible right now. But prices are really exploding and there are so many shows coming up, so really standing out and getting the show that everyone talks about is getting increasingly challenging. Making fewer but more outstanding ones may be one right answer and teaming up might be the best answer to how to achieve that. For example, we’re currently producing “Two Sides of the Abyss” with Warner Media. We’ll focus on the German launch and HBO Max takes the show out in international. 

Accessing key talent of course is now issue in many major markets.

Absolutely, regarding talent, obviously shows like “Wrong” or “Punishment” are once again highly distinctive assets to attract upcoming and overall talent to your brand. 

And is there any synergy with talent then signing on for more mainstream shows?

So far we haven’t made any exclusive talent contracts. My personal strategy right now is to create stronger emotional bonds with key creatives, so that they know how we work and think and if they want to do a show they can come to us and if they want to do a totally different show we want also to be the first with whom they talk about it.

Do you have any talent initiatives?

Yes, our Storytellers program where we bring together all the big film schools in Germany and select their five best pitches. Last year for the first time we invited all the finalists – 34 young professionals – to spend a weekend to work on the five shows with other invited creatives deciding which is the winner. We promise to commission that show with a certain budget each year. The first show that’s came out of that has just been written. We’ll produce this summer. We are thrilled.

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